Professor Frances Wall

Published on: 19 May 2014

Frances has been named the first female president of the Mineralogical Society.

Professor Frances Wall was recently appointed first female president of the Mineralogical Society. The inspirational scientist is also an Associate Professor in Applied Mineralogy at the University of Exeter’s Camborne School of Mines (CSM).

We spoke to her about the roles for women in sciences and how having a healthy work/life balance can help inspire the next generation of female academics.

How did it feel to be appointed first female President of Mineralogical Society?

It’s an honour to be asked to be the president; I was delighted but quite surprised to be asked. There are a lot of people who are doing very important work for the Mineralogical Society so it was great to be selected.

Do you think that it’s more difficult for a woman to get recognition in this field?

I’ve never really noticed a problem. If you look at the Mineralogical Society council you’ll see that there are quite a few women. I think it’s partly an age thing; more women have stayed in science for their careers and they’re now coming through into the more senior positions.

With regards to the things I do in the Mineralogical Society, I have to ask myself ‘is there any disadvantage to being a woman?’ and I would say ‘No; definitely not’. Maybe there’s even a bit of an advantage; if you’re at a meeting and there are more men you’re more likely to be remembered - You’ll get noticed because you stand out from all the men in dark suits!

Who or what is your inspiration and who do you hope to inspire?

A Camborne School of Mines PhD student approached me after a panel discussion about women in Science and Engineering to say that she hadn’t realised that I had children; it would be great to show to women that you can get to a senior academic position but have a perfectly normal life with a family.

Early career researchers, undergrads and postgrads are the people to inspire and show them that you can have a scientific career and have a regular family life.

What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as Mineralogical Society president?

The president has a two year term of office and there will be a certain amount of ‘house keeping’ involved to keep the society in good financial health. The more exciting side of the role will be looking at how we react to the science in the news. The Mineralogical Society has special interest groups that we would like to be able to respond quite quickly to topical issues with the most up to date science.

The other part of role is making sure we’re doing things of interest to all our members. We have a special membership offer for undergraduates which means that we have a lot of new student members- as a result we should introduce more student activities.

Early career researchers, undergrads and postgrads are the people to inspire and show that you can have a scientific career and a regular family life.

Professor Frances Wall. Camborne School of Mines

What is your current research about?

Rare earths and minerals which contain rare earth elements – they have really hit the headlines; not long ago, nobody had heard of them and now they’re front-page elements. I’m doing quite a lot of research on understanding how rare earth deposits form and how we can process them really efficiently to secure future supplies.

China was able to get to a position of dominance in the rare earth market – producing 97 per cent of the world’s ore which they then controlled; to compete with this, we need to get more mines up and running, which is a long and difficult process.

Some of the rocks I look at are the weirdest and rarest on Earth – they’re called carbonatites and they are the world’s most important source of the rare metals we need for green technology. Unlike granite, which is mostly formed from silica, carbonatites have to have at least 50 per cent carbonate; so they have the same composition as many sedimentary rocks but they erupt from volcanoes.

There’s only one active carbonatite volcano and that’s in Tanzania. People didn’t even believe that carbonatites existed until the late 1960s, when the volcano erupted. Carbonatites come from the Earth’s mantle and together with carbonate bring a range of rare metals such as rare earth elements and niobium.

What’s your background and how has that helped shape your research?

Just as I was getting to the end of my Geochemistry degree at Queens Mary College I happened to see an advert in New Scientist for a Geochemist in the Natural History Museum’s Department of Mineralogy. I worked there for 20 years and managed to work some very unusual and rare minerals, like carbonatites, rare earth minerals and niobium. These minerals have economic uses and are very fashionable to use in digital technology it was a really fun area of research to be involved in.

When I became interested to move on from the Natural History Museum, Camborne School of Mines was somewhere that I really liked the look of; I wanted to do some more applied research and was lucky enough to get the position of Associate Professor in Applied Mineralogy.

What do you enjoy about working at the Camborne School of Mines (CSM)?

The really nice thing about CSM is that we’re an integrated mining school and you get to work with people from a wide variety of disciplines. My neighbour in the school is a mineral engineer and just down the hall is a mining engineer; it’s very rare to get these groups of people mixed up together, which makes it different from anywhere else a geologist would work.

It means you can have a more holistic view of the mining industry; we’re looking at the way people view the mining industry and at the research on the socio-economic and responsible mining impacts. This is something very new and different to the technical research that I’m used to.

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