Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

StFX earth sciences students participate in advanced geological field school in Spain

March 21st, 2018
Dr. James Braid describing geological relationships to StFX earth sciences students

Working in pairs, 12 senior StFX earth sciences students recently navigated a trail along the Alájar River in Spain to 11 stations with the goal of interpreting the geological story recorded in the rocks in the area. The students collected field data to create a map and geological cross-section of the area.

The hike traversed the suture zone between ancestral North America and Europe in the heart of the ancient supercontinent Pangea over 300 million years ago, and was one of the experiences on an eight-day advanced geological field methods course the StFX Department of Earth Sciences held in Southern Iberia from Feb 16-24. 

Dr. James Braid, with the assistance of Dr. Donnelly Archibald and MSc candidate Lori Paslawski, led the eight-day field school in Spain. 

“Southern Iberia offers unique and varied geology, including excellent exposure of an ancient continental collision zone that formed during the collision of Gondwana and Laurussia, during the amalgamation of Pangea. This ancient suture zone stitched ancestral North America to Europe approximately 300 million years ago, and provides a rare exposure of this important geological relationship,” Dr. Braid says. 

The region also hosts the world famous Iberian Pyrite Belt, a geological terrane rich in volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) deposits that are actively mined today. The trip focused on educating students on geological mapping and tectonic interpretation, economic geology, as well experiencing surface and underground mining and exploration operations in Spain and Portugal, says Dr. Archibald.

During eight intensive days in the field, students practiced observation, mapping, interpretation, and presentation skills in a location with a unique geological history. 

“The area afforded a rare opportunity for students to witness examples many important geologic processes that they had only learned about in theory in the classroom,” Dr. Braid says.  

The international field school was made possible through generous funding from Dr.

David Palmer (Probe Metals), Lundin Mining, the Prospectors and Development Association of Canada (PDAC), Kinross Gold, the StFX Dean of Science, the StFX Research VP, and the StFX Department of Earth Sciences.


“This trip has had an outstanding impact on me, by allowing me to discover not only the geology of Spain and Portugal, but their culture and traditions as well. It will most definitely allow me to be more marketable in my pursuit of a career having learned about how the classroom and industry relate in a practical way,” says Sean Freeborne, a third year honours earth sciences student.  

“It is something that I never thought that I would be able to do in an undergraduate degree, and it shows how pursuing a degree in earth science can give you opportunities to explore the world,” he says. “The relationships that I have built with my professors and fellow students is by far what stands out the most from this trip.”

Bailey Malay, a fourth year honours earth sciences student, says she is grateful for the opportunity to go abroad to do an international field school.

“This opportunity will help me in the future as I was able to experience field work in a different country, as well as the culture of a different country. This experience has made me appreciate the program I am in and the many opportunities that I might find in my future as a geologist.” 


“The juxtaposition of being thrown out of your comfort zone culturally and observing and learning about earth processes that are unique to the area provided a completely different learning experience that I believe everyone on the trip benefited greatly from,” adds fourth year honours student Patrick Hamilton. He says the trip will have massive impacts on his future as a geologist. “In geology context and experience is everything to a future employer. Having mapping and interpretation experience from Spain is something that few Canadian students will ever be able to say they have acquired.”

Olivia Pushie, a third year earth sciences and aquatic resources major, agrees the experience has already had so many impacts on her—furthering her geologic knowledge, experiencing another culture, and strengthening friendships with classmates.

StFX staff and students at the Neves Corvo Mine, Portugal: Dr. Donnelly Archibald (back left), Dr. James Braid, Pat Hamilton, Caleb Grant, Andrew Flower, Sean Freeborne, Lauren Walker, Colin Ross, and Garrett Merz. Shelby Park (front left), Bailey Malay, Talia Bobenic, Olivia Pushie, Mary Besaw, and MSc student Lori Paslawski

Fourth year earth sciences student Talia Bobenic says the international field school helped her grow as a student. “I was exposed to so much new geology that I had never seen before. This experience helped me expand my geology knowledge that will be beneficial in my future pursuits.”

Andrew Flower, a second year master’s student, says it means a great deal that StFX Earth Sciences provided “this incredible opportunity to develop our geologic research skills overseas in a brand new and exciting environment. I can say for myself that this trip provided a learning experience not only in the field geology, but also on a level of personal growth. Being able to share this experience with fellow classmates and friends made the Spain trip unforgettable. The experience has sparked my drive to travel, and pursue a career internationally.”


This is the second time StFX has offered such an experience. 

Dr. Braid organized and ran a similar trip in 2012. 

“However, we now plan to make this a permanent trip to be run every two years. We have an endowment made possible by a generous donation from Dr. David Palmer (Probe Metals), which gives financial support to students through the Palmer Bursary. Combined with other donations, the trip is now more financially feasible.” 

Dr. Braid has done extensive field research in Spain, including his doctoral research with StFX earth sciences professor Dr. Brendan Murphy. 

“As a result, I have extensive knowledge of the area from both a geological and practical standpoint. As this area of Spain records a spectacular and unique geologic story, and given my on the ground knowledge I though it an excellent field laboratory for students,” he says. 

“In terms of impact, when learning about geological processes there is really no substitute for seeing what we discuss in the classroom firsthand in the field. Although we run numerous fieldtrips around Antigonish, this trip allows students to see geology that is not possible in Nova Scotia. Taken together with the added bonus of international travel I believe the course greatly enriches the undergraduate experience and ties together many of the separate boxes of knowledge students learn about in their individual courses.”

This research is, in part, made possible by the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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