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The New Face of Mining: Bree McMaster

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The New Face of Mining: Bree McMaster

May 14, 2013
From Nursing to Mining, MGE Grad Right at Home in the Industry

Bree McMaster never thought she’d end up in mining, but she has, and now the former president of the UA chapter of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration says she can’t see herself anywhere else.

Women are persevering; change is happening.

Mining is still seen as a quintessential male domain in many respects. But women the world over toil as miners, and more and more female mining and geological engineers are entering the industry, putting their mark on technological, environmental, corporate  and social advancements.

The University of Arizona is dedicated to helping fill the much-needed pipeline of mining and geological engineers. In part, that means making sure women continue to take their place in an industry expected to need 128,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade.

"When I was growing up, I heard more about what careers women couldn’t have than what careers they could have," said UA Distinguished Professor Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources and head of the mining and geological engineering department. "Today it is a different world.  Women can access any career they want. Now the challenge is what you can do, not who you are."

Young women just entering the profession feel they have a world of opportunity awaiting them, and those well into their careers and nearing retirement say they have had the ride of a lifetime.

They are the new face of mining. And these are their stories.

"I was always meant to go work underground," said McMaster, who was among four women to graduate from the mining and geological engineering program in May 2012, all of whom graduated with little or no debt and good jobs.

McMaster now works for Barrick doing short-range mine planning at the Goldstrike mining complex near Elko, Nev., a city with a population of about 25,000, mostly miners and ranchers, and a small-town feel. For the last nine months, four days a week McMaster has left home at 4 a.m. for the hour-long commute to the remote mine site -- where she helps develop and adjust weekly plans for everything from ventilation and rock mechanics to power, equipment, water and supplies -- and returned home about 6 p.m.

McMaster started out in nursing and was taking math classes for fun when she decided to enroll in an introductory engineering course then was invited to visit the student-run San Xavier Mining Laboratory.

"I would not have known about the mining engineering program had I not taken that class,” she said. “And I had no idea how much opportunity the field held."

Dead silence. That was her parent’s initial reaction to the change in major.

"It really surprised my entire family," she said.

Her grandmother, on the verge of tears, envisioned a dirty young woman -- probably holding a pick axe and lantern with a cart and donkey, and surrounded by rough men.

"They just didn’t understand," said McMaster. "Not that you won’t get dirty, but technology has evolved the industry so far beyond that image."

There are still hurdles for women in the industry, she explained, but it is different now with all the culture shifts over the last couple of decades.

"The challenges are more mental than physical," McMaster said. "I don't feel like I need to work harder to prove myself. Rather, it’s almost as if I need to work hard to prove I truly want to be here."

Anyone right out of college has to earn the respect of fellow workers, to some degree. But once women show their staying power, they are accepted and respected, perhaps even more so than men, said McMaster, who works at a site with several other women who are heads of departments, engineers and miners. Plus there are unexpected perks in an environment where she is helping plan the work flow for 98-percent male crews.

"I have found that it is old-fashioned in some ways, especially in underground mines," McMaster said, "There is a fairly high level of chivalry I didn’t expect. Everyone is very helpful and considerate."

Now McMaster is dedicated to educating the public and helping erase some of the negative perceptions about mining.

"There is so much blind opposition," she said.

Most people have no idea how much of what they use every day depends on mining -- cell phones, energy, roads, cars, houses -- how much focus the industry puts on safety, how much good companies do for communities in which they develop mines, and how far mining has come in mitigating environmental impact.

"And no one hears about these positive things," she said. "I think eventually the public’s perception of mining will come around."