If all you knew about Mark Dobrowolski was his qualifications, you might figure that he’d made his career in the academic world.
On face value, it would be an easy assumption to make – he studied botany and biochemistry as an undergraduate, then went on to complete a PhD in genetics.
There would also be a little element of truth to it, given his status as an Adjunct Senior Lecturer at UWA’s School of Biological Sciences and Adjunct Associate Professor at Murdoch Uni’s Harry Butler Institute.
But most of the time Dobrowolski actually works for Iluka, a multinational mining company that specialises in the extraction and procession of mineral sands.
“My PhD was on Phytophthora dieback and that was actually a bit mining-related,” he explains.
“In the jarrah forests of WA there’s a big dieback problem and I was doing some research there with Alcoa.
“I went over east and did post-doctorate work over there, then came back to WA and needed to find somewhere where I could apply my scientific research.
“I got involved in mine site rehab of various sorts and eventually ended up at Iluka coordinating rehabilitation research, working with practitioners and improving rehab practices by applying good science to the problem at hand.”
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Within WA, one of Dobrowolski’s chief areas of focus is Iluka’s Eneabba site, where mineral sands mining started in the 1970s and rehabilitation of natural vegetation – known as Kwongan – has been going on for decades.
But Dobrowolski says one of the best things about his role is the variety of rehabilitation work he contributes to, with Iluka mining at four locations in WA, in addition to having projects in the Eastern States and on two other continents.
“My role within Iluka actually encompasses all of our rehabilitation sites and prospective mining areas because it’s about designing and using the best practices for the different environments we work in,” he said.
“For instance, we’ve got sites on the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia, in West Africa and in Florida and Virginia in the United States – all very different environments with different challenges, and the research involved in those different environments is quite varied as well.
“You need to think broadly about what the limitations are to revegetating or rehabilitating land and apply those different solutions to those very different environments.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of scientists over the years and mentoring quite a lot of students in the industry to better expand their own careers.”
Dobrowolski says rehabilitation is a vital area of focus for the whole of WA’s mining and resources sector but particularly to Iluka – which often mines sites on a relatively short-term basis and largely uses strip mining techniques that remove vegetation and top layers of soil rather than digging large holes in the ground.
“It’s important to get rehabilitation right scientifically because it’s got to last,” Dobrowolski said.
“You have to get the science right for the reputation to follow. We turn over mines quite quickly and we’re only as good as our previous rehabilitated mine, so we aim to get that right every time.
“In 20 years’ time at Eneabba, I hope people will look around and just see what looks like natural Kwongan, rather than something that’s been rehabilitated.
“There are some differences, but it takes a pretty well-trained eye to see them once the vegetation is established.
Our aim is to put back a functioning ecosystem, which can self-sustain and perpetuate through life.”
Dobrowolski believes the possibilities for science graduates in mining are close to “endless”, his own career journey being case in point.
“Whether it’s a chemistry degree, physics or biology – all sorts of fields have an application in the mining industry,” he said.
“I would just say to anyone studying science interested in mining to be the best they can at their particularly specialty and make sure their interests or research are applicable, so that somebody can see the value and get them involved in finding mining solutions.”