Breaking Ground and Breaking Barriers: 40+ Years in the Mining Business

Nov. 20, 2023

Alumna Barbara Filas Inspires Future Engineers at UArizona Homecoming with Her Remarkable Mining Journey


University of Arizona alumna, Barbara "Barb" Filas

The University of Arizona College of Engineering’s Homecoming 2023 festivities were enlivened this year when 1978 mining engineering alumna Barbara Filas visited her alma mater to discuss her noteworthy career in mining. As the 18th Annual W.C. Lacy Distinguished Lecture Series speaker, Filas drew on her experience breaking gender barriers, leading companies, and mentoring up-and-coming engineers to offer sage advice for young students following in her footsteps. 

“Work hard and have fun,” she told the audience in her lecture, "40+ Years in the Mining Business: Some Things I’ve Learned."   

Filas said she used to tell her kids, “If you love what you do for your job, you never work a day in your life,” but she also cautioned, “Whatever you do, never ever compromise on your ethics or your reputation because you’ve got to keep those spotless.” 

One of the first women to graduate from UArizona’s mining engineering program, Filas shared her thoughts about the importance of lifelong learning, the advantages of specializing in a particular skill, and how to aid future generations of young mining engineers in their careers. 

“Learning starts the day you’re born, and it ends the day you die,” Filas said. During her career, the licensed professional engineer and third-generation miner has worked on every continent except Antarctica, traversing terrain that included the coal mines of Illinois and the boardroom of a global mining firm as president of Geovic Mining Corp. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, and was instrumental in developing an online professional master’s degree in mining engineering and management at the Colorado School of Mines. 

“Whatever you decide to do needs to be something that you’re passionate about, whether that’s at the mine in operations or whether that’s at a service business,” Filas said. “You have to decide when you progress in your career where you want to get to at the end of the day. Do I want to be the CEO of the company, or do I want to be the manager of environmental or tech services, because there are very different dynamics involved.” 

Filas stressed the importance of picking a path that provides the greatest joy. “Figure out what really makes you happy,” she said, illustrating the choices that led to her many leadership roles. “For me, it was that I didn’t want to be told what to do, and I wanted to travel.” 

On the importance of giving back, Filas said, “Share what you’ve learned. When I was a young person and throughout my career, I always found a high-status friend who could help me. But if you’re going to have a mentor, you have to be a mentor.” Filas is particularly proud of her efforts in providing mentorship to help young women take on leadership roles in the mining industry. 

She stressed the importance of young mining engineers providing encouragement to high school seniors and incoming freshmen. “They relate more to you than they do to me,” she said, wryly acknowledging her gray hair. “When you’re a young engineer you’re busy, your life's changing. It’s hard to find the time to help recruit, but giving back is one of the most important things you can do throughout your career.” 

Filas urged her audience to never forget how they achieved their success. “You have to remember how you got there,” Filas said, adding that an accomplished career can be credited to the help of many people and institutions along the way. “The University of Arizona gave me the foundation that I needed to be successful. I didn’t do it on my own. I had all those mentors and companies who helped get me started. Don’t forget, when you’re looking for ways to give back, that your alma mater was important to what you do.” 

The Annual W.C. Lacy Distinguished Lecture series is a tribute to Willard C. "Bill" Lacy, the first head of the combined Department of Mining and Geological Engineering at the University of Arizona. Chosen for their renown and outstanding contributions to the mining industry, speakers share personal experiences, examine case studies, and offer best practices for the modern mining engineer.