Between a Rock and a Hard Place

De Grey on mountain

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If Manhattan Beach native Laura De Grey had chosen a conventional career, she might be living in that popular Southern California city, fighting grueling traffic to get to work. But she was smitten by the mystery and potential of rocks and became a geologist living in some of the country’s most desolate and isolated regions.

As a mine geologist for Round Mountain Gold Corporation, De Grey, 29, a 2002 Sonoma State University geology graduate, spends her days in a massive gold mine in central Nevada.One of the job’s highlights is the noontime explosions in the pit that coincide with employee lunch breaks.

“It’s called ‘clearing for the blast’ and you definitely wear earplugs for it. Every hole in a grid is blasted in sequential order,” said De Grey. Hundreds of holes are drilled 40-feet deep within swaths of the mine measuring 18-feet-by-18-feet, and the explosions break up the rock. Geologists analyze pieces to determine if there’s enough gold in that area to remove and process it for sale.

Gold has been mined at Round Mountain for 30 years, and De Grey works in a bustling environment with an estimated 700 employees.

“This is one of the only gold producing mines in the world with hand-sized specimens,” she said. Most of the gold is used for jewelry, although some is sold for computers, electronics, and telecommunications purposes.

De Grey

De Grey lives in a housing subdivision she describes as a “glorified trailer park” of mobile homes. The subdivision has about 1,000 residents, and is in the picturesque Big Smoky Valley surrounded by mountain ranges with 9,000-foot peaks. The closest town, Tonopah, is 60 miles away, with bigger cities like Reno and Las Vegas four hours away, and Bishop a three-hour drive.

“They’ve done a really good job making it a place where people are comfortable. We’ve got a grocery store, gas station and post office,” said De Grey.

De Grey’s previous job as an exploration geologist in Alaska required a two-hour commute by airplane from Fairbanks to a primitive encampment north of the Artic Circle. From there she took a 20-minute helicopter ride to the worksite. Her “housing” was a cot inside a canvas tent in an area resembling a military barracks, where there was snow on the ground most of the year. Her primary responsibilities were mapping and analyzing materials drilled out of the earth’s core, looking for copper, lead and zinc deposits.

She was hired in 2006 after graduating with a master’s degree from Idaho State University in geology, specializing in sedimentology and stratigraphy. The job, which began in the spring, lasted five months until temperatures were below freezing too much of the time and the project shut down for the year.

De Grey and dogs

“I like exploration a lot. I like that it is a practical career and I like using science to get an end product. I also like the satisfaction of women entering this field,” said De Grey, noting men far outnumber women geologists.

At SSU, De Grey worked as a teaching assistant in geology and paleontology classes, and graduated with distinction, receiving an engraved rock hammer from her department.

De Grey said she “stumbled” on geology as a passion. Her parents were both elementary school teachers, and she, too, had expected to become a teacher. But a physical science field trip to the Sierras while attending Santa Barbara City College sparked her fascination with the study of the earth’s surface. “I love it that you can put your hand on a geologic structure. You can read about it and then see and touch it. Utterly fascinating.”