IN PROFILE: Robert Linnen

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By Amanda Grant
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Western welcomes rock star to campus
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Robert Linnen walks around his office picking up hunks of rock.

“This guy here, isn’t it beautiful? It comes from Brazil,” he says fiddling with a jagged piece of stone.
 
At first glance it looks grey and rough, but as he turns it over in his hands a prism of turquoise, purple and white appear in the centre.
 
“I was on a field trip in Brazil when I got this one. It is a particular type of mineral called tourmaline; you can buy it as a gemstone,” Linnen says.
 
Linnen, University of Western Ontario associate professor of geology, is the Robert Hodder chair in economic geology. The chair’s research must focus on mineral deposits, a perfect fit for Linnen who specializes in the field.
 
“It’s economic geology because mineral deposits are worth money,” Linnen says. “But I don’t determine if a mine is economic. I work with finding the metals.”
 
He arrived at the university in July after teaching at the University of Waterloo for 13 years. “The type of work I do fits well at Western,” Linnen says. “Just having the Robert Hodder chair position demonstrates that.”
 
Linnen’s work has taken him around the globe. He has visited more than 40 countries and has lived in remote villages few people have heard of. “Geologists get to work in places most people just don’t have access to,” he says.
 
He has studied tin-tungsten deposits on the Thai-Burmese border and has stood on the edge of Poas, an active volcano in Costa Rica, with 700-degree magma bubbling metres away.
 
Although most of his education was completed in Canada – he graduated from Queen’s University with his bachelor of science in 1979 and completed both his master’s and PhD at McGill University by 1992 – Linnen feels at home in foreign lands.
 
When he was working in Thailand he would pass on hotels or field camps, setting up shop with locals instead. “I would go into town and buy a week’s worth of food, way more than what I needed. I’d give it all to the local mine owner and stay with his family,” he says.
 
On his last night in Thailand the small rural community gathered for a feast in his honour. “They had gone out hunting and had killed a wild boar,” he says.
 
That night Linnen was treated to a Thai delicacy, a salad made with raw pork. “It’s probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever eaten, but it was so good,” he says.
 
On his travels Linnen has been treated to many interesting meals, from lizard curry to deep-fried worms, and has learned to cook most of them along the way. His mother taught him the cooking basics in Ottawa where he grew up with one brother. His father was also teacher. “Maybe it’s hereditary,” Linnen jokes.
 
“I enjoy teaching. (In October) I got to lead a trip to the Bancroft area. We were looking at rocks, so there’s a lot of one-on-one interaction between professors and students. It’s the interaction that’s enjoyable.”
 
Professor Roberta Flemming joined Linnen on the excursion.
 
“Watching him on the trip with the students – you can tell he is well liked,” Flemming says. “He is a great colleague. He’s keen and straightforward, and very generous.
 
“I met him first when he did a talk at the university,” Flemming notes. “He had already built a rapport with the faculty long before he joined us.”
 
Back in the office, Linnen snaps into teaching mode, picking up another rock from his filing cabinet.
 
“What’s it look like to you?” 
 
“You might wear it around your neck,” Linnen prompts.
 
“This is opal in a rock.”
 
He looks pleased, assessing his rock collection as only a geologist could. “I know a lot of people won’t agree with me, but rocks are really cool.”

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