Meet the Scientist: Dominique Weis

January 24, 2019

Name: Dominique Weis
Title: Professor, Canada Research Chair Tier I, FRSC
Institution: University of British Columbia
Place of Residence: Vancouver

What kind of science do you do?
I am a geologist by training and a geochemist in practice applying geochemical fingerprinting to constrain the geochemical evolution of our planet and its main reservoirs, to evaluate the impact of pollution on the environment, and to train young scientists in geochemistry to be leaders in the workforce. Such research requires unprecedented precision and sensitivity for the analysis of elemental concentrations and isotopic ratios in rocks, minerals, water, and organic matter that can only be provided by modern instruments (e.g., mass spectrometers). Importantly, these tools can be applied to many areas of study, including the relationship between our environment and human health.

Why did you choose this field?
Originally, I wanted to be a medical doctor, but went into geology as I did not want to study for 7 years! I love the outdoors and care about the environment. There are not very many professional occupations allowing to access both on a regular basis. As academics, we also have a lot of freedom to choose what we conduct research on. I love to tinker in the lab with delicate instruments, problem solving. Geochemistry allows me to touch upon many different disciplines and answer fascinating questions; for instance, recently I am studying honey, a biomonitor to determine the source, transport, and fate of heavy metal pollutants in the environment - it works beautifully. I am also working with First Nations communities to trace the source of some their ancestral belongings (obsidian tools for instance) using minimally invasive techniques.

What's the most interesting place you've ever done field work?
This is a tricky question, as I have been to many interesting places to do field work – I can think of two amazing places, the Kerguelen Archipelago in the south Indian Ocean and the Canadian Arctic. Both are characterized by their remoteness, difficulty in access, beauty and vastness of landscapes, extraordinary light and amazing opportunities for untouched nature. All these characteristics also imply very unique human environments and conditions of living.

What are you working on now?
I am working on four major themes right now: 1) determining the distribution of the Loa and Kea components in Hawaiian basalts and connecting the lava chemistry to the deep mantle structure, especially the presence of LLSVP at the core-mantle boundary; 2) establishing bioindicator species (such as honey bees and salmon) to trace the sources and impacts of environmental pollution; 3) tracing the diet and movement of humans and animals through space and time; 4) developing new analytical schemes for mass spectrometers to model oxide formation and problematic matrix effects, which is critical to achieve the best precision and reproducibility.

Any advice for someone starting out in geochemistry?
Go with your instinct, work hard and don't worry about job opportunities at a given moment. Your drive and motivation will take you where you want to end up. You will need to show patience, determination, and like "playing" with instruments.

If you could sit next to anyone on an airplane, who would it be?
Joan Baez. I grew up in a household of high school teachers very devoted to their students and where nothing was taken for granted. My parents listened to music with a meaning. Very early on I was fascinated by Joan Baez, her music, her voice, and mostly her activism, especially her involvement in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, Jr and later her support for environmental causes. She is a true icon for me and I never miss a chance to go see her in concert.

What's your favorite city in the world and why?
Paris, the city of lights, for its history, its culture, the beauty of its architecture, the multicultural population and because you can walk everywhere. I worked in Paris as a young post-doctoral fellow with little money, later on as a visiting professor and I end up there two, three times/year for a meeting which gives me the occasion to visit friends, see an exhibit or simply walk around and take pictures.

What is your favorite downtime activity?
I enjoy being outside and exercising. Hiking is therefore a favorite activity, in wide open spaces. It also allows me to take photographs, which I love doing, playing with light and composing breathtaking landscapes into panoramas. These activities help me appreciate the beauty and diversity of our planet, and inspire me to seek solutions to key geological questions and environmental challenges.

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