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Math, Magic, and a Lost City of Gold

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In late May, Aurania Resources, a mineral exploration company, announced the discovery of Logroño de los Caballeros, a lost 16th-century Spanish gold mining camp in Ecuador.

“More than four hundred years have passed since Spanish activity at Logroño ceased, and even though many of the records have been lost, what survives is a compelling narrative of gold mining in what would have been one of the most remote and isolated areas on Earth,” Keith Barron, president and CEO of Aurania, said in a statement.

Van Gurley, ENG ’92, SM ’92, EMBA ’18, President and CEO of Metron

Credit: Metron

Logroño’s historical narrative is obviously compelling, but so is the story of how Aurania and Metron, a scientific consulting firm, ultimately found it. Barron and the late Octavio Latorre, a renowned historian, visited the Vatican and other library archives around the world to find clues about Logroño and Sevilla del Oro, another lost city of gold. Aurania’s CEO also explored Ecuador’s Cutucú mountains to determine where the two missing gold camps might be.

As for Metron, typically focused on problems of national defense, their contributions had less to do with fieldwork and more to do with applying Bayesian search theory. Rooted in Bayesian statistics, this field has the unique capability of combining quantitative information, such as that obtained from fieldwork, with the qualitative information gleaned from expert review of historical archives into a single probabilistic model.

“Our recruiters coined an unofficial slogan for Metron: ‘It’s not magic, it’s math,’” says Van Gurley, ENG ’92, SM ’92, EMBA ’18, president and CEO of Metron. “What we really do is deliver innovative scientific solutions to the toughest problems that matter the most to our clients.”

Finding the lost

Usually, Metron is tasked with solving problems that concern classified military technologies and matters of national security. However, the company sometimes finds itself in the public spotlight, like when its use of Bayesian search theory led to the recovery of Air France Flight 447 in 2011.

French aviation authorities sought their help after two years of unsuccessful attempts to locate the wreckage of the Paris-bound flight from Rio de Janeiro. Following the methodologies developed and refined by Lawrence Stone, former Metron CEO and current chief scientist, a team from Metron processed all the information collected by the search teams and produced a probability map for the wreckage. Using this map, the search team was able to locate the debris field of Flight 447 in a matter of days.

Stone first became acquainted with Bayesian search theory in 1968, when he joined a team of mathematical consultants aiding the U.S. Navy in its efforts to find the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that went missing near the Azores. By collecting all the available information, formulating reasonable hypotheses about the location, creating probability maps and search paths, and revising the probabilities accordingly, they were able to accurately predict where the missing submarine was. The Navy subsequently found the Scorpion on the North Atlantic seafloor 3,000 meters beneath the surface and 400 miles off the coast of the Azores.

“After that, I was completely hooked. Nothing could be more fun than this and I’ve been working in search theory ever since,” says Stone, who subsequently wrote The Theory of Optimal Search, a classic text on the subject.

Lawrence Stone, Chief Scientist at Metron

Credit: Metron

In addition to the Scorpion and Air France 447, Stone and Metron also contributed to the Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System (SAROPS), a Bayesian search tool used by the U.S. Coast Guard. Though as Stone explains, it was the 1988 discovery of the SS Central America, a steamer loaded with gold that sank in 1857, that piqued Aurania’s interest.

“The story of finding the lost ship of gold caught Keith Barron’s attention, so he decided, ‘Well if they can find a gold ship, maybe they can help me find a lost city of gold,’” recalls Stone.

Metron helped not by traversing the jungles of Ecuador and scouring the Vatican libraries, but by processing reams of historical, geological, geochemical, and geophysical information, and transforming the hard and subjective data into actionable probabilities. They did this for the searches for Logroño and Sevilla, as well as for determining the likely locations of deposits of gold, silver, and copper.

These were significant accomplishments for the firm, but as Gurley is quick to point out, they do more than apply Bayesian statistics to quests for lost cities of gold.

“We’re trying to build tools to help operators make critically important decisions, under great stress, that can mean life or death. They have to trust our tools, and they have to understand why the tools are telling them to do something that may appear counterintuitive,” he explains. “If we put our tools in front of operators and they don’t trust them, then we have failed.”

Solving the unsolvable

Gurley, who spent 26 years in the Navy and rose to the rank of captain before joining Metron in 2013, traces his love of science, engineering, and problem-solving to growing up in Orlando, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

“I’m a child of the Apollo program,” he says. “My dad was an aerospace engineer who worked for Lockheed Martin, we had neighbors who worked at NASA, and I could watch the liftoffs from my front yard.”

Credit: Metron

Early in his naval career, Gurley was admitted into the joint program for Navy officers at the MIT-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. He entered Course 13 (which merged with Course 2 in 2005) and earned dual degrees in ocean engineering, which prepared him for projects like restructuring undersea warfare support programs and fielding major new oceanography technologies. When he left the Navy 20 years later and joined Metron as a senior manager, Gurley felt right at home.

“These are the smartest people in the world, and they can actually solve all of these problems I had been thinking about for decades while in the Navy,” says Gurley. “At Metron, I found a group able and willing to focus time, attention, and talent on solving the problems that everyone else thought were unsolvable. They are committed to building better tools and capabilities for the men and women the country sends in harm’s way.”

The new role initially focused on managing research and development initiatives, but Gurley quickly realized company leadership was looking to transition. Founder and then-CEO Thomas Corwin approached him about the possibility of his advancement, so Gurley suggested that he attend the MIT Executive MBA (EMBA) program at MIT Sloan. Metron’s leadership agreed.

“I was still looking for novel solutions, but my focus was moving from purely technical problems to the larger business challenges facing Metron in our growth from a small to mid-tier business,” says Gurley. “By the end of the EMBA program, I was amazed at how much I had grown in the areas where I knew I was weak, as well as the areas where I thought I was already strong from my leadership experiences in the Navy. I came out of the program with a much richer set of ideas, tools, and perspectives that I could immediately apply at Metron.”

Stone could not agree more. “When Van finished the program, he brought a business orientation and knowledge to running Metron that we really needed at that time. It was a very smart decision on his part, and I think it’s paid off dramatically.”

Metron promoted Gurley to COO during his first year in the program. After graduation, he became president and CEO when Corwin officially retired from the C-suite at the end of 2018.

Digging for more

There will always be missing cities of gold, rescue operations, and wreckage recoveries, and current and future iterations of Metron’s methods will be there to assist these efforts. As Gurley previously explained, however, the scientific consulting firm’s primary focus is creating helpful, accessible tools for the people who need them in the most extreme situations.

From developing neural network architectures that monitor aircraft traffic patterns, identify anomalous behavior, and predict risks for air traffic controllers, to working on long-duration autonomy for undersea vehicles and deep space exploration, Metron tackles problems whose difficulties are immense and solutions complex. Yet Gurley, Stone, and their colleagues at Metron thrive on such challenges.

“It’s amazing to see the work that gets done and the new ideas that come forward when you take really smart folks and focus them on really cool problems that they want to work on,” says Gurley.

For more info Andrew Husband Senior Writer & Editor, OER (617) 715-5933