Scott McDougall - Landslides

“An engineering degree is a great starting point for interesting work"

Says Dr. Scott McDougall, whose research on landslides and other geohazards is leading to better ways to keep people and infrastructure safe.

Dr. Scott McDougall

Education: PhD in Geological Engineering (UBC); BASc in Civil Engineering (University of Toronto)

What led you to geological engineering?

"What started as a master’s degree turned into a PhD and then working as a geotechnical engineer for 10 years."

When I was in grade 11, I wanted to be an architect. But I had limited artistic abilities, so I turned to civil engineering. In my first year, I took a basics of geology course, which I loved. Although I stayed in civil engineering, I took advantage of summer work opportunities in construction to feed my interest in big holes in the ground! I worked as a contractor for three years after graduating and then learned about UBC’s geological engineering program.

What is it that you love about geology? 

The earth is so fascinating. I’m lucky to teach geomorphology, which is the study of how the surface of the earth has been formed. All the things I enjoy doing in my spare time – from hiking in provincial parks to surfing in Tofino – link back to these geological processes and landforms. I’ve discovered a profession where I can be outside in beautiful places around the world to do my work.

You worked for a decade as a geotechnical engineer. Why did you become a professor?

As a consulting engineer you’re working under strict timelines and budgets. I liked the idea of having time to do my research – time to sit on a rock and solve some of the problems I’d identified while working in private practice. My research program is really in line with the gaps I saw when I was a practising engineer. I also enjoy teaching, having taught for my PhD advisor when he went on sabbatical. When a position at UBC came up, I was at the point in my professional career where I was ready for a change.

Tell us about your research.

My focus is on mass movement, which is any time that lots of material is pulled by gravity down a slope. A landslide is an example of this. Another example is a tailings breach at a mine site, which can create a catastrophe downstream since there are often environmentally sensitive materials stored in tailing dams.

We go out into the field and map natural landslides that happen year after year. These observations enable us to develop computer models so we can run simulations to predict what might happen with the breach of a mine facility or the failure of a natural rock slope. 

Why is this research important?

Landslides kill an average of 4,000 people worldwide each year and cause billions of dollars of infrastructure damage. Many people are killed in their own homes, where they think they are safe. I believe many of these deaths could be prevented if we had the tools to make better decisions about where to develop or were able to design better and more affordable mitigation measures when development is occurring in an area where a landslide could happen.

Watch Dr. Scott McDougall speak at UBC Engineering Open House

Anything else you want to share?

I think it’s important for students to know that the decisions you make early in your education are not permanent and that any engineering degree is a great starting point for interesting work.

In high school, I didn’t even know that geological engineering existed and I took a circular academic and career path to get here. I have friends from civil engineering who have ended up as doctors. My other piece of advice is that the study of geology and geological engineering is a great field, particularly if you love being outside and appreciate the natural landscape. One of the best parts of my job is getting to be a field assistant for my grad students!

UBC geological engineering student on a co-op placement at BC Research Inc.

Geological Engineering

UBC offers the Geological Engineering program in collaboration with the Faculty of Science, blending aspects of earth sciences, civil engineering and mining engineering with a fundamental understanding of the earth’s surface environments...

Geological Engineering

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