"Alan Kolok Was a Fish as a Kid"
He grew up on the East Coast, in a home just a mile off Long Island Sound, and spent his summers swimming, boating and fishing.
“I was in the water all the time,” he says.
He became fascinated with water and fish and that led him to his mission in life as an aquatic toxicologist, one whose name in the field now is known throughout the world. And that fascination led him to one of the best places in the world to do his water research — Omaha.
The academic ecosystem for water research is especially healthy now, says Kolok, who came to UNO almost 20 years ago. Why? Here are a few reasons:
The Elkhorn River Research Station
The innovative station, which UNO built three years ago near 245th and Q streets, gives Kolok and his students a focal point from which to study toxicity levels in the river. It also creates opportunities for community outreach and engagement. “The day of the inauguration of the station, I really had the feeling that it was like my debutante ball, like my coming out party, where everything was now in place for us to take river research to the absolutely highest level.” A second research station is set to open soon on the Missouri River in Bellevue at American Heroes Park.
The University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute
Since opening five years ago in Lincoln, the institute has put the University of Nebraska on the map as a world leader in addressing water issues. That rising tide has lifted researchers like him throughout the NU system. The institute’s goal is to help the world achieve food security by finding better ways to manage water in agricultural and food production. The institute encourages collaborations among the four campuses, he says, and that has opened new ways of looking at things scientifically. “It’s just been such a great position to be in to be able to interface with incredible faculty across the campuses.”
The vision of UNO leaders
Kolok credits Chancellor John Christensen and other top administrators for creating an environment where researchers can thrive and dream big. One example: The leadership pushed for UNO to attain the Carnegie Doctoral Research University status, and now UNO is in part of that rather select group of universities. “It’s a fundamentally different place than when I first arrived here,” Kolok says. “The administration at UNO, my dean, the senior vice chancellor, the chancellor – they absolutely understand what that means and they’re absolutely committed to making UNO be the best research institution at its level that it can possibly be.”
Kolok has a joint appointment with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health. He spends about 75 percent of his time at UNO, 25 percent at UNMC. He has an office on each campus. He also is director of the Nebraska Watershed Network, which has space in UNO’s new, cutting-edge Barbara Weitz Community Engagement Center — another example, he says, of the vision of leaders at UNO.
"This is not your grandfather’s UNO."
“We are doing things today that are absolutely novel and innovative and that directly feed back into the community.”
Kolok has been appointed as a faculty fellow with the Daugherty Water for Food Institute, which has helped fund some of his latest research — studying a fish that’s found only in Chile.
He was in Chile this past January collecting tissue samples of the fish, called a pencil catfish. The species has taken over the ecological niche of a salamander, living in the cracks and narrow gaps of rocks in the country’s mountain streams.
Sediment collects in those spaces. You can learn a lot about the toxicity of a stream by studying its sediment, Kolok says, so those pencil catfish are the perfect sentinel organism to monitor water toxicity.
The fish tissue is stored in a freezer. A Ph.D. student from UNMC’s College of Public Health who’s also being funded by the Water for Food Institute will analyze it.
“So there it is again – that cross-communication between the campuses that is just so very, very fortunate,” Kolok says.
The last day he was in Chile, Kolok stood on the rim of what used to be a volcano. Condors, the largest birds in the world, soared overhead as he looked across the crater, which was filled with water.
It was a moment, he says, where he just had to stop and be grateful and appreciate the “cosmic karma” of living a life so tied to the water.
A life that has led him to some of the best places in the world to study it.
Like Chile. Like Omaha.
“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” he says, “because I can’t believe how far this has all gone.”