The people, science and technology behind discovery

Dr. Catherine Aimone-Martin
Blasting her way to the top

by Graham Chandler on March 8, 2012 profiles

When you’re in Arizona blasting a new quarry beside America’s largest nuclear power plant or Hawaii blasting trenches near critical undersea fiber optic tsunami warning cables, it’s imperative you know what you’re doing.  

Dr.Catherine Aimone-Martin does — close-in blasting is just one of her specialties. Since 1971 she has been studying, lecturing, writing, consulting, blasting, teaching, analyzing her way through a career spanning from iron mine geological engineer to Emeritus Professor of Mineral Engineering at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and running her own blasting and vibration specialty firm.

Growing up in the small town of Chelsea just west of Ann Arbor, Michigan, geology and the outdoors were her fun. “We were constantly camping, biking, making tree forts, always on the go,” she recalls. She remembers learning to fly fish from her father and winning prizes for watercolor paintings in school, but rocks were her main love. “I was always interested in working with earth materials, first with rocks then with soils. I wanted to study their formation, uses, and economic value.”

That curiosity took her to Michigan Technological University where she graduated in 1971 with a Bachelor of Science in Geological and Mining Engineering. She landed her first job as a geological engineer doing short-term exploration, geophysics, and ore reserve modeling at Steep Rock Iron Mines in northern Ontario.

Which further piqued her curious side. “The design of constructing in rock was intriguing,” she says. “Working in the mining industry provided design challenges in rock excavations and construction tempered by the economical value of the extracted mineral.” Striking this balance during the depressed metals markets of the early 1970s she found an exciting challenge.

Working in other mines through the decade, market-driven forces continued to shape her interests. “I was intrigued with energy resources development just as the second oil crisis began in 1979,” she says. “US leaders were calling for eastern power generating plants to convert from oil to coal. It was an exciting time.” Coal production increased rapidly and big changes in explosives technology were happening, along with new federal regulations limiting off-site blasting effects.

“The combination of these factors contributed to my research interests in coal mine blasting,” she says. And so began a new career direction: graduate school.By decade’s end, Aimone-Martin was a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. “Research funding opportunities from the US Bureau of Mines allowed me to work with blasters in Appalachia and the expanding mines of the west to apply new explosive products for better control and lowered impacts on adjacent communities.” Once she experienced the successes of her first few test blasts she was hooked.

The research was hectic. “During the first year of funding, I must have visited over 85 mine sites in ten states,” she recalls. Of these, she focused on five siteswhere the new regulatory constraints were most challenging, to conduct intensive field studies — in the steep mountain slopes of Appalachia. “We concentrated on blasting productivity, vibration control, and new product applications to achieve overall lower drilling and blasting costs.” Along with the fieldwork, development of a three-dimensional algorithm to compute blast-induced strains in rock was her academic challenge. “In the end, the model demonstrated a good correlation between the predicted rock response failure strain using innovative blast designs and fragmentation measurements in the field,” she says. Her fragmentations wowed the blasters and mine managers she worked with; they saved hours of ‘digging out’ the waste rock.

With a freshly minted doctorate in hand in 1981 came another career turn. Aimone-Martin says she has always been inspired by people she meets. “My inspirations come from their dreams and ultimate successes,” she says. “I think that is why I became a university professor.”For the next 25 years she inspired undergraduates and graduates as Professor of Mineral Engineering and Civil Engineering at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, New Mexico, where she’s now Emeritus Professor of Mineral Engineering.

Retirement wasn’t in the cards however. There were yet new career directions. “When I retired from teaching at New Mexico Tech, my consulting practice emphasis changed from mining and quarrying to the construction blasting industry,” she says. It provided new thrills. “Construction projects are very fast paced, operate with extremely tight budgets, and are close-in to inhabited or critical structures. Every rock excavation site presents new challenges.” She says safety and the community are paramount. “We can achieve effective and controlled blasts without damaging adjacent structures, and minimizing disturbance to neighbors.” One of her recent projects was blasting for the new Greenwich Street Corridor at New York City’s World Trade Center project site.

Has she had scary moments? “Believe it or not, the scariest time of my life was knowing I had to support two children alone while working in what was at that time (1977) a man’s world,” she says. “Otherwise, I am not easily scared knowing that our first priority every day in the field is safety.”

It’s hard to believe, but along the way she managed to contribute to the 1992 SME Mining Engineering Handbook and give five dozen or so short courses and training seminars ranging from blast damage litigation to regression analysis for blast vibrations. Topping that off are 60-odd academic presentations and publications.

But still no retirement intentions. She plans to continue her close-in blasting work and blaster training.“When I can no longer climb ladders and haul equipment, I will reminisce on how good life was to me with my fly rod and watercolors,” she muses.