Growing up in a small mining community in Michigan, Travis Olds descended from a family where mining was the lifeblood for many generations.
As a boy, Olds was fascinated by the rocks and crystals that his dad would bring home in his lunch pail from the mines. He spent hours hunting for rare and striking specimens.
“I became obsessed with digging for strange and pretty crystals, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a great place for a fledgling collector because there are hundreds of mines there,” he says.
As a postdoctoral scholar at Washington State University, Olds built a career from his childhood love of finding unusual minerals. He discovered and named 18 new minerals, many of which contain uranium. He’s hunted underground for them all over the world from the Czech Republic to the deserts of Southern Utah, and even the drawers of very old mineral collections, where sometimes new minerals can be found hiding.
If Olds suspects that he has found a previously unknown mineral, he tries to isolate a pure crystal of it and determine the structure. If the structure doesn’t match that of any previously known mineral, then it is “new,” and can be given a unique name. A commission at the International Mineralogical Association then votes on the name and soundness of the classification.
Olds has named minerals he discovered after the physicist Richard Feynman—feynmanite—and for the unique paddle wheels found in the structure of paddlewheelite. He also named the mineral redcanyonite after Red Canyon in Utah, the site of an ancient ocean where Olds and his colleagues have made multiple mineral discoveries.
Olds also worked with John McCloy, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, looking at ways to safely store and dispose of nuclear waste.
Read more about Travis Olds and his mineral hunt.