In a world defined by cities reaching for the sky, Dr. David Gillette has dedicated his life to looking below the surface at the world that once was. Dave is many things: a paleontologist, a geologist, and a biologist, who studies the history of the Earth through the lens of evolution. Although Dave is retired, he is still active within the research and outreach community. With his trusty rock hammer, Dave explores the life that once existed on Earth millions of years ago, taking opportunities as they come to him to explore new areas and find new fossils, as well as to share his work with the public. 

Dave grew up in Michigan as a farm kid, with a hands-on lifestyle that would follow him into his career. In high school, Dave was interested in the adaptation of plants and animals and ultimately wanted to pursue a biology degree as a follow-up to his youth interests, and he did so, at Michigan State University.  Here, he was exposed to evolution as an idea to explain those adaptations he observed, and he explored opportunities into the study of geology and geologic time. “I was hooked,” Dave began working with research on reptiles and amphibians, and he never looked back. 

Dave continued his education at Southern Methodist University in geology and paleontology, alongside holding a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “This is where I began research on a topic that now, 50 years later, I am still working on.”

“Like all other paleontologists, I’m an opportunist. As opportunities appeared, I took them.”

Dave did his dissertation on North American Glyptodons, which are giant, ancient ancestors of the armadillo who flourished in South America, and some in North America. They have a rigid shell, and can sometimes be the size of a Volkswagen Beetle! Dave studies the evolution of these mammals, how they got here, how they lived, and how they went extinct.

What got you interested in this research?

Throughout his career, Dave studied the Columbian Mammoth (an extinct species that inhabited North and Central America millions of years ago), ground sloths, and saber-tooth cats. “With every discovery I make, I am fascinated with what I find.” Dave also studied dinosaurs, doing many excavations and even naming several. One of them was a giant Seismosaurus from New Mexico. 

Other dinosaurs might seem more familiar, such as the fossils on display in the lobby of the Museum of Northern Arizona. Dave describes this discovery as one of the strangest working experiences out in the field. He was doing excavation work in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and came upon the remains of a dinosaur that was known before only to inhabit parts of Mongolia. The dinosaur is a Nothronychus graffami, or a Therizinosaurus, which is a sickle-claw dinosaur that was bipedal. This was the first complete skeleton of the species, and for Dave, it was exciting to be able to bring these remains to the public. 

How do you hope your research specifically will make an impact on the community / to society?

Dave has always worked on making his research more accessible to the public such as displaying his discoveries in the exhibits at the Museum of Northern Arizona or working on documentary film with BBC on Ice Age Giants. In terms of impact, Dave hopes that he can use what he has learned to generate interest in the topic, and to generate interest in science. Dave shares his belief that it is a responsibility for scientists and educators to promote scientific thinking and broaden our interest in science so that the future is well informed. Dave was the Keynote Speaker for the Flagstaff Festival of Science in 2007.

“None of us scientists work in isolation.”

What is your favorite part of evolutionary research?

“None of us scientists work in isolation,” Dave explains. His favorite work has always centered around his students as he finds fulfillment in being able to teach and lead others to research. “However”, he says, “My favorite work is whatever I have been working on!” To Dave, each part of his job is exciting, whether it is excavation, lab work, writing reports, or giving public lectures.

What would you tell a young person who is interested in paleontology? How would you encourage them to get involved?

Dave shares that there is no real formula for getting into a career, but reading everything that you can get access to, applying yourself at school, and talking to people and scientists around you about what you are interested in are critical steps. “Don’t be afraid of any subject! You can overcome challenging topics in positive ways.” For Dave, an interdisciplinary approach was crucial in his education, and those early moments of inspiration led him to the fruitful career he has had.  He remarks, “An understanding of science leads to an understanding of others.”

The Festival believes that science should be accessible to anyone. Based on your experience, do you have a story you could share where either you saw someone else included to participate in scientific research or activity?

Dave tells an inspiring story about a young man named Paul, who had cystic fibrosis. One day, Dave received a phone call from Paul’s father and Paul, who wanted to know who would win, either a T-rex or a Seismosaurus. This led to an eight-year friendship between Paul and Dave, where Dave took Paul out into the field and helped him become immersed in the science and history around him. Dave mentions that both he and Paul grew over that period of time. “I gained a better appreciation of the joy of participating in Paul’s discovery.” For Dave, this was an important part of his life and shaped both his and Paul’s discovery and growth in the field. Dave is grateful for the friendship he made with Paul even though Paul passed away. 

Interview and article by Communications Intern, Claire Gibson