Pulling a giant fish or a small octopus from the ocean isn’t a big deal to marine biologist Kevin Kocot. He just throws it back in the water.
That’s because he’s after small-fry — life that’s often invisible to the naked eye.
“They’re everywhere,” says the Maryville native of his work with a group of molluscs. “Just no one’s looking for them.”
The “everywhere” he’s looked has grown from his grandparents’ backyard next door, searching for garden bugs when he was a child, to the deepest parts of the ocean this past summer to chronicle the oceans’ biodiversity.
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Kevin earned a bachelor of science degree from Illinois State University and a doctorate in molecular biology from Auburn University. He has a second post-doctoral degree from The University of Queensland in Australia. For the past year, he’s been an assistant professor and assistant curator of invertebrates at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Mollusca is one of the most diverse groups of animals on the planet, with at least 50,000 living species (and more likely closer to 200,000). It includes such familiar organisms as snails, octopus, squid, clams, scallops and oysters. Kevin’s work is on a tiny shell-less species, though he encounters bigger ones along the way.
“His excitement was always there, he was always interested. Curious. Wanting to know things,” said his high school biology teacher Vicki Gillespie, now retired from Metro East Lutheran High School and living in Virginia.
Kevin, 32, credits her with instilling in him an understanding of the importance of the variety of life that can be found in the world.
The son of Donna and Ted in Maryville was not a straight-A student, his mother says. There’s a lot to be proud of, though: “I’m learning things I never knew,” she said of his work. The family home has a wall devoted to his diplomas and fellowships.
He’s traveled to study invertebrates off the coastlines of Australia, Iceland, Antarctica, Norway and the Gulf of Mexico.
This past summer, Kevin worked aboard the deep-sea submersible Alvin off the coast of Massachusetts.
Luckily, he’s not claustrophobic, because it’s “pretty cozy inside,” he said. Even better, he was concentrating so hard on his work that he was “too excited to be scared.”
During one eight-hour dive, he and another observer flanked the pilot in reclining seats.
“We were busy during the whole dive looking out the portholes, operating the (six exterior) cameras and taking notes,” he said. “When we see specimens we are interested in, we communicate with the pilot to organize collection using the sub’s manipulator arms and collection containers.”
His work under water is among a variety of unusual conditions he encounters, from rocking ships to “balmy” temperatures of minus-10 degrees to a dusty “Indiana Jones”-style warehouse of shelves and racks holding preserved specimens.
“He knows how much I worry,” on the trips and years-long studies, his mom said. But Kevin remembers to call home. “Some days it’s short emails: ‘I’m great, finding things.’”
When on the water, he fights serious seasickness. He’s got a prescription pill for it now, after a “really funny” day wearing a transdermal patch that was supposed to help him.
“My left eye was super-dilated and apparently I was being really funny,” he said. “I don’t remember much of that day; I don’t recommend the patch.”
What he’s looking for
Wherever he goes, Kevin spends hours staring into a microscope at little creatures that may be still alive, “just not happy.”
All his work and travel is in the name of studying invertebrates, whose ancestors never left the sea. Of the 36 phyla — the taxonomic rank between kingdom and class that scientists use to describe life forms — only about a third are on land, he said.
That’s a lot of life in the ocean that no one knows much about. The very cold regions and the deep seas are “so unexplored, it’s all new,” he said.
Kevin has been to Antarctica three times, most recently in January. It’s not surprising that he’s discovered unknown species — and named them after colleagues. None he’s found are named for him, though.
“It’s considered tacky to name organisms after yourself, but I have named a few new species after colleagues .... I’ve got a few new species I’m working on from New Zealand and Australia. I’ll name them after some other people I work with.”
The importance of diversity
Donna says her son liked to look for bugs in the family’s backyard. It became a familiar sight.
“The neighbors would ask, ‘Why is Kevin always turning over rocks?’” Donna said. All the signs were there at an early age that he would follow a career in science.
“He had a special knack,” his former teacher said. “He loved science and loved marine biology .... He was really excited about science.”
Kevin said he found “a lot of cool stuff being a kid at my grandparents’ farm,” including an insect that he could not identify. He eventually learned its name as an adult and “that was kind of an ah-ha moment.”
Today, Kevin says he would be happy “if people cared about biodiversity. To a lot of people, if it can’t cure cancer or be eaten,” then the work has little value. But to scientists like him, it’s crucial to know what is present in the sea to know what changes might be occurring.
“One really important thing about a lot of this deep sea work is to get a baseline of what organisms are there now,” he said. He and other scientists have done work cataloging life present in the dead and dying coral reef off Australia and the warming waters of Iceland, factoring in water temperature and chemistry.
“If climate change forecasts come true, they’ll be very reduced or go extinct,” he said. “Every once in a while I read a paper ... that gives me hope that things aren’t as bad as they seem,” he said, citing a deep sea sponge that seems to pull carbon out of the water.
“But just as often, we find more depressing” news.
Death by science
Most of the creatures that Kevin studies live in the coldest, deepest parts of the water. When he brings up a sample bucket, he divides it so some of the mollusc can be preserved to save their DNA, while another batch is “fixed” to maintain their appearance.
Formulan, like formaldehyde, preserves the appearance but destroys the DNA. Alcohol spares the DNA, but shrivels the creatures so they look like raisins.
“It’s kind of a ‘fix first and ask questions later,’ especially in the Antarctic,” Kevin said. “I always feel a bit guilty.”
Under the microscope, Kevin then starts cataloging and matching up his discoveries.
“It’s comparing this ‘raisin’ to this nice-looking thing,” he said, and finding “Oh, you’re the same.”
Kevin’s work has been aided by the Human Genome Project. The technology used for that project helped make his sequencing DNA easier. For his doctorate, he figured out how molluscs were related, and their last common ancestor.
Back on solid ground at the university in Alabama, Kevin runs the laboratory that specifically studies these mollusc. It’s one of only five in the world.
He’s committed to the long-term global study, which he jokingly says includes “an ancient Russian guy who’s still at it.”
Anyone can help
Kevin’s latest trip, in the submersible called Alvin off the coast of Massachusetts, was another way for the assistant professor to teach. The National Science Foundation paid for 24 scientists to go on the trip. They were split into two teams, one on board the ship for a week while the other stayed at the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island, watching a huge television screen “like mission control of NASA.”
“The Inner Space Center is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” Kevin said.
Because there’s so much down time on the ship, scientists had Skype calls with students or to the Museum of Natural History to talk about their research.
Kevin said anyone can be part of science.
“There are high school kids helping from home” by watching and analyzing the video feeds via programs through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For more information, go to www.nautiluslive.org or oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/okeanos/welcome.html.