Helping to build the vision
Pete Reiners began his University of Arizona career in 2006 as an Associate Professor and served as the Geosciences Department Head from 2013 – 2018. In the fall of 2019, he became the College’s inaugural Associate Dean for Research, where he helped navigate our research enterprise through the pandemic, promoted interdisciplinary projects and proposals, and worked to support faculty, staff, and students across the college. During Pete’s 15 years at the University of Arizona, he has been a Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre de Recherches Pétrographiques et Géochimiques, Nancy, France, a member of the Earth System Evolution Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), and was elected an AGU Fellow in 2019.
CATALYST interviewed Pete Reiners in August 2021.
CATALYST Let’s jump back to the start of you career: What made you study geology?
Reiners The very first course I took in geology in college was not so inspiring. The next year I couldn't get into my organic chemistry lab and signed up for a course called “Structural Geology”, not even really knowing what it was. That course was taught by a really dynamic, young quirky professor from Berkeley, who introduced me to all sorts of exciting things, combining field trips with rigorous quantitative analyses with culture, humor and a lot of other things. This opened my eyes to a way of engaging with the natural world that was intellectually satisfying and a lot of fun.
CATALYST Which areas fascinated you over the course of time?
Reiners I really love the structure and the logic of chemistry applied to geology. And I also really love the magical powers of isotopes. Looking at the ratios of one particular isotope of an element to another can tell you when it formed or what happened to it. Then you can make connections between other observations that allow you to solve mysteries. Dating rocks gives you this magical little insight into things that people didn't know before.
CATALYST In 2006, you arrived at UArizona. A culture shock?
Reiners No, because I moved around a lot ever since I was a kid. I love Tucson and Arizona; it has been a fabulous place to live. I've had some terrific colleagues and graduate students and postdocs here. I've also really enjoyed how this university values an entrepreneurial spirit, the way that they encourage us to run our research programs in entrepreneurial ways. Like little businesses, where we can get grants and contracts, hold workshops and short courses, host visitors and run things in the way that we think is best, for our research, but also for the community at large.
CATALYST Let's talk about the upcoming school of Mining and Mineral Resources. You have been involved in the planning.
Reiners The seeds for the School, if you will, go way back, right to the start of the University in 1885. Mineral resources and geosciences are an important part of the University’s legacy.
My involvement has been helping the leadership strategize for the planning of the school, figuring out the administrative structure. The way that the curriculum, the research enterprises, and the outreach components of the school would be envisioned and then constructed. Many different entities around campus have contributed to the strategic planning and the vision.
CATALYST Where do you imagine the School in five years?
Reiners I would hope that the School for Mining and Mineral Resources will be known as the place for the synthesis of ideas and strategic planning for how to source mineral resources sustainably. A place to address the grand challenge of the century, which is to provide resources for 8 billion people sustainably and equitably without destroying the habitability of the planet. We are dealing with a crosscut of all the different areas, from the actual engineering and geoscience to the social license, environmental law business and everything else. Wouldn't it be great if this is the place where all of that comes together and people look to us for vision and for answers?
CATALYST So that the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions one of those topics would be UArizona.
Reiners Right. I also hope that the that the school will train a lot of excellent interested, effective, ethical students who can become part of the workforce and of the larger community that is able to help us address this grand challenge.
Hopefully we can start to produce those students pretty quickly who get out there and are snatched up by industry, government, NGOs and everyone else because they're recognized for the experience, training and perspectives in these necessary interdisciplinary areas.
CATALYST Where do you see the biggest potential in making mining more sustainable?
Reiners A lot can be done to move beyond linear economy models to a circular economy. Part of the challenge of the School will be how to improve not only the bottom line for mining companies, but how to make things more sustainable through recycling and more effective and efficient extraction that is less devastating for the environment and for communities where it happens. In other words, reducing the negative impacts of mining or at least mitigating and minimizing them as well as finding clever creative, innovative ways to make extracting things more efficient and use resources that are already there. For example, a lot of progress is being made right now with techniques for leaching metals out of material that has already been mined and is sitting around in pits.
CATALYST A new way of thinking is necessary?
REINERS We can't keep doing things the way they've been done in the past with minimal regard for environmental and community impacts. Just because we're allowed to do something legally doesn't mean we should do it. Otherwise, we will wreck not only the public good, but the social license to do what we need to do in order to create green energy and mitigate climate concerns.
The School needs to look forward. We definitely need to work with communities about all the things that concern them, from workers’ rights to environmental concerns, to create a situation where we are less at each other's throats. There are constructive ways to do this that lead to buy-in from communities. I really hope the school can help with being inclusive, with all the different stakeholders who are impacted by and involved with and benefit from mineral resources.
CATALYST Does this attract students’ attention?
Reiners There is demand for that from the students. Students crave opportunities to develop skills and experiences that will make them useful and in demand by society, but they also want to make a difference. If there was ever a good opportunity for that, it is right with mineral resources and sustainability and use of planetary resources, in a way that is responsible.
One of the exciting things about the school is the opportunity to offer that chance to students in a way that is scientifically rigorous, practically useful, but ethically responsible and serves the needs of communities.
CATALYST How do we actually do that?
Reiners That'll be one of the big challenges of the School. The first step is to combine the training of science and engineering with all the other kinds of perspectives that we can provide here at the University from Social and Behavioral Science, Law, Business, and Environmental Science. Really make it a regular part of the educational experience for the students to work across those boundaries with people with different perspectives and with community members. Hard conversations and difficult experiences to reach compromises or develop innovative solutions to tough problems can be part of the regular training at the school. The value of this interdisciplinary school comes from the connections to all the aspects of what mining really is today, what the mining industry needs and what communities need.
CATALYST We have exciting times ahead – and you do, too.
Reiners I have accepted the position of Dean of Faculty of Environment at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). They just reorganized the college structure and brought together several different programs under this adage of faculty of environment. I will start there as their inaugural Dean in January 2022.
CATALYST So that's also very interdisciplinary endeavor?
Reiners Very much so.
CATALYST What should we expect to hear from you next?
Reiners I would hope that we can build something at UNBC that is similar to how I describe the School of Mining and Mineral Resources: A place that is looked to as a center of thought and ideas and progress in thinking about the challenges that are facing us and solutions to them, scientific, technological and community-oriented. And I have continuing projects at UArizona and postdocs, and my labs will keep running. I hope to be able to keep those collaborations going well into the future.
CATALYST Thank you for the interview.