A week of work experience at GSNI...by Maia Willis- Reddick

Maia helping at a NI Science Festival event in Larne library
Hi, I’m Maia, and I’ll be writing about my time doing work experience with the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (GSNI), and to put it quickly - it was absolutely fantastic. But there’s more to that than fantastic, as I have a whole dictionary of adjectives at my disposal to show how truly amazing and inspiring the whole experience was.

Day 1

I was introduced to Dundonald House. A mid century building with some weird charm to it, it houses many government departments, including the GSNI. We were walked through by the bubbly receptionist, and introduced to the team.

Day 1 was a lot of listening patiently. We got a talk from the Minerals Geologist, Mark Patton, who informed us about mineral development across Northern Ireland. I particularly enjoyed the insights into some of the aspects of the projects he is currently working on.

We then went to the Core Store.

Mind. Blown.

Looking at core in the GSNI core store with Rob Raine.
The core store is my dream. Millions of years of Northern Irish geological history, somewhat neatly organized into their own boxes, showing me exactly what’s under my feet at an amazing amount of locations throughout Northern Ireland. It’s all amazing, and it’s all there. It’s such an insanely diverse collection for such a small department, and Rob Raine gave us a fantastic tour which showed us what the best of the best looks like. We organized some rocks onto a cyclothem, and the entire time I was thinking about how awesome it would be to live in a giant warehouse of rocks…and get paid to do it! Rob Raine, I want your job, just get better heating in there.

Day 2

Day 2 was no less amazing. That day we had a chat with Kieran Parker, and he explained everything his job entails. Although I’m not fascinated with mining, his job is nonetheless important in keeping us safe. Kieran makes sure that if our house or shop is atop an abandoned mine, the mine is safe and will not collapse. If the ground collapses under you into a mine shaft, blame him but also blame some now probably dead coal miners for mining there in the first place.

We also had an introduction to GIS with Alex Donald, which I will touch on upon later. In this introduction, Alex showed us ArcGIS, which I want but cannot afford. He also touched upon QGIS, which is ArcGIS’s free cousin, and I definitely want to use that. I’d used GIS in the past- that morning to get to Dundonald House, in the form of Google Maps, but also in the form of JMars, a fantastic free resource from the University of Arizona which lets you see the surface of Mars in unfathomable and mind-boggling detail. You can get so much information in a computer program, and with QGIS and ArcGIS, you can add infinite variables for infinite amounts of information onto a computer generated map, using either stored or fresh data, and do whatever you want with it, and that part of Geology I love because I love GIS. Maps are cool!

We then chatted with Marie Cowan, who I have got to say is an absolute inspiration. Not only is she holding top office in a still sexist society but she’s absolutely killing it. She gave us all the information on ‘how to adult’ that we could possibly have ever needed. She’s an inspiration as she’s living and speaking proof that you can hold a career, have a family, and do what you love and win at life. Marie told us that to follow our dreams we have to be most importantly two things- picky, and hardworking. Picky in the sense that you do what YOU want to do and you work or live with the people YOU want to live with. And hardworking in the sense that if you half-ass a job, it’s not going to demonstrate who you are as a person and you’ll never have the same opportunities. She also holds with her a bank of people and opportunities that I hope to use, as networking is just as important in the modern world as ever. I hope to use her as a launching pad for the rest of my life. I’d also be delighted to be as selfless, caring, and dedicated of a person as Marie when I’m old.

Day 3

Wednesday, day 3, was a slow day, but it was informative. Paul Wilson demonstrated his groundwater model, a simple model showing how simple water works, but also the different variables which make it possible for us to drink. In Northern Ireland, we get a lot of our water from surface sources. As this water picks up so much gunk on its journey from source to sea, Northern Ireland Water has to heavily treat it. Which doesn’t make sense to me as our surface water comes FROM groundwater. It’s groundwater pumping with extra steps, just like physical geography is essential some form of geology with extra steps.

We also did some work with Sam Roberson, the Quaternary geologist at the GSNI, which was cool as I got to see some of the best maps. He also did some work with ArcGIS with us, and the accuracy of the computer maps compared to their ancient paper counterparts is incredible. The amount of work this man has put into the GSNI database is astonishing and I truly commend him for that.

The interior of the Finnis Souterrain near Slieve Croob;
not shown is Kirstin Lemon exclaiming “this is so cool!”
whilst traversing it at twice the rate we were!
3D technology is always cool and fun to use, especially when it’s rock related, so what we did with Alex was awesome. We used GeoVisionary and I’d say I made the best waste of £20,000 software by doing 360s with the 3D mouse, under and through the Mournes. Unfortunately the glasses weren’t working, but it didn’t take away from the 3D concept as I still understood how it was intended to work. I just didn’t use it that way, and neither did Greg so that’s on us I suppose.

Day 4

The day in the Mournes with Kirstin was a bit of a whirlwind trip, to be honest. We saw what I’m dubbing ‘Mourne Henge’ and ate lots of blackberries. We saw Slieve Croob, and then we saw an old Early Christian tunnel system or soutterain. The head clearance was only around 3 foot so Greg and I had some difficulties keeping up with Kirstin whizzing through the corridors of stone like it was her own home. Slightly disappointed I didn’t see a skeleton but considering the structure was from the 5th Century I’m really surprised it’s still safe enough to go through. We lastly went to the Milestone which is now my favourite supermarket in Northern Ireland. Frankly I’m quite offended it’s not closer to Belfast as it certainly is an amazing store.

Day 5

Out at Murlough Bay with Chief Geologist Mark Cooper.
The last day was spent out in the field with Mark Cooper, the Chief Geologist for the GSNI, and I know now why he has this role. He knows everything. I have this Alaskan rock I couldn’t identify and neither could several other members of the office and he got it in an instant (FYI it was porphyritic basalt- I didn’t know that was a thing!). That day was what reminded me about my GCSE Geology - the fieldwork. Fieldwork is amazing. I got to take home rocks! Several kilograms closer to my bedroom becoming the new Core Store, watch out Rob! I brought home some basalt with calcite, some malachite, some chlorite, and some nice pebbles for my pet lizard’s tank. His name is Cous Cous and he likes sitting on rocks. 

Overall my time at the GSNI was fantastic, and to anyone considering doing work experience at the GSNI, the wrong answer is no. You have to do it, you won’t be the same after. I’d like to thank everyone at the GSNI for giving myself and my fellow young geologists an amazing time. I’d also like to thank them for the amethyst I got at the GSNI 70th for my video - the memes were worth it.

Maia Willis-Reddick is a Sixth Form student at Methodist College Belfast and was the winner of the GSNI 70th anniversary schools video competition for a week of work experience with GSNI.