Indiana State University Newsroom

‘Silver City:’ ISU undergrad researches precious metals

February 22, 2012

The locals -many of whom are outfitted in cowboy boots-walk along dirt roads lined with historic buildings from the 1800s. Pine forests and the beautiful Owyhee Mountains comprise the backdrop to the town, creating a picturesque setting reminiscent of an old western film.

Alex Steiner realized he wasn't in Indiana anymore.

"It was just like the cowboy towns from the movies," said Steiner, a geology major from Terre Haute. "Silver City is a cool little mining town from the turn of the century, hard to ask for a better place to work, really"

Steiner spent 10 days of his sophomore summer in Southwestern Idaho, collecting samples of precious metals that would fuel his research for the next two years.

Now a senior, Steiner has nearly completed his research on metallic deposits. His samples come from an area that has produced more than $60 million worth of precious metals, according to the Silver City website.

Roughly 16 million years ago, super volcanic eruptions created metal deposits. When the magmas settled into place, they released large amounts of various metals, particularly gold and silver, said Steiner.

"Our goal is to characterize those deposits, which simply means to get the chemical and physical characteristics that cause this ore to form," he said of the research, noting that he works mostly with silver.

The project is a collaboration with faculty members and graduate students from Auburn University in Alabama. The professionals from Auburn University are former colleagues of Sandra Brake, Indiana State associate professor of geology and advisor of the project.

"It's significant research, in terms of exploring for deposits elsewhere," she said.

"We'll always need silver, we'll always need gold, and we'll always need copper and iron. There's no replacement for metals. So going out and having a good understanding of how to find them is definitely an advantage," said Steiner. "You're able to apply these ideas around the world."

Sarah Brinkmann, a junior from Greenwood, joined Steiner in working on the project last semester. A grant from the ISU Research Committee funds the research.

While Steiner focuses on the geology, Brinkmann specializes in geochemistry.

"This is great experience as an undergraduate," said Brinkmann.

The chance to conduct research so early in one's college career is a rare opportunity in the undergraduate world, although not at Indiana State. Steiner and Brake noted this as one of the strengths of the department.

"We encourage students at all levels to begin research with faculty members," said Brake. "This really puts them ahead in terms of competition for grad school and competition for jobs, because they have experience that is normally given to grad students."

Brake highlighted the students' unique opportunity to work with professionals from another institution.

"It gives students the opportunity to see how other people approach science and conduct research," she said. "It broadens and diversifies their background and opens up the door for long-term collaborative efforts that will enhance their research."

Because of the project, Steiner and Brinkmann have taken advantage of the opportunity to present their research at conferences, including the Geological Society of America's National Conference in Minneapolis.

Opportunities for showcasing their work have opened other doors for the undergraduate students. Steiner, for example, is applying to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to work with a professor he met at the national conference.

Networking also proved valuable during Steiner's summer trip to Idaho.

Derek Unger, who graduated from ISU in 2005, now works as a project geologist at a mine near Silver City and offered to show Steiner the ropes of working out in the field.

"I took him underground to see the active mining areas. We also toured the surface around the mine," said Unger.

"It gave me an idea of what the deposits look like and what to look for when collecting samples," said Steiner.

Steiner's research isn't just benefiting him-it's helping the industry as well.

"Due to gold's high price, we are mining more gold now than we ever have in history," said Unger. "Alex's research allows us to better understand how gold deposits form and thus allows us to develop better ways to look for them."

Overall, Steiner said this research project has helped him prepare for his future "exponentially."

"The research experience alone prepares you for grad school and really allows you to get an understanding for how research is done. By understanding how the geology works, you can better perform in the industry," he said. "It definitely gives you a distinct advantage."

ISU senior Alex Steiner overlooks a valley near Silver City, where he conducted his research. ISU/Courtesy Photo
ISU undergraduates Alex Steiner (left) and Sarah Brinkmann (right) view pictures of samples taken under the magnification of a scanning electron microscope. ISU/Courtesy Photo
Silver City, Idaho. ISU/Courtesy Photo
The opening of the Black Jack Mine in Owyhee County, Idaho. ISU/Courtesy Photo

Contact: Sandra Brake, associate professor of geology, Indiana State University, at 812-237-2270

Writer: Bethany Donat, media relations assistant, ISU Office of Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773