Down to Earth With: Geologist and paleontologist David Wilcots

David Wilcots is a senior geologist and manager of environmental projects at Sci-Tek Consultants, Inc., in Philadelphia. He is also a paleontologist and participates in fossil hunting expeditions in the West. Credit: Thea Boodhoo. David Wilcots is a senior geologist and manager of environmental projects at Sci-Tek Consultants, Inc., in Philadelphia. He is also a paleontologist and participates in fossil hunting expeditions in the West. Credit: Thea Boodhoo.

by Thea Boodhoo

When David Wilcots was 4 years old, his parents took him to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City where he encountered his first giant dinosaur skeleton: a roughly 27-meter-long sauropod named Apatosaurus (though at the time it was still popularly known as Brontosaurus). “That just blew my mind,” he remembers. His passion for paleontology grew, branching from dinosaurs into early mammals, and led him to major in geology at Temple University in Philadelphia. In 1988, he earned a master’s in geology at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

But then, things didn’t go as planned. “When I got out of grad school, I looked for jobs in paleo, but couldn’t find any,” he recalls. “Environmental geology was the next best thing.” He began consulting with business and government agencies, and as time went on, his second choice of career grew on him.

The Business of Geology

Today, Wilcots is the senior geologist and manager of environmental projects at Sci-Tek Consultants, Inc., in Philadelphia. His team includes civil and geotechnical engineers, environmental scientists, data analysts and software programmers. They examine landscapes; assess environments; and design, plan and document environmental matters for a broad client list that includes municipalities, airports, lawyers, bankers, real estate developers and insurers.

The work sites are as diverse as the clientele. Over the course of his career, Wilcots has visited sites where companies do everything from retread airplane tires to cover pretzels in chocolate. He has been to highly contaminated federal Superfund sites, and he has even dabbled in the energy sector — spending one brutally cold Pennsylvania winter helping with the installation of a new wind farm.

Environmental geologists, he explains, spend a lot of time in the field, which is part of the appeal for him. Shortly after our interview, he was bound for a different kind of field: an airfield. “I’ll be out on the runway, at the airport, supervising a drill rig. So that’s a huge difference from being at a desk behind a computer screen.”

Another part of the job that he finds enjoyable bestows an additional benefit. “You meet so many different kinds of people, young and old, and your communication skills just naturally develop.” Interviewing municipal officials, property owners and tenants is a requirement of the job, but on any given day, he says, he might find himself interacting with anyone from attorneys to insurers to operations managers at manufacturing facilities.

Most days involve some time at a desk, writing proposals or reports, and he has a hand in marketing and sales. “I’ve been an environmental geologist for about 23 years, so business development is a significant part of what I do,” he says. Unlike in academia, where funding primarily comes from grants, the business side of geology depends on bringing in new clients, and pitching projects to existing clients.

A Paleontologist on the Side

Although his days are filled with environmental geology projects, paleontology is never far from his mind. “Back in 1993 or so I got a call from John Alexander, [who was then] at the American Museum of Natural History; he was going to go out West to look for Eocene [fossils] in Wyoming.” Wilcots gladly signed on with Alexander, and since then he has joined paleontology expeditions in the American West with groups from the Utah Geological Survey, the University of Utah, and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.

The participants of summer expeditions include professional paleontologists as well as volunteers like himself. The volunteers, he says, come from “a whole gamut of backgrounds: people who are retired from teaching at the college level or high school level, empty-nest moms, teenagers,” and even people who spend the rest of the year as carpenters, lawyers, mechanical engineers or retail professionals.

This past summer, Wilcots spent four days at a dinosaur excavation site in northeastern Montana with paleontologist Gregory Wilson of the Burke Museum working on what is known as the Tufts-Love Tyrannosaurus rex, which according to the museum is the 15th T. rex specimen that includes a skull. The specimen is named for its discoverers, Burke Museum volunteers Jason Love and Luke Tufts.

After that, he drove south to his usual sites in Wyoming, where, each summer, he continues to hunt for Eocene mammal fossils with Alexander — now also at the Burke Museum.

The evolution of mammals has long fascinated Wilcots, especially the phase after the Mesozoic, when mammals began filling the ecological niches left by the extinction of the nonavian dinosaurs. “If you’re studying the Eocene, you’re studying how mammals took it to the next level.” It was during this era when many of today’s major mammal groups first appeared, he explains, along with mammals that are no longer extant, like the giant titanotheres — which were related to horses and rhinos — and hooved carnivores like Andrewsarchus and Mesonyx.

Deep Time Meets High Tech

Despite describing himself as “not technological,” Wilcots avidly follows technological advances in both geology and paleontology. When I asked him what he thought the most exciting areas are in each field, his answers weren’t about new discoveries or theories — they were about technology.

