Finding his engineering “fit”

When Nathan Youmans was a general engineering sophomore, still trying to decide which major would be the best fit, he attended one of the mining and minerals engineering department field trips to the Hokie Stone quarry, just outside Blacksburg.

“Seeing all of the mining processes involved, like drilling, blasting, equipment selection, and maintenance, for a material that is so prized by any Hokie really got me excited,” recalled the Alexandria, Virginia, native.

Soon he found himself at the doorstep of mining and minerals engineering, reaching out to faculty and mining engineering students, to learn more about the program. Nathan had found his “engineering fit,” and spent the next four years working hard both academically and professionally, as he pursued his degree. He was particularly impressed with the hand’s-on nature of the degree.

Mining is Hands-On, Minds-On

“Being a mining engineer not only gave me the ability to apply theories in a lab, but it also gave me crucial hands-on experience,” Nathan explained. “As an undergraduate, I got to work 1900 feet underground as a mining engineering intern. This was a great opportunity to see my major in action, where tens of thousands of tons of material were mined daily. It also gave me the chance to observe industrial-scale processing equipment, similar to the smaller machines I had used in my labs.”

As a junior, Nathan accepted an offer to become an undergraduate researcher, working alongside Aaron Noble, department associate professor, on research projects related to mineral processing. This experience gave him a new perspective on how a mineral product is produced and its relationship to broader principles of sustainability.

“Although these research projects were motivated by economics, I realized that they were equally important in improving the environmental impacts associated with traditional mineral separation methods,” explained Nathan.

A Green Approach

Nathan’s undergraduate research involved analyzing and testing materials normally considered to be waste by-products in mining operations. “In my work with Dr. Noble, I recovered valuable materials that would normally be needlessly discarded into mine waste ponds,” said Youmans, “and I realized I could reduce that amount of waste.”

His observations as an undergraduate researcher were reinforced in courses he took in pursuit of a green engineering minor. “I started to better understand mining’s impacts and wanted to look for ways to minimize negative environmental effects.” As a result, Nathan started considering a graduate degree in the area of mineral processing. “That specialization and kind of research can improve how we safely process and produce mineral products,” said Nathan.

Looking ahead

Nathan has been accepted to the department’s graduate program and in the fall will continue focusing on mineral processing as he pursues his master’s degree. “I believe the work I have done already, and will do as a graduate student, can make significant economic and environmental contributions for mining and society.”

But he won’t forget the past four years as a Hokie, such as attending football games at Lane Stadium, cheering in unison with the entire college. "The best football game for me was the UNC game that went to 6 OT. The Hokies won, of course!" He also enjoyed the close-knit community of the department. "Being in a small department made it easy to form friendships with everyone in my class, as well as my professors. I’m glad to continue to be a part of that.”