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Unearthing the art of fossils

A rocky start in college hasn’t stopped West Virginia University alumnus Zachary Heck (BS Geology, ’16) from pursuing his prehistoric passions. 

Zack Heck

“Ever since I was a little boy, I had a fascination with dinosaurs and fossils,” said Heck, a Rivesville native. “I was immediately drawn to the fieldwork in the geology major. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day in my future job.”  

As a geology student, Heck traveled to Virginia’s Shenandoah National Forest; Yellowstone National Park; Spearfish, South Dakota; and Dillon, Montana, where he gained experience in geologic mapping of rock units, hot springs and geysers.

“The geology side of paleontology is understanding how the fossils are being preserved, where they are preserved and the reasons why they are preserved,” Heck said. “I enjoy the rock side of it rather than the life side of it, which is why I ultimately chose to major in geology over biology.”  

Zack Heck

Heck’s passion for preserving prehistoric artifacts led him to a career in paleontology before he even graduated. He landed an internship with a paleontologist based in Barrackville who owns Prehistoric Planet, a web-based replica store. He spent five years with the company creating and delivering fossil replicas around the U.S.

“I even delivered Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons to the TV show 'Elementary.' We were asked to set up replicas for one of their episodes,” Heck said. “I got to stand in on the set and see how everything worked.”

While Heck typically spent about 10 months out of the year with Prehistoric Planet, he embarked on new adventures in the summer months as a guide for Paleo Prospectors, a paleontological tourism company.  

Zack Heck

“Their week-long programs are open to the public. If you have an interest in dinosaurs, fossils or artifacts, you can travel with us to hunt for fossils,” Heck said. “As a guide, my job was to lead the participants and show them what to search for.”

Heck also collected and prepared the fossils.

“You start with the fossils in the ground. Essentially, you are digging into rock using tools like excavators, picks and toothbrushes,” Heck said. “Next, we make a cast of plaster from the fossil specimen with rock still around it and transport that to the lab. Then, we remove excess rock from the fossil, seal the fossil with chemicals and use color-matched putty to sculpt the missing sections of the fossil.” 

Zack Heck

Recreating the missing portions of the fossils can be a slow and, at times, tedious process.  

“People go to museums to see the skeletons – that’s the final product,” Heck said. “That’s thousands upon thousands and, in some cases, millions of hours of work.”

But to Heck, fossil excavation and preparing is an artform.

“You have to be very patient, but I’m a very hands-on person. You could pay for someone to prep a fossil. I’ve done it before, but to take the time to start with just a rock where you can see just a little bit of the fossil exposed and work on it slowly, you get the feel for how the fossil is formed,” Heck said. “The gratitude of the seeing final product once you’re completed it compared to the original rock is incredibly rewarding.”  

Zack Heck

The dinosaur fossils are donated to small museums, universities and schools. One elementary school in Asheville, North Carolina, even has a full-size dinosaur skeleton mounted in its hallway.  

Heck has also taken the fossils around the state, giving presentations to Boy Scout troops and 4-H clubs and hosting a temporary museum for Harrison County Parks and Recreation’s Paleontology Days.

“My favorite part of teaching is watching the kids’ faces when I explain that the fossils are real and that I either dug them up or know who did. They are in awe,” Heck said. “Most of the time you don’t get the chance to experience fossils except in museums, and even then, you can’t touch them.” 

Heck hopes to inspire the next generation of scientists. 

Zack Heck“The students will ask me how I do this work. Science is often scary to them because they hear adults talking with big words and all of this information they don’t understand,” Heck said. “But if you’re able to bring it down a few levels, especially to kids who are in the process of understanding themselves and their interests, it can make all the difference.”

These experiences would not have been possible had Heck not had a year off due to academic suspension.

After that year, he returned to WVU reenergized and ready to finish his undergraduate degree.

“It ended up being a blessing to have the year off,” Heck said. “That was the point in time I realigned myself and got the motivation to finish undergrad strong.”

Heck credits the resources and support from the Office of Academic Affairs in WVU’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences for helping him persevere and navigate the academic challenges he experienced.

“Dr. [Jessica] Queener, Professor [Joy] Carr and Dr. [Valerie] Lastinger worked diligently to help me navigate that. I came back to the open arms of the staff here encouraging me and helping me find my path. I still stay in communication with them to this day,” Heck said. “The openness and support for someone like me who was struggling made all the difference. You are not just another face in the crowd. You are a person in the Eberly College.” 

Heck hopes he can be an example for other students who experience adversity. 

Zack Heck

“We don’t all learn in the same ways,” said Teaching Associate Professor of Geology Joe Lebold. “Zack is a great example of someone who did not easily find success in the classroom. But in physical science majors like geology that emphasize field-based learning, students like Zack who are hands-on and learn by doing can really excel.”

Today, Heck is a master’s student in forestry with an emphasis in hydrology in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. He aspires to combine paleontology and the outdoors in a career at the U.S. Geological Survey.

“At the USGS, I could work on either the geology or hydrology side. There are some paleontology jobs there, too,” Heck said. “It’s a wide range, which is why I pursued this research area. It is broadening my horizons and will hopefully open up new career opportunities.”