World-leading diamond expert joins Royal Society

Graham Pearson recognized by world’s oldest national scientific institution for outstanding contributions to diamond studies and mantle geochemistry.

Graham Pearson

Geochemist Graham Pearson was named a fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his outstanding contributions to advancing the field of diamond studies. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

Graham Pearson, a Canada Excellence Research Chair Laureate in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has joined the esteemed ranks of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest national scientific institution in continuous existence. Founded in 1660, with previous fellows including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking, the Royal Society honours scientists who have made substantial contributions to the advancement of science. 

“It’s a huge honour and recognition,” says Pearson. “When you look at the names of the previous incumbents and fellows, it’s pretty humbling to have your name added to that list. I was very pleasantly surprised.”

Pearson’s research investigating processes in the Earth’s mantle, paired with the world-class facilities, training opportunities and collaborations he has cultivated since coming to the University of Alberta 13 years ago, has made the university world-renowned in the field of diamond studies.

It was Pearson’s already notable reputation in the field that caught the eye of Thomas Stachel in 2008. Stachel, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Canada Research Chair in Diamonds, was tasked with finding a candidate for the Canada Excellence Research Chairs program that would be an asset to the department, and it quickly became obvious to him that Pearson was the ideal choice.

“It was clear that Graham would go very far,” says Stachel. “He already had an exceptional record of publication and achievement in various areas.”

Pearson arrived in 2010 from Durham University as Canada Excellence Research Chair in Arctic Resources, and soon began setting up his lab and building collaborations with both colleagues and industry. 

“It seemed like a very good strategic move to team up with people here and come to Alberta because it really allowed me to develop much better industry relationships, and those relationships have been key to providing amazing research samples as well as training opportunities for our graduate students,” he says.

Unearthing deeper knowledge about diamonds

One of Pearson’s main research areas is the study of diamonds — or more specifically, the vast quantities of information that even the smallest diamonds hold. 

“My particular interest is in what diamonds can tell you about the deepest parts of the Earth that you have no other means of understanding,” he says. 

Pearson still prioritizes going out in the field to collect samples himself whenever possible. In fact, it was his 2014 discovery of ringwoodite trapped within a diamond that reignited research interest in superdeep diamonds, an area he specializes in. 

As he explains, the deepest mineral samples obtained by drilling come from depths of about 12 kilometres underground. Superdeep diamonds can come from depths of over 700 kilometres. And, unlike with seismology, researchers have more than images to work with.

“The beauty of diamonds is that they give you real samples to study, to look at, to undertake physical tests on in the lab, from depths that you just couldn’t imagine getting samples from any other way.”

Pearson has also made several advances in how diamonds are studied. For example, his group was the first to develop a technique that allowed the dating of single diamonds, providing a more detailed and accurate picture of when diamonds were forming — a marked improvement on the then-standard method of dating diamonds in batches. 

However, his work isn’t restricted solely to diamonds. Many of the techniques and approaches used to study diamonds can be applied to other minerals and resources, broadening the impact Pearson’s lab has on the field of geoscience. 

“The whole evolution of continents is his playing field,” says Stachel.

Pearson is at the helm of the Arctic Resources lab, a node within the Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis, which he set up upon his arrival at the U of A.

“We have probably the largest and most diverse array of geoanalytical equipment in Canada that we use to apply to a really broad spectrum of mineral resource development problems,” says Pearson.

“You just can’t play in the top league unless you have absolutely top-notch facilities, and what Graham has built is really among the finest in the world,” adds Stachel, the centre’s director.

Training the next generation of diamond explorers

Pearson is also involved in training the next generation of researchers as director of the Diamond Exploration and Research Training School. Launched in September 2016, the program gives graduate students the opportunity to undertake placements within industry in addition to their research, allowing them to gain a hands-on perspective of what their role as a geologist in industry might look like.

“It’s been very rewarding and very successful,” he says.

According to Pearson, graduates of the training school have a 100 per cent success rate of getting jobs in industry, if that’s the path they choose, and the combination of the expert-led training and first-class facilities has made the U of A a destination for graduate students from around the world looking to pursue careers in geoscience. 

Stachel often co-supervises students with Pearson, and has seen first-hand the way he champions the trainees he oversees. 

“Graham is incredibly good at pushing students onto the stage and into the limelight,” says Stachel. “I think he has a very good record of successful students not just because of his scientific knowledge, but also because of the mentorship.”

Pearson, who is already a member of the Royal Society of Canada, is one of just 59 fellows from around the globe inducted into the Royal Society this year. 

“These individuals have pushed forward the boundaries of their respective fields and had a beneficial influence on the world beyond,” says Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society. 

Never one to rest on his laurels, Pearson plans to pivot his lab’s focus in a slightly new direction in the coming years.

“We’re refocusing our efforts at developing technologies to help with finding and evaluating critical metal deposits, which I think in the latter stages of my career is kind of ethically and morally the responsible thing to do, to try and help facilitate this switch to green energy.”

According to Stachel, Pearson is likely to receive many more accolades for his pioneering work in the years to come.

“He is really one of our big stars at the University of Alberta.”