INTERVIEW WITH DR. BRENDAN DYCK

Department of Earth Sciences

(Petrology, High-temperature Metamorphism, Crustal Melting)

Joined SFU in October 2017

A career of hiking in remote places to study mountains is a dream come true for Dr. Brendan Dyck.  He uses thermodynamic modeling and quantitative microstructure analysis to study the evolution of the planetary crust. Current sites of interest include the Coast Plutonic Complex and the Shushwap Metamorphic Complex in British Columbia, as well as Greenland, the Canadian Arctic, and the Austrian Alps. 

What early life experiences may have foretold your path into science?
I was always curious about nature and my surroundings. Also, my dad was very mechanical and had me doing all kinds of projects as a kid - I think that helped with my problem-solving abilities. In university I started off in Biology. I took a first-year Earth Sciences course and quickly realized that I could have a career of hiking and exploring remote parts of the world all while studying something tangible like the mountains around us and how they form.

You’ve had quite a bit of field experience. What type of work did you do with the Geological Surveys of Sweden, Denmark and Canada?
I did two types of jobs when I did Survey work. With the Canadian Geological Survey and the Swedish Geological Survey, my project was to map out mineral resources and understand the crust composition and the type of materials available. Part of the work was about sovereignty, especially up in the Arctic, but a large part was to create a geological map showing what type of rock is there; these maps are used by mining companies, land-use planners, and other researchers. In Greenland and Arctic Canada, we did this style of mapping by helicopter, which let us cover a lot of ground (an area of about 200 x 500 km).

The second type of project involved going in to test a specific hypothesis. For example, in Greenland our hypothesis was that a particular region was unique because it had an ancient meteorite impact structure. In this case, our impact crater was 3 billion years old. We collected data, took samples, and did further analysis in the lab; e.g. we obtained the exact timing of these events using isotope geochemistry.

What is thermodynamic modeling and how do you use it in your research?
Thermodynamics is an equation-based language common to physicists, chemists, biologists, earth scientists, engineers and the like. In Earth Sciences, these equations are very important because they allow us to take decades of rigorous fundamental experimental results to inform what we are looking at now. In the lab, we can reproduce extreme pressures and temperatures and run an experiment under those conditions; e.g. one could watch minerals recrystallize and form new types of minerals. Then we analyze the properties of those new rocks and minerals. All of this can be described by thermodynamic equations.

Nowadays we have efficient algorithms and computing capabilities, so we can take all of the information collected over the last 50 years and run simulations that predict how a planet’s crust responds to changes in boundary conditions. That is, we can take a given mineral composition and forward model under various pressure and temperature conditions.

Another use of thermodynamics in Earth Sciences is inverse modeling. For example, we can select a rock or mineral of interest, analyse its mineral composition and then use inverse modeling to determine at what depth, pressure and temperature it formed. It’s a powerful technique that can inform us about how a mountain range evolved, or how the Earth’s temperature changes over long periods of time, and so on.

In your research program, how do you use the quantification of microstructure analysis to study Earth Science problems?
My interests are broad – I’m doing some planetary work as well as 'boots on the ground' Earth studies. I am interested in the evolution of planetary crusts. My approach often begins with thermodynamics, which can tell us when a particular reaction ought to proceed; however, it cannot tell us what the material will look like when you collect a sample. The missing piece is the reaction kinetics, or in short, how minerals grow.

Microstructure analysis is the study of the shape, size and way in which minerals fit together. Every rock bears witness to a range of Earth processes, and much of this information is contained in a rock’s microstructure; we just need to find ways to analyse it. Quantifying the microstructural characteristics of a rock or mineral allows me to formulate and test hypotheses about reaction kinetics, often focussing in one or two particular Earth processes, i.e. magma generation. Together, thermodynamic modeling along with microstructure analysis builds a much richer story.

Why is SFU the right home for your research program?
The Department of Earth Sciences at SFU has a very good balance of Environmental Geoscience and Solid Earth Science programs. Given the breadth of projects that I am interested in, there are a lot of people here with complementary expertise with whom I can collaborate.

SFU also has a fantastic program for integrating field training with lab and theory. It is important to me to be at an institution that offers a high standard of field work. Most of the courses offered here have a field work component and we are well set up to get students out in the field.

Lastly, Vancouver is a hub for mining so this is a relevant place to be situated.

What educational background and personal strengths do you look for from prospective trainees?
An Earth Science or Materials Science degree would be required to join my group, or someone with a lot of field experience who is keen to learn the Earth Science background.

I look for self-starters who like finding ways to pick apart complex puzzles, and are willing to learn new methods when solving a problem. The key to a productive field season is happy camp life, so you have to really want to be in the field and appreciate the opportunity and adventure. Strong social awareness is essential because the success of any group depends on each individual’s health, relationships, work ethic, etc.

What are some typical skills gained by trainees in your program?

Students in my research program develop skills in thermodynamic modeling, mineral analysis, microscopy, fieldwork, and isotope geochronology, all of which requires a great deal of hands-on training.

Who are your research users?
My work is of interest to fellow academics, the mining industry, and in some cases the broader public. My work informs academics about how the Earth’s crust evolved. How minerals come together when suspended in magma informs us about the fluid dynamics of that magma. This is of interest to those in the mining industry who target minerals that get concentrated during magma crystallization. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to share my excitement for Earth and planetary research with others, whether it be in the classroom, in the field, or through online media.

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Read more: Dr. Dyck’s profile on the Department of Earth Sciences website, a video describing his recent study on the surface water of Mars and other interviews with SFU Science faculty members.

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos