Funded PhD in sedimentology / isotope geology

Earth system processes stored in the detrital record: Industry-academia partnership to resolve our planets past, and resource future

Project background

The geological record provides our only opportunity to track the history of our planet through deep time to answer existential questions around the development of a habitable planet ultimately capable of developing intelligent life. Unfortunately, the geological record is fragmentary and the primary record from rocks may be destroyed or modified through Earth history. However, despite the inevitable destruction of a primary rock record, original geological information may be retained in resistant detrital minerals weathered from the parent rock and ultimately stored in sedimentary basins.

Zircon has become one of the most commonly analysed detrital mineral phases to understand tectonomagmatic events and track sediment routing from source to sink, ultimately providing the longest record of Earth history stretching back 4.4 billion years. In particular, detrital zircon U-Pb geochronology addresses a host of geological problems from the scale of a single formation/deposit (max depositional age, provenance) to entire cratonic blocks (paleogeography, geodynamic setting, etc.). Numerous other accessory mineral phases hold equivalent potential to zircon to better track crustal and later sedimentary system histories but need further exploration. Additional geochemical tools, such as Hf-, and O-isotopes, trace element chemistries can capture information about the composition, or age of parental material, while thermochronological techniques such as U-Th/He and fission track dating can access information about uplift and reburial histories. Finally, grain shape and novel composition analysis tools, developed by the Timescales of Mineral System Group at Curtin, allow quantification of active time in sedimentary systems (transport, recycling, etc.). Collectively, these techniques enable detangling of full grain histories. With advances in analytical techniques, substantial global data compilations are also now available for meta-analysis and, via newly developed statistical tools, allow interrogation of global-scale events (e.g. timing of earliest continental crust).

Heavy Mineral Sands (HMS) are a relatively common feature of modern and ancient shorelines. Despite several decades of exploration successes in the HMS industry, particularly in Australia, significant uncertainties remain with respect to the controls on HMS sourcing, accumulation and ultimate preservation. With a lack of significant new discoveries, new thinking must be applied to better understand these complex systems and their settings. At the same time, sites of economic heavy mineral accumulation represent exceptional archives of Earth history.

This work will involve applying advanced quantitative mineral fingerprinting and provenance analysis such as automated heavy mineral compositional analysis and double/triple dating/characterisation of detrital mineral phases from globally significant sites. Integrating the aforementioned techniques across various target minerals will allow a complete picture of grain origin and transport history and reconstruction of detailed source region geological context. The work will: (i) fingerprint specific fertile source rocks, (ii) understand the crystallisation/metamorphic and exhumation histories of source regions, (iii) reveal cryptic aspects of intermediate detrital mineral grain histories between erosion and ultimate incorporation into a final sedimentary package (quantify multi-cycle burial-lithification-erosion). Ultimately, this project will provide improved understanding of fundamental aspects of regional geological histories, planetary crustal evolution, and contextualise world class heavy mineral deposit genesis.

Specifically, this project will align with an existing industry and State Government funded project. In addition to the PhD stipend, support for fieldwork, analytical and travel costs, publications, etc. will be fully covered by the research group. The global footprint of industry research partners provides access to an extensive archive of sample material.

Applicant requirements

  • Must have a BSc Hons (first class) or Masters (by research) in geoscience (ideally related to source-to-sink/provenance sedimentology, geochronology or thermochronology) by the time of appointment.
  • We expect a solid background in geological processes and sedimentology or geochronology/geochemistry (LA-ICPMS U-Pb geochronology and/or (U-Th)/He/fission-track thermochronology expertise is especially valuable).
  • The candidate requires the ability to work both independently and with a broad range of people from diverse backgrounds, as well as evidence of strong oral and written scientific English language competencies.
  • The candidate requires a demonstrated commitment to publish results in scientific journals. Evidence of research experience, academic awards/publications/presentations at conferences is desirable.

Application details

Further information about the project and the specific application requirements may be found through the Curtin Scholarships website -

The deadline for complete applications (note specific requirements of endorsements on the scholarships webpage) is 13/08/2021 (Western Australia time, GMT+8). Preferably, applicants would start as soon as practically possible from September 2021 when admissions open for successful applicants but we recognise arranging visas and travel during the pandemic may impact this (where relevant).

To discuss this project please send an email preferably including a CV, to Dr Milo Barham ( Selection of candidates will be a competitive process.

About Curtin University and the School of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Curtin is a dynamic, research-intensive University consistently ranked in the top 1% of universities worldwide. Curtin was recently ranked 43rd in the world for Geology in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2021. The disciplines of Geology and Geochemistry have both been awarded the maximum ranking of 5 in the recent federal government's "Excellence in Research for Australia" assessments.

The successful candidate would join a rapidly expanding dynamic research group - Timescales of Mineral Systems - within the highly ranked School of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

These factors, coupled with excellent analytical facilities (Ion Microprobe, Laser Ablation Split Stream Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometers, various petrographic and electron microscopes, etc.) ensures that candidates will be hosted within a vibrant and dynamic research environment and will receive exceptional research training.

posted: 22 July 2021     Please mention EARTHWORKS when responding to this advertisement.