In Memory of Dr Ian McKay – The Doyen of Palaeo and Geoscience Outreach


Dr Ian McKay, born 22 March 1963, passed away on 13 July following a sudden heart attack. As a geologist’s son, he developed a love of life sciences early in life and made this his career. Ian enrolled for a BSc at the University of the Witwatersrand, majoring in Zoology with sub-majors in Geology and Genetics. He completed a BSc Honours in Zoology at Wits with a major project on fossil insects from the Orapa Crater Lake deposits. Fascinated by the remarkably good preservation of these insects, it became a lifelong passion for discovering more about this ancient and important insect fauna. He went on to complete an MSc with distinction. This was upgraded to a PhD, which he completed in 1990, on carabid beetles and the palaeoenvironment of the Orapa deposit.

Ian subsequently worked for the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, undertaking research on ticks and discovering two new species. During this time, he realised that he had a calling for science communication and education, so he successfully enrolled for a Higher Diploma in Education at Wits. This led him to be appointed a science/environmental education specialist for the RADMASTE Centre associated with the University of the Witwatersrand. He led a programme in environmental education, writing science curriculum support materials, presenting courses on environmental education, and working on various special projects, one of which was to develop a low-cost test kit for water quality testing.

Between 2001 and 2014 Ian managed geoscience/palaeoscience outreach in the School for Geoscience at Wits University. Here he was tasked to raise sufficient funding to undertake the work and to support his salary. Accordingly, he set up the company ITM Development Education Services with the mission to facilitate development through out-of-the-box thinking, fundraising, conscientious project management, and the communication of technical information in plain language using entertaining and interactive techniques. He also enrolled for an MBA at Wits to sharpen his business skills. In 2014 he was appointed education and outreach officer by the newly established DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences. In this capacity, he operated nationally but was based at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

While involved in Geo and Palaeoscience outreach at Wits, he performed many functions, including school curriculum analysis and liaison with the Education Department and the DST (now DSI) for evolution and palaeontology to be introduced into the National South African school curriculum for Grades 10 – 12. To introduce this new topic, Ian was responsible for delivering workshops on evolution and palaeontology for subject advisors from eight of the nine South African provinces to assist teachers. He also designed educational programmes, museum exhibits, created hands-on biology and geoscience courses, trained student guides to present tours and designed holiday science programmes. This further involved the production of resource materials for teachers and learners, which were distributed to schools, as well as fundraising for the production of palaeontological exhibits. For several years he organised and ran National Science Week for the University of the Witwatersrand. This included fundraising, coordinating science communication, marketing and communication with the press, and coordinating various activities. Every year he participated in various science-related exhibitions such as Day of the Dinosaur Exhibition (Sandton Convention Centre); Yebo Goggo (at Wits);  National Science Week (Sci-Bono Science Centre); Engineering Week (Sci-Bono Science Centre); Earth Sciences Week (Sci-Bono Science Centre);  and Sustainable Energy Week (Sci-Bono Science Centre). He had won several awards for his innovative exhibitions that were engaging and fun.

In addition to his engagement with learners and teachers at a national level, Ian was also an active member of the International Geoscience Educators Organisation (IGEO), oversaw the GeoSciEd conferences every four years, and the annual International Earth Sciences Olympiad. Ian served as the principal South African Councillor for IGEO. He was a founding member of the South African Geoscience Educators Association, responsible for organising and hosting the GeoSciEd VI conference at Wits in 2010. Ian was making plans to have the first-ever South African team enter the International Earth Sciences Olympiad. His fellow geoscience educators will never forget his passion, enthusiasm and dedication to geoscience education and outreach and his wonderful sense of humour.

In recent years Ian ran a travelling exhibition called the “Maze of Time”, which attracted huge crowds at the Grahamstown Science Festival, Rand Show and Wits Yebo Goggo exhibition. He established a partnership with the Life Sciences subject advisors of the Gauteng Department of Education, annually providing hands-on workshops and museum tours to support learning in the palaeosciences to thousands of school learners. Most recently, he spearheaded the development of an amazing poster set for various geoheritage sites from around the country.

Ian was instrumental in setting up and running (from Johannesburg) the Kitching fossil Education Centre in the village of Nieu Bethesda. This is the only self-sustaining palaeotourism venture in South Africa and employs people from the local community as site guides. Visitors are given guided tours to the fossil-bearing rocks in the river bed of the Gats River and fossil displays in the orientation centre. He was responsible for on-site guide training and raised funding to bring them to Wits University and the Cradle of Humankind for hands-on training and experience in palaeotourism activities.

Ian was a pioneer in large-scale palaeoscience outreach in South Africa. In later years, his hands-on and edutainment programmes reached more than 400 000 learners and members of the public annually. He delighted in explaining the palaeosciences to children, and they feasted on his presentations. In addition, to the outreach programmes organised and run by Ian, he also lectured on invertebrate palaeontology to honours students, undertook research and wrote papers, hosted postdoctoral fellows and supervised postgraduate students.

Ian had a quirky sense of humour, loved ice skating and outdoor activities, enjoyed bird watching and hiking and heavy metal music, and was fond of the highlands of the eastern Free State, particularly around Clarens, where his mother had a home. Ian gave considerable energy and dedication to geoscience and palaeoscience outreach, a task he undertook with passion and without seeking applause.

Ian was respected for his integrity and dedication to educating young people about the wonders of nature. Ian was a devoted father who is survived by his wife Tracey and his daughters Gwen and Erin, and stepdaughter Joy.

Dr Ian McKay with CoE in Palaeoscience grantees (photo by the Origins Centre)