A University of Alberta undergraduate student got a second chance at becoming a paleontologist four years ago after his mother died.

And now he's naming a dinosaur species after her.

Aaron Van Der Reest, 36, spent Tuesday in Dinosaur Park, Alta., a hotbed of fossilized dinosaur discoveries, waiting for the rainy weather to clear so he could dig up a small horned dinosaur alongside renowned paleontologist Phil Currie.

That's where Van Der Reest dreamed of being ever since he was three years old and wearing a Stegosaurus costume made by his mother.

But it was her death that helped make that dream come true.

In 2005, he moved from Ontario and enrolled at the U of A with the goal to eventually take the paleontology program.

He finished one school year but didn't return because he ran out of money. For seven years he worked as a hazardous materials environmental consultant.

Tragedy led to a second chance

"She basically just looked at me and said that would be the greatest thing I could do for you." - Aaron Van Der Reest, paleontologist

In early 2013, his 60-year-old mother Lynne Van Der Reest was diagnosed with cancer for the second time.

Three months later, she passed away.

Prior to that, Aaron had talked with her about what do with his coming inheritance.

"It was a tough conversation but she basically just said, 'Don't waste it,' " Van Der Reest said.

He came up with the idea to return to the U of A to become a paleontologist.

"She basically just looked at me and said, 'That would be the greatest thing I could do for you,' " he said.

A tribute to his mother

Several years ago, he discovered the hips of a raptor-like animal in Dinosaur Provincial Park. He's naming the species after his mother's maiden name, McMaster, as a tribute. The full species name of the dinosaur has yet to be decided.

"That animal may have eventually been figured out, but it was my opportunity to do it," he said. "The only reason I had that opportunity was because of her and the support that she gave me."

Phil Currie, who teaches Van Der Reest and works alongside him in the field, says paleontologists once shied away from naming dinosaurs after people as a tribute.

He says in the case of Van Der Reest, naming a species after his mother is well deserved.

"It's a good thing to recognize people," Currie said. "In a way, there's no reason we shouldn't do these kinds of things."

"The fact that he would do this is fantastic."

The naming tributes haven't ended there for Van Der Reest. He found a horned dinosaur a few weeks ago that he's named Tink because his mother was a fan of fairies like Tinkerbell.

Van Der Reest will continue to dig and discover at Dinosaur Provincial Park for the summer until he starts the master's program at the U of A in September.

@Travismcewancbc

Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca