This is me with an ice age horse (Equus lambei) fossil skull we recovered in the Klondike goldfields, near Dawson City, Yukon, in 2014.


Yukon Beringia Interpretive Ctr.

Mostly Mammoths, Mummies & Museums article

Mostly Mammoths, Mummies & Museums article

Mostly Mammoths, Mummies & Museums article



Grant Zazula

MA, University of Alberta

Ph.D. SFU, Biological Sciences 2006



Yukon Palaeontologist


My PhD in Biological Sciences between 2002 and 2006 was focused on reconstructing ancient, ice-age ecosystems in Yukon Territory. To do this, I studied permafrost-preserved plant remains entombed within nests of arctic ground squirrels dating between about 20,000 and 100,000 years ago. These fossil plants painted a vivid picture of the environments inhabited by now-extinct ice age mammals such as woolly mammoths and scimitar cats. For my efforts, I was awarded the Dean’s Graduate Convocation medal in Science.

Only a couple weeks after defending my PhD, I was hired by the Yukon Territorial Government to head their Palaeontology Program in Whitehorse. Now I oversee a dynamic program of research, resource management and public education largely focused on the rich-record of ice age mammal fossils recovered in the well-known Klondike gold mining district near Dawson City, Yukon. Every summer as miners dig up and churn through frozen gravels in central Yukon, they uncover thousands of bones and other fossil of ice age animals. These goldmines are a real “gold mine” for information and research on the climate, geology, animals and plants that lived during the ice age when North America was connected to Asia via the exposed Bering Land Bridge. Our goal is to collect fossils and make fossil sites accessible to for research by scientists from all over the world. Because of the incredible preservation of ancient plant and animal remains in the permafrost, the Yukon is a real focus of ancient genetic research, with DNA sequences being recovered and analyzed from fossils that are nearly a million years old. Our work helps tell the story of climate and environmental change in arctic Canada over the recent geological past.


Why did you choose to go to SFU?

SFU for my PhD was an easy choice. I had recently completed a Masters in Art’s degree at University of Alberta where I focused on ice age paleoecology in the Yukon. I was looking to expand on some of that research for my PhD. I had known about the research of Dr. Rolf Mathewes at SFU for several years as he was a colleague of Master’s thesis advisor Dr. Charlie Schweger. When I made the decision to work on a PhD project, I had the opportunity to meet Rolf at a conference and we hit it off immediately. I knew right from the start that Rolf would be an ideal supervisor for my PhD and mentor for me personally and professionally. I really appreciated Rolf’s “big picture” thinking and the way he conducts research – trying to put together information and data from a variety of inter-related fields such as botany, zoology, climatology, geology and archaeology to examine the past. Rolf was, and has always been, incredibly supportive, and gave me the freedom as a student to explore a wide variety of research interests. I moved to Burnaby in the fall of 2002 and immediately felt at home at SFU. I only spent 2 years physically at SFU campus. In the middle of my PhD, I moved to Edmonton so that my partner (see Question 3) could start her PhD in Anthropology at University of Alberta. I visited SFU campus regularly to meet with Rolf during those final couple years of my dissertation work, but I largely completed it remotely. One of my other close mentors, Dr. Duane Froese, was a post-doc in Earth Sciences at SFU at that time (he is now a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Alberta). Our research paths were closely aligned and it was ideal for us to be at SFU together as were working together in the Yukon doing complementary research in the Klondike region.

Where did you spend the most amount of time on campus?

Most of my time on campus was divided between three places. The first being Rolf’s paleoecology lab in the basement of the Biological Sciences wing of the Quad building. I spent countless hours down there staring down a microscope identifying seeds, fruits, leaves and other bits of ancient plants. The second spot was the coffee cart in the corner of the Quad building drinking coffee and talking about science, life and hockey with Rolf. I’ll never forget the smiling friendly face of the man that ran that place. The third place (disclaimer here, these are not in any particular order), was the Highland Pub, for the burgers or course! I’d like to thank Dr. Alberto Reyes for some of our more memorable extracurricular times off campus that were instrumental in my personal and professional development too.

What is your favourite memory from your time at SFU?

