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Kraig Derstler: Digging Up Dinosaurs Is in His Bones

A Westinghouse finalist's childhood fascination with fossils turns into a career in paleontology
Kraig Derstler


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His finalist year: 1971

His finalist project: Classifying and analyzing fossils

What led the project: Like many kids, Kraig Derstler grew up fascinated by fossils. Fortunately, the rocks around his town of Columbia, Pa., (near Harrisburg) featured a wide variety of fossils of echinoderms (a group of marine animals that includes starfish).

He started collecting the fossils during elementary school in the 1960s, and as he grew older, began analyzing them. "My folks were kind enough to set up a lab, partially in my bedroom and partially in the basement," he says. He did moldings, castings, took photos and looked at the fossils under a microscope. Over time, he was able to build up a rather careful record of 150 million years of evolution, studying the anatomical structures that arose or receded.

He started entering science competitions "because I needed money to go to college," he says. "I knew my family wasn't even close to wealthy." While looking at a book in the library on science projects, he found a picture of a previous group of Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalists arrayed on the Capitol steps. He thought that looked like a good contest to enter, so he did, and soon was named a finalist in 1971.

The effect on his career: "I hate to use a cliché, but it changed my life," Derstler says. "It took a couple of years to get my head back on again." His eighth-place finish helped him afford Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where he earned a degree in geology. He ultimately wound up with a PhD from the University of California, Davis, also studying echinoderm fossil anatomy.

What he's doing now: While Derstler's echinoderm work helped him land a faculty position at the University of New Orleans (U.N.O.), he soon realized that when it came to fossils, what the world really wanted was a dinosaur person. "So I did the dumbest thing in the world if you want to get tenure," he says. "I shifted gears. I finished my dissertation and put all that work aside" and started digging up and studying dinosaur fossils.

As a newcomer to the field, he didn't have any grants, so he financed his fieldwork by starting a travel program, which brought (paying) lay people along on digs in eastern Wyoming and elsewhere. Like Tom Sawyer, he jokes, "I basically had them fence whitewashing"—dusting off fossils and doing the preliminary preservation work in the field. Fortunately for Derstler the gambit worked; he did get tenure and has been at U.N.O. ever since.

Some of his most interesting work has been finding direct evidence that Tyrannosaurus Rex definitely did eat Triceratops. He found snapped off T. rex teeth mixed in with a Triceratops skeleton, with lots of bite marks on bones. He's also recently excavated an almost complete skeleton of Albertosaurus from northern Montana. When he gives public talks—well attended by dinosaur-loving children—"it's astonishing how few kids understand that dinosaur fossils are never complete." You see them in a museum well put together, but whereas "I've found some fabulous dinosaur skeletons, I've never found a complete one. It's very rare to find even a 50 percent skeleton. Somebody's body is always food for somebody else."

He's a colorful lecturer, which helps makes his survey course on dinosaurs at U.N.O. perpetually popular, says Jacqueline Wood, who earned her master's degree under him and helped him teach it a few years ago. He's prone to telling "great personal stories not found in the book about some of the major players of paleontology." He's a "great researcher" but "he's not one of those science teachers who's all egotistical," she notes. "Students have no problem asking him questions."

Derstler feels very lucky to still be studying fossils nearly four decades after his Westinghouse work. "It's better than having a real job," he quips. He tells young audience members that "in the summertime I don't have to take baths when I'm in the field. I can camp and travel all over the world, and nobody ever tells me to shut up when I'm talking about dinosaurs."

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