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Pioneering alumnus honored for contributions to science and society

Orrin Pilkey

Growing up in the arid landscape of Richland, Washington, hundreds of miles and a mountain range away from the nearest ocean, may seem an unlikely start for a man who would become a leading expert in marine geology and coastal conservation. 

But Orrin Pilkey was destined to be a pioneer. With his insatiable curiosity and an education in geology from then-Washington State College, he traveled to the edges of land and sea and launched a new field of science to improve life in both environments.

“Throughout his 65‑year career as a researcher, educator, mentor, and advocate, Dr. Orrin Pilkey has made numerous outstanding contributions to the field of marine geology and to coastal preservation,” said Todd Butler, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “In addition to his positive impact on his discipline, he embodies the outcome of what we strive to accomplish as a college and university: a curious, life-long learner who integrates knowledge from many domains to address complex, real-world problems and issues.”

This year, Pilkey (BS Geology ’57) received the WSU Alumni Association’s Alumni Achievement Award, the organization’s highest honor, in recognition of his distinguished research and education in coastal geology and his public service in policy development and education to preserve America’s coastal resources.

“I came from Washington State College very well prepared to face the world of geology, and I’m always grateful for that,” Pilkey said during the WSUAA award ceremony hosted online this spring.

A member of Duke University faculty since 1965, Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Geology at Duke and the founder and director emeritus of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. He is the author, co‑author, or editor of 48 books and numerous technical publications, many of them internationally acclaimed for their fresh insights into various aspects of marine geology and barrier islands around the world.

In 2020, he received WSU’s most prestigious honor, the Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award (RDAA) in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to understanding coastal geology.

His many other accolades include the Francis Shepard Medal for excellence in marine geology in 1987, the Priestly Award in 2003, and the WSU College of Sciences Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2007. The Orrin Pilkey Marine Sciences and Conservation Genetics Center at the Duke Marine Laboratory was named in his honor. 

When Pilkey began his post-doctoral research off the coast of Georgia in the early 1960s, “there was no such thing as coastal geology,” said David Bush, one of his former doctoral students, now a geology professor at University of West Georgia. 

“He was at the beginning of the science, not just for himself but for the entire world,” Bush said.

“Along with his deep-sea research and his coastal research, he begat at least two or maybe three generations of students who are researchers now and have had their own students. It’s very important to know he did all those fantastic things — it’s mind-boggling to think about all the great things he’s done.

“Washington State, you did the right thing — you got him going in the right direction,” Bush said.

Another longtime friend, Dr. Roger McClellan, a veterinarian and 2009 RDAA recipient, credits Pilkey with inspiring him and several others from their childhood neighborhood to study at WSU.

While an undergraduate, Pilkey was a member of the U.S. Army ROTC and worked three summers as a smoke jumper with the U.S. Forest Service. During his senior year, he applied his classroom knowledge to real-world situations in the Tri‑Cities as a groundwater geological assistant for General Electric.

When he joined the faculty at Duke, his research focus was on the deep ocean floor. Four years later, Hurricane Camille, a devastating category five storm, slammed into the Mississippi coastal town where Pilkey’s parents were living, and changed the course of his career. Influenced by the storm’s destruction, he began studying the important role of coastal zones and viewing barrier islands as “living systems.”

Pilkey’s reputation as a learned advocate for preserving America’s coastal resources has led to his appearing in several documentary films, testifying before three different congressional committees, and regularly speaking with media during hurricane season.

His recent books include “Lessons from the Sand: Family-Friendly Science Activities You Can Do on a Carolina Beach,” which offers easy experiments for children and parents to discover the ways water, wind, sand, plants, animals, and people influence and shape beach environments.

His “Living with” book series focuses on the continental U.S. shoreline, from Maine down to Florida, along the Gulf Coast, and up the California coast to Washington state.

Now retired from formal teaching, Pilkey remains active in local policy issues and in educating the public about the need to protect the world’s beaches

“I’m so proud of being a graduate of WSC,” he said.

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