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Once a physicist: Brad Trost

Brad Trost is the Member of Parliament for Saskatoon-Humboldt, Canada. Before entering politics, he worked as an exploration geophysicist.

Brad Trost

How did you become interested in geophysics?
My dad had been a schoolteacher, and physical sciences, geography and geology were all things that he did. When I started out at the University of Saskatchewan, I was studying geophysical engineering, but then I drifted over to pure geophysics – partly because the university was closing its geophysical-engineering programme, but also because I realized that the pure aspects of geophysics can always be combined with the applied aspects. In the end I got the best of both worlds. And frankly, I had some really good geophysics professors, and they drew me into it. The same thing holds true for many occupations, I think: when you find a good teacher, they pull you in that direction.

What did you do after you graduated?
I did mining and mineral-exploration geophysics, which meant I was out in the field doing things such as induced polarization surveys, magnetic surveys and gravity surveys – all with the goal of finding the next ore body. I worked on projects looking for kimberlite (and ultimately diamonds), as well as sulphides that hopefully would bring out nickel or cobalt or some related mineral. There is also a mine currently operating in Nunavut [Canada's far north] that produces gold, and I was able to work on a project that expanded its tonnage.

What did you enjoy most about your work?
The variety. With exploration geophysics, you not only get the fresh air and the beauty of the Canadian tundra, the caribou and the musk ox and all those things, but you also get the intellectual challenge. I remember one day we were doing a survey using an induced polarization technique, where you measure the resistivity in the ground, and the results coming back were just bizarre. We spent half the day trying to work it out until we finally checked what the solar flares were doing, and it turned out that for the first time in about eight or 10 years, the solar flares were at such a peak that they were impacting our readings. You get the whole package.

Is there a conflict between loving the outdoors and working in an industry that has a record of causing environmental problems?
My science background has taught me that modern technology actually does a lot to improve the environment. For example, we can now feed more people thanks to advances in soil science. Part of the scientific process is finding the materials we need to produce things, so for me, it is not one or the other – they complement. We were also very strict in limiting the environmental footprint we left behind as geophysicists; in fact, if you do tourism in Canada's northern territories, you will leave a bigger environmental footprint behind than you will if you are in a geological or geophysical exploration camp. So no, I never saw a contradiction.

What made you decide to go into politics?
Western Canadian culture is very populist, so practically everyone is involved in the political system. Politics has been part of my life since I was about six years old, and as I got older, I would go out and volunteer for the local free-enterprise-type candidates, as that is how my family aligned. That's how it went until 2004, when I wasn't able to support our local candidate, so I decided to toss my name in and was elected as a Conservative.

What skills are needed to succeed in your job?
Politics is fundamentally about two things. First, it is about communication – listening to people, telling them what legislation involves, expressing ideas and getting viewpoints across. It is also about making decisions, whether that is "yes or no" decisions on legislation or deciding what to prioritize. I have to say that science does not always effectively prepare people on the communications side. That is something engineers and scientists need to work on. But science does give you a very systematic approach to gathering information, and that is very useful when it comes to decisions.

What is the greatest scientific challenge facing Canada right now?
Probably the greatest challenge for us is recruiting and attracting talented people. Science is a people-based business, and thanks to globalization, people have an incredible array of options. Attracting the world's best and brightest is a problem for all countries.

Any advice for today's geophysics students?
Enjoy it. Make sure it's your passion. Be intellectually curious. Look for a wide variety of opportunities. The industry is becoming more and more international, and that brings in a broader cross-section of people and a diversity of opinions and ideas. Get involved and take advantage of the opportunities that are there. Don't limit yourself.

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Physics World

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