Banner image: Diatoms, like this one seen under a microscope, can take on a wide range of shapes, from spheres to triangles and even starbursts. (Credit: Patrick Kociolek)
When Patrick Kociolek was 6-years-old, his grandmother gave him and his older brother a pair of tabletop microscopes. That same day, the two boys ran down to the little stream that wound through their neighborhood in suburban Maryland.
“We took coffee cups or something like that and collected water and brought it back to look at what was in the water,” Kociolek said.
Kociolek didn’t know it at the time, but that day at the stream would kick off a decades-spanning career—one that would send him to similar streams and lakes around the world, including stops in China, India and New Zealand.
Kociolek, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder, is a scientist with two professional passions. First, he’s spent nearly 40 years peering through microscopes to explore the world of diatoms, the single-celled algae found in almost any body of water on Earth and the foundation for the planet’s air-breathing life.
“One of every three breaths you take, that oxygen comes from diatoms,” Kociolek said.
He has also spent nearly just as much time working in museum halls around the country. Kociolek worked for nearly 20 years at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and helped to rebuild the academy’s aquarium, planetarium and natural history museum. He has served as director of the CU Museum of Natural History on the CU Boulder campus since 2008.
In July, Kociolek will step down from his leadership position at the museum and make way for Interim Director and paleontologist Jaelyn Eberle. To mark the milestone, he reflected on the unexpected beauty of microscopic life and why museums still have an important role in society, even in the digital age.
“If I want to go see an organism somebody first collected 100 years ago, I can go to the British Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences or the Field Museum, and that specimen will still be there,” he said. “These days, we need more organizations that are dedicated to verifiable facts.”
Kociolek, who earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a doctorate from the University of Michigan, said that museums aren’t solely about facts. For many kids in the United States, these institutions can be the only way to experience the planet’s diverse natural ecosystems, from ocean tide pools to tropical rainforests.
The scientist remembers sitting near the front door of the California Academy of Sciences on members’ nights to watch visitors stream in.
“The little kids would be so excited, and so would their parents,” Kociolek said. “I had to keep pinching myself that I was being paid to do this.”
CU Boulder’s museum has inspired its own share of awe since it was founded in 1909. Here, visitors from across Colorado can see a wide range of artifacts from the past and present of the American West—Navajo textiles, the skulls of ancient, rhinoceros-like mammals and much more. Today, the museum holds nearly 5 million objects in its collections.
Kociolek said when he first came to CU Boulder, visitor numbers were low: Only 20,000 people a year came through its doors and only 1,500 were CU students.
He and his colleagues set out to change that. During Kociolek’s tenure, the museum launched the BioLounge. This downstairs space in the Henderson Building gives students a quiet place where they can drink coffee, study or just relax. In recent years, the museum also expanded its digital offerings, including virtual tours and educational webpages in English and Spanish. Today, roughly 50,000 people visit the museum every year, including about 15,000 CU students.
“Among the many accomplishments during his tenure, the museum’s collections grew to nearly 5 million objects, and the museum responded to the COVID pandemic by reaching nearly 300,000 people through online lectures, programming and exhibits,” said Massimo Ruzzene, acting vice chancellor of Research & Innovation at CU Boulder. “The university and community are so appreciative of all that Pat has achieved while leading the museum.”
Kociolek credits the museum’s support staff and cadre of professionals in research, teaching, collections stewardship and public outreach.
“It really is a testament to unbelievably dedicated faculty and staff,” he said.
The phycologist, or algae scientist, hasn’t stopped looking through microscopes, either.
Throughout his career, Kociolek has studied freshwater diatoms from every continent on Earth, publishing nearly 500 peer-reviewed articles and describing nearly 1,000 new species in the process.
He said these organisms are easy to overlook—literally. In most cases, diatoms are too small to see with the naked eye, but they’re also surprisingly beautiful, Kociolek said. These algae have shells made of silica that glitter under a microscope and can take on all sorts of shapes, from triangles to starbusts and something that looks like a squinting eye.
One group of diatoms—called raphids—even move by squirting mucus out of a slit in their shells.
Kociolek shares his love of sometimes-unappreciated organisms with his students at CU Boulder.
“I have no illusions that I’m creating hundreds of new phycologists,” he said. “But I do hope that my students will begin to see this whole new microscopic world and change the way the think about the planet.”
While Kociolek is stepping down from his role as museum director, he will stay on at CU Boulder as a faculty member.
“Humans have been seeing and interacting with mammals for a long time, so we know most of them that have been living alongside of us, as long as we have been around,” he said. “But we only saw our first diatom in 1702. Give us a million and a half years, and we’ll have these things figured out, too.”