February 5, 2019

From a Young Dinosaur Fanatic to an Expert on Fossilized Plants: Meet Dr. Christopher Wnuk

Posted by sdieck

This edition of Paths Through Science features Dr. Christopher Wnuk, a Greenfields Exploration Geologist who is passionate about helping foreign countries develop their mineral-based economies.

Ever since he was a young child, Dr. Wnuk has always sought to understand the natural world around him. He found dinosaurs and paleontology particularly fascinating- he enjoyed reading children’s books about dinosaurs and visiting museums to see dinosaur bones. He even found plant fossils to be intriguing. When he was about 8 years old, he received one of the “spectacular white plant fossils” formed during the Carboniferous period in an anthracite-rich region of Pennsylvania as a gift. “…It fascinated me to think that this came from a plant that was alive once, and then to think how long ago that was.” Even though he was reflecting on the same basic concepts about geologic time that professional geologists do, what he did not know was that one day he would be performing geologic research on the same fossilized Carboniferous swamps of Pennsylvania in which his fossil gift was formed.

Despite his passion for science since childhood, Dr. Wnuk did not always plan on pursuing a career in geology. In fact, he began his undergraduate studies with majors in ecology and environmental studies and intended to work for an environmental consulting firm after graduation. However, it was quite fortuitous that the course he randomly chose to fill a vacant slot in his schedule junior year happened to be stratigraphy. “Taking that one class completely changed my educational objectives,” Dr. Wnuk said. From there, he decided to take on an additional year of undergraduate studies and pick up geology as a third major.

With his master’s degree underway, a variety of academic opportunities came his way, from camping out in Venezuela’s Orinoco Delta as a field assistant, to teaching introductory geology classes at Rutgers University-Camden, to studying clays at an archaeological site in Turkey. By partaking in these experiences, he found himself working in some locations with fascinating landscapes and histories. A research opportunity which was especially intriguing for him was his work studying the forest plant communities that once grew in tropical Carboniferous swamps that are now Pennsylvania’s anthracite fields. As coal is stripped from the fields, the underlying forest floor is exposed, revealing well preserved ground cover, forest understory and massive tree fossils in some areas. “…It would take my breath away thinking I was standing in the middle of a 300-million-year-old jungle just imagining what it was like when it was still alive,” he recalls. One can imagine how excited he would have been as a young child to learn that one day in the future, he would be a researcher who is able to correctly identify the white plant fossil he was gifted as an Alethopteris in the setting in which it was formed.

After earning his master’s degree in geology, he took an exploration position with a coal mining company and experienced firsthand the boom and bust nature of the coal industry, as well as the challenges and job instability that come along with it. Though he left the company a short while later to complete his Ph.D., he still gained valuable lessons from his job experience. After earning his Ph.D. in paleobotany/paleoecology, he joined the US Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct post-doctoral research on coal forming environments and continued conducting research with the USGS to improve coal exploration models. Since much of his work with the USGS took place overseas and was funded by organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development, he developed a strong interest in working internationally and decided to leave the USGS to become an independent consultant to fulfill his own interests in international greenfields exploration.

Dr. Wnuk’s job as an independent consultant has been full of many exciting and rewarding experiences, though it is not without its own set of challenges. One strenuous aspect of his career has been working in many insecure countries around the globe that happen to be abundant in natural resources, many of which are conflict or post-conflict areas such as Afghanistan. The primary donors to some of these countries do not understand the mining industry well enough to effectively assist these foreign governments in the natural resource economic sector, or do not know who they should hire to design the most efficient mining interventions. Due to these structural limitations, very little has been done to develop the mineral and natural resource economies of these regions, which can be frustrating from the eyes of a geologist who has devoted his career to helping such countries improve their mining economies. Nonetheless, he has remained dedicated to his job for many years and is still optimistic that his work makes a difference in the world. “If you want to see the parts of the world that no one visits while you are working to help people, you can’t do better than to become a geologist,” according to Dr. Wnuk.

Even though his career path was filled with many unexpected twists and turns, and he faced his fair share of career-related challenges, Dr. Wnuk said that if he had to go back and generate his career path again, he would not do very much differently. “For me, every time the door closed on one opportunity another door opened,” he said. With an extensive list of experiences, skills, and accomplishments having accumulated over the years, he has learned that there are endless opportunities to pursue as a geologist, and it is important to continue exploring until you find your passion.

“Follow your heart. Latch on to that aspect of geology that fascinates you and learn it.”

To read more about Dr. Wnuk’s fascinating journey, visit Paths Through Science to see his full interview.

Sarah Dieck is the Winter 2019 Talent Pool Intern.