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Hudson’s Ryan Conway discovering real-world mining horizons

Ryan Conway in the field at one of two Unimin mines near Mankato, Minn.(Submitted photo)1 / 2
From left, Unimin representative Chris Axness poses with Justin Poirer, another intern from Altoona, and Hudson’s Ryan Conway at a recent UW-Eau Claire Geology Department banquet. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Ryan Conway wasn’t sure what his college major would be until he took an introductory geology class that led to one of the most coveted summer internships on campus.

“Geology is a good combination for people who are science-minded and like working with their hands and being outside,” the 2010 Hudson High School grad and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior explained in a recent interview.

“Also, if you’re interested in any kind of issue related to natural resources, it pretty much all relates to geology.”

Conway is getting to know that world up close and personal this summer through a three-month paid internship at a Unimin Corporation silica sand mine in Mankato, Minn.

Unimin is one of North America's leading producers of non-metallic industrial mineral products that are the essential raw materials of nearly every manufacturing process.

“Silica sand is used for hydraulic fracturing, foundry work, glass-making, roads, and a lot of other things,” Conway noted.

Sponsored by Unimin’s Responsible Mining Initiative at UW-Eau Claire, which emphasizes safe, effective and responsible natural-resource stewardship, the highly competitive internship has Conway thinking seriously about a career in the field.

“Mining is a really varied environment,” he said. “I could definitely see myself carrying on with it. … This helps me see what I want to do in the industry now that I’ve seen some of the real-world applications.”

His summer pay isn’t bad either -- $4,500 a month, according to an internship outline.

Office and field

Conway spends about 40 percent of his time at one of two mines within 20 miles of Unimin’s Mankato office, collecting groundwater and air data, and working with compliance professionals.

“If a permit says, ‘You have to have this,’ I work with people at Unimin to gather the necessary data and make sure it’s all done right,” he said.

“That part’s not really hard. It’s nice to be outside five to 15 hours a week, depending on the circumstances, taking well data and checking air monitors.”

The rest of his time is spent in the Mankato Unimin office, updating permits and transferring field data into readily usable form.

That work involves setting up models allowing new data to be entered and organized in the most meaningful way possible.

“I’ve really come to appreciate the power of models, where you can plug information in and utilize it right away,” Conway explained.

“It’s so helpful, and models are fun to make. They keep you from spending a lot of time on something that can be done faster with the right model.”

He added: “I work getting our permits set up and making sure everything that needs to be there is set up. … It’s challenging at times. Sometimes you get a ton of different stuff that has to be organized and analyzed and presented in intelligent way. So it gets pretty intense sometimes.”

Real-world value

Challenges and intensity are a valuable part of Conway’s internship experience, and he acknowledges that two months into it, he’s already come a long way.

“I’m a lot more interested in groundwater monitoring than I was before,” he said. “Some things that aren’t very interesting in class turn out to be really interesting in the field, and some things that are interesting in class aren’t so much when you’re out in the field.”

Conway has completed his course work for his UW-Eau Claire bachelor’s geology degree, and after the Unimin internship ends in late-August, he’ll start on a second degree, in geologic engineering, at the University of Minnesota.

He expects to wrap that up by the end of the fall 2016 semester. After that, a career in mining is definitely on Conway’s radar.

“It’s a growing industry with a lot of qualified people,” he noted, adding: “It’s also pretty lucrative.”

No matter where he ends up, Conway will look back proudly at both the Unimin internship and the company’s UW-Eau Claire Responsible Mining Initiative, which is coordinated by Geology Department Chair Kent Syverson.

Scholarships and grants are also part of the program.

“There’s a lot of input between regulators and the industry, as well as the faculty,” he notes.

“The goal is to create students that can go into sand mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin and be safe, effective and responsible on the job. There are a lot of opportunities for a geology major at UW-Eau Claire that aren’t available to anybody else.”

Chuck Nowlen

Chuck Nowlen joined the Star-Observer team as a business, township and general-assignment reporter in April, 2014 after a three-decade career in newspapers and magazines, and as a newsroom-management/business-planning consultant.

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