There was a visiting professor Dr. Don Grayson from University of Washington that gave a guest lecture in the Archaeology Department at SFU. Don is one of the world’s experts on the extinction of ice age mammals. As a student conducting research on, and interested in, ice age ecosystems, I eagerly attended his lecture and was the first person to put my hand up at the end of the talk. I asked a fairly technical question about stable isotopes and geological stratigraphy and we had a very interesting exchange about the topic. Following the presentation, the discussion about extinctions reconvened at the Highland pub, which was typical for the Archaeology Department at that time. I found myself engaged in a very interesting conversation about the topic with Dr. Grayson and other students over several pitchers of beer. As the evening continued, a lovely graduate student from Archaeology named Victoria Castillo sat down across the table from me and told me that she was very intrigued by my questions I asked at the lecture. This woman was beautiful and very interesting and we spent the evening chatting away with big smiles on our faces. 13 years later, we are still happily married, have a young son named Roman and have a great life together in Whitehorse. Dr. Victoria Castillo is now the Chair of Liberal Arts at Yukon College. Whenever I correspond with Dr. Grayson, I like to remind him that it was his guest lecture that connected Victoria and I back in 2002.

Who was your favourite SFU professor and why?

I can’t say enough about how much of an impact that Rolf Mathewes had on me personally and on my career. Rolf is one of those professors that genuinely cares about his students. We spent many hours sitting over coffee talking about life and research. Rolf never told me what to do, but provided arm’s length guidance and advice and was my biggest supporter whenever I needed him. As a supervisor, he was the perfect balance of life mentoring and professional guidance. During the second summer of my PhD research, Rolf and I spent a couple weeks together trekking up and down the Yukon, from Kluane Lake to the Dempster Highway. Together, we collected plants and fossils, climbed hills, dug up squirrel arctic ground squirrel nests, fished for arctic grayling in pristine icy waters and always had a good laugh. Even though he is a Vancouver Canucks fan, he’s a pretty good guy! To me, Rolf was an ideal professor for my PhD and is a still a wonderful mentor and friend. I also had great experiences with a few of the professors in the Earth Sciences Department. Paleoecology is really a combination of geology and biology, and Dr. Brent Ward and Dr. John Clague from SFU Earth Sciences have also been instrumental in my career.

How has your SFU degree impacted your career?

It was only 6 weeks after defending my PhD that I started my current position with the Government of Yukon. It was really an exciting time. Within that time span, I defending my dissertation, interviewed for a job, bought a new car and a house, then drove for three days up the Alaska Highway in December 2006 to move to Whitehorse. Without the freedom to pursue my research at SFU under Rolf Mathewes supervision, I would not be here today. I feel very fortunate to live where I do, and to have a have great career in an exciting field. Working for Yukon Government has worked out very well for me. I have lots of opportunity to conduct research and collaborate with people from all over the world. I also really value the public outreach part of our program. I feel it is essential that scientists reach out to the community and communicate the results of their research to the wider public.  It is a great feeling letting a young kid hold onto a 50,000 year old woolly mammoth tooth and telling them all about life during the ice age. In many ways, my connections to Biology and Earth Sciences at SFU were really important for me as I continue my research in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. I really enjoy working with researchers from a wide variety of fields and feel strongly that this leads to more satisfying research results. I think it is important to reveal how phenomena are connected through interdisciplinary research.

What is your favourite SFU snow story?

I never really understood the whole SFU and snow thing. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, and snow was just a daily part of reality for 6 months of the year.  I always thought it was strange to see vehicles stranded or in the ditches in the lower mainland whenever there was a couple millimeters of snow on the ground. It’s like the apocalypse in the lower mainland when it snows for a couple days, people panicking. It was also kind of funny to me to see people bundled up in parkas, toques and scarves at SFU when it was 3° C outside! When the buses couldn’t make it up the hill, I would put on my boots and soldier up the hill to SFU no problem. Of course, I now live in a place that has snow for about 8 months a year and it can get down to -40° C for a couple weeks each winter. But, to be honest, some of those cold, wet, dark, rainy days in January at SFU were pretty tough to take weather-wise. That wet, slushy “snow” at SFU is very different from Alberta or Yukon snow. The last I heard, there wasn’t even any snow in the lower mainland this past winter. I guess that’s good for the bus traffic going up Burnaby Mountain.

If you could give advice to students today, what would you tell them?

Work hard. If you think you are working hard, still work harder. Challenge yourself, push yourself to do things you did not think you were capable of doing. Step outside of your comfort zone. But, on the flip side of that, have fun. If you are not having fun and enjoying your work, go find something else to do. Life is too short to not enjoy yourself. Make sure you have a good work-life balance. It is important to walk away from your desk and your work and spend time with your family and friends and appreciate the world you live in.

What is the one thing about SFU that must not change?

Those yummy burgers at the SFU Highland pub.