OSU’s Sarah Baxter begins a career in exploration geology.

Sarah Baxter
Sarah Baxter

When Sarah Baxter told her father she was going to study geology at Oregon State University, he gave her one of his prized possessions, the rock hammer he had used as a mining engineering major at the University of Nevada, Reno, in the 1960s. She was so touched that she won’t take the hammer with her on field trips for fear of losing it.

“I was always good at science when I was a kid,” says Baxter, who will receive her bachelor’s degree this fall. “My dad has a museum-quality mineral collection. I grew up camping and hiking and looking for rocks.”

OSU’s geology program appealed to Baxter because of its excellent reputation and because of the atmosphere she found when she visited the school. “I spent half a day in the geology department speaking to graduate students. I loved the way I was treated and how close-knit the department was,” says Baxter. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to go here.’”

OSU certainly didn’t disappoint her. Within two weeks after starting she had met professor John Dilles, who would foster her interest in mineral deposit geology throughout her time at OSU. The first time they met, Dilles invited Baxter on a field trip to the French Gulch mining district in Shasta City, Calif.  Dilles, Baxter remembers, bought all the groceries and invited her to stay in his family home. The experience cemented Baxter’s first impression of OSU as an institution that invested in its students.

“John Dilles is world-renowned in mineral deposits. I wouldn’t have gotten that had I gone elsewhere. I didn’t need to go to a mining school because I had the best at OSU,” Baxter says.

The French Gulch mine would be the site of Baxter’s thesis research. It would also be the first place she ventured underground. “I was kind of nervous,” Baxter says. “But I put on my hard hat and head lamp, and I loved it. It feels like being in the Lord of the Rings’ Mines of Moria.”

In her French Gulch study, Baxter tried to determine the geological conditions that favor the presence of gold deposits. More specifically, she wanted to see how many parts per million of gold were “trapped” in sulfide minerals, such as pyrite and arsenopyrite, that were present in the host rock quartz veins. She collected rock samples from various areas at the French Gulch mine, choosing the samples with the highest probability of having sulfide minerals associated with “free” gold. Baxter sliced the samples into thin sections and analyzed their texture and mineralogy. She completed chemical analysis of the minerals at a lab in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

The idea was to see whether the samples she took were similar to others around the world where “trapped” gold could be found. Although Baxter’s conclusions did not support this idea, she collected valuable data about how the minerals in her samples were formed.

Now, she has turned her research and internship experience at OSU into a career. She works as an exploration geologist in Morenci, Ariz., for the international mining company Freeport-McMoRan Cooper & Gold. “My goal is to become a senior exploration geologist,” Baxter says. “I love being out of the office. I sit at my desk maybe an hour a day. Otherwise I’m in the field. I’m in the mine.”

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