Spotlight on mining and water with Dr Wendy Timms

Posted 10 November 2017

Drawing on her 20 years’ experience as a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer working for government, industry, academia (and now, arguably, all three), Dr Wendy Timms talks us through her many hats and why diversity is critical in driving home the triple bottom line.

How did you get interested in hydrogeology and the resources industry?

I grew up in a coal mining area in the Hunter Valley and got into hydrogeology because it combined my interests in engineering, geology, hydrology and chemistry. Groundwater is fascinating because everybody has a stake in it: farmers, miners, and in dry areas of the planet, it’s the primary water source for everything. Hydrogeology was a career that promised travel to interesting places which appealed to me too. 


Why did you move from industry to academia?

Early in my career I travelled quite a bit and was very engaged with industry, including eight years as a project engineer. Being a practicing engineer was incredibly rewarding but I’ve always felt connected to academia (having done my Masters and PhD at UNSW), so after those eight years, I combined teaching with research to share my knowledge and experience. 


What’s your role now?

I wear quite a few hats. I’m a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mining Engineering as well as the Director of Postgraduate Coursework, so I coordinate and teach a wide variety of courses (including distance training) in geology, water management and the environmental aspects of mining. I’m also involved in research projects around mine safety; subsidence and extraction from coal seams; and reducing the impacts of mining on shallow aquifers and surface systems such as lakes, wetlands and creeks.


I also sit on the Independent Expert Scientific Committee on Coal Seam Gas and Large Coal Mining Development.

We advise federal and state decision-makers on how to protect Australia’s water resources, environment and biodiversity from the impacts of these projects. This is where the engineering we do really hits the road as it explores the practicalities of “Okay, you want to expand this coal seam gas project or build a new mine. Here are the issues you need to consider…”. We also advise the decision-makers on national research priorities, which is important for useful outcomes.


I’m also affiliated with the Australian Centre for Sustainable Mining Practices  and UNSW Connected Waters Initiative Research Centre and work with multidisciplinary colleagues on mining and water related topics right across university.

Wow – that sounds like a lot of work! How do you keep focused?

I always try to prioritise and keep focused on the bigger picture. Ultimately, I see my role very much as a bridge builder between mining companies and other stakeholders. Having the patience to see results is vital because working in the areas of water and mining can be controversial. People have strong views and not everything you read in the media is factual, so critical thinking, sticking to the data and acknowledging the uncertainties where increased research is needed is important. 


We have made excellent progress in building those bridges to get a better outcome for the environment but we’re moving into more challenging times. Mines are getting deeper, where extraction is more difficult, and mines are also moving into more water-sensitive areas. Sustainable mining practices are increasingly important because the community wants to know that we’re obtaining the materials and the energy that we need for our modern lives in a way that’s not compromising the future of our kids. 


As a woman working in the traditionally male-dominated resources industry for the past 20 years, how have you seen things change over time?

There are now more women in mining engineering, and companies are increasingly aware of the value diversity brings to business. BHP, for example, did some research that found their 10 most diverse mine sites perform 15% better than their other mine sites. In my opinion, women are often the ones thinking about the bigger picture - the effects on communities and the environment for example, so it comes as no surprise to me that big companies are finding diverse teams perform better in a way you can measure from a business performance metric. 


What are some of the barriers to diversity and where can improvements be made?

The industry is still male-dominated, particularly at the senior level which needs to change. But there are also barriers across the board in terms of residual attitudes to difference and diversity. It’s not just a gender thing. We need to cultivate a culture where every person in a team is valued, enable and nurtured for the strengths they have. One of the things people talk about a lot is unconscious bias training which could be helpful. 


Why are you positive about the future of the resources industry?

The reality is that unless we grow what we need, we must mine or recycle it. We know that every additional wind turbine, for example, needs metal and concrete. There are always cycles in mining, but we’ll always need mining engineers, geologists and other smart people who can work with mechatronics engineers, computer engineers, photovoltaic engineers, with designers of smartphones etc, to ensure that we can sustainably source the materials that we need in the future.

Source: UNSW School of Mining Engineering news.

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