Wilcots noted the major impact that geographic information systems, or GIS, has had on the geosciences and his own career is no exception. “When you’re writing a report or submitting that report to a regulatory agency, and you’re showing graphs from the [GIS] model that you put the data in, that’s powerful,” he says. By supporting your testimony with computer-generated models to express your data, Wilcots says, the finished project “can be very convincing to a client.”

When it comes to paleontology, he is most excited about the advancements in three-dimensional scanning and printing. “The ability to print things in three dimensions and three-dimensionally map specimens or fossil sites is really changing the game,” he says. For example, he describes scanning a 2-meter dinosaur thighbone: “You can three-dimensionally scan the bone and then save it on a disk or a thumb drive and print it out at another location.” This process makes sharing fossil replicas vastly easier, he says.

Wilcots stands in front of a drill rig on an environmental geology project. He works on a variety of projects assessing local geology for environmental and engineering site evaluations. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots. Wilcots stands in front of a drill rig on an environmental geology project. He works on a variety of projects assessing local geology for environmental and engineering site evaluations. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots.

And there’s another interesting application for tiny fossils: Imagine taking a very small specimen, “say the fossil chewing tooth of a mouse — it’s really tiny, the size of a pinhead,” he says. “But with three-dimensional scanning and printing, you can blow that up 50 times larger so you can really study it.” This could be especially useful for researching Triassic and Jurassic mammals, he says, most of which were mouse-sized or smaller. “You need all the help you can get.”

In his free time, Wilcots enjoys volunteering on paleontology expeditions in the U.S. West. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots. In his free time, Wilcots enjoys volunteering on paleontology expeditions in the U.S. West. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots.

Wilcots also enjoys sharing his passion for paleontology and geology with a wider audience. In March, he gave a presentation, “Center City Sedimentary Stratigraphy,” on the geology underlying downtown Philadelphia as visible in two excavation sites that exposed the Trenton Gravel Formation. He also speaks to school groups and has created a website, Dinosaurs, Fossils and Adventures, an online paleontology resource for young people.

When it came to choosing a mascot for the website, despite his professed enthusiasm for carnivores, he went with an East African plant-eating dinosaur, Kentrosaurus. “I wanted to pick a dinosaur that was cool-looking, but didn’t get much play in the media,” he says. Kentrosaurus “has plates and shoulder spikes. I thought, ‘That’s a really neat combination.’” Some might say the same of Wilcots’ melding of part-time paleontology and full-time geology, both of which seem to suit him perfectly.

 

 

 

"Greening" stormwater in Philadelphia

When environmental geologist David Wilcots joined Sci-Tek Consultants in 2014, he became involved with the Philadelphia Water Department’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure project. Sci-Tek’s goal was to redesign certain areas of the city’s urban landscape so that “less stormwater goes into the sewage system” and more goes into the ground, explains Wilcots. Doing so not only helps prevent flooding, but also lightens the load on sewage treatment plants. He manages a team of designers, data analysts and environmental scientists who are “gathering the stormwater flow data from around the city at hundreds of locations.”

The project often focuses on small strips of green — tree trenches, detention basins, bioswales or bump-outs, to name a few — in the midst of the concrete jungle. Tree trenches, for example, “are curbed strips of grass that hold trees,” he describes. “They may be along the side of a building or might separate the north and southbound lanes of a busy street, or they may be in large parking lots to provide areas where water can infiltrate. They’re sort of like elliptical islands of grass.” Bump-outs are similar but protrude from sidewalks.

A stormwater bioswale, like this one in Philadelphia, helps slow the flooding of paved areas by diverting water downward, away from the sewer system. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots. A stormwater bioswale, like this one in Philadelphia, helps slow the flooding of paved areas by diverting water downward, away from the sewer system. Credit: courtesy of David Wilcots.

I was fascinated by this project because we’ve all seen, parked next to or even walked over these common features of city roadways, but we rarely, if ever, hear their names or think about what’s below them. And they’re useful for much more than shade and aesthetic value: “All these features are covered with grass, but below the grass is soil that is conducive to infiltration,” Wilcots says. Soils with a lot of sand are best at allowing water to filter down, “then below the sand will be a network of large rocks and, possibly, slotted piping that further promotes downward infiltration of stormwater.” The project is still ongoing, and cities across the United States are now implementing methods that Wilcots and others refined in the streets of Philadelphia. “This is going on around the country,” Wilcots says. “Philadelphia is on the leading edge of it.”

Thea Boodhoo

Boodhoo (TheaBoodhoo.com) is currently an officer and director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. She lives in San Francisco. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - 06:00

Thea Boodhoo

Boodhoo (TheaBoodhoo.com) is currently an officer and director of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs. She lives in San Francisco. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018 - 06:00

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