Columbia instructor David Dolak is known to some around campus as “Dino Dolak.” Students rush to sign up for his Dinosaurs and More: Geology Explored class where students excavate fossils, create dinosaur projects and visit the Field Museum. But paleontology is not the only thing Dolak is getting students involved in. He used his folk music roots to found Acoustic Kitchen, an open-mic night for students, started Columbia’s only bicycling club, C4Cycling, and is also teaching students to make their own instruments in his Physics of Musical Instruments class.
After years of working in geology, building his own instruments and biking across the country, Dolak is sharing his passions with anyone on campus who is up for learning and adventure-jokes and songs included. The Chronicle sat down with Dolak to talk about how he turned his hobbies into a full-time career.
The Chronicle: When did you start teaching at Columbia?
Dolak: This is my 10th year. My first semester I was adjunct, and by the end of that semester, I was brought on full time. I was brought in to teach Dinosaurs and More: Geology Explored because I’m a geologist and environmental scientist by formal education. Halfway through that semester they asked me to teach the Physics of Music. It was a team-taught class, and they had a physicist, but no musician.
The department realized that I was a musician and that I could also build instruments, so they thought, “Wow, maybe you could help out with this course.” So I sort of took over the class, and it has changed vastly since then. I like teaching here because I can use my science background, but also my art background. My hobbies are now my career.
When did you become interested in dinosaurs and geology?
When I was little. I always show my students this 3-D “dinorama,” I call it, that I made when I was in fifth grade. It has the original dinosaur from a Cap’n Crunch box I used still in it. So, in other words, I never grew out of loving dinosaurs. I always collected rocks, and I ended up doing environmental geology for quite some time at Argonne and other consulting jobs.
How did your music career begin?
I started playing violin when I was 10. I wanted a guitar, because I wanted to be like The Beatles, but my mom made me play violin first. I had formal lessons for a few years, and then I got my first guitar and never looked back. I played in bands and open-mics throughout college.
Then in my late 20s I was living in Washington, D.C., and I started apprenticing for the guy that worked on my guitars in my spare time. That took my involvement and love for music to another level. I started to build dulcimers and violins. I would build my own instruments and do restoration for shops. It was sort of one of those survival jobs when I was between jobs.
Why did you decide to start Acoustic Kitchen?
I was at a faculty retreat in Wisconsin, and George Bailey from the English Department and I had brought our guitars, and we’re playing some of the same stuff. At that point Columbia had Big Mouth and Wise Ass, which are geared toward hip-hop and comedy. So I said, “Hey, is there someplace where students can play stuff like this?”
I had run an open-mic for years on the North Side, and we decided to set up something similar here. George came up with the name, and it took off from there. We do it once a month, and, at this point, it’s usually a full house and there are around 15 acts. It’s a good time, and it’s for the Columbia community; I just sort of like to think I facilitate it
What are some of the bands that have influenced you?
Well, this will show my age, but certainly The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan. Other folk things like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, a local Chicago guy named Steve Goodwin. I like everything from rock to folk music and some classical. I like Bach
How did C4Cycling get started?
I usually show slides in my classes of various geological trips, and I started to show some of my bicycle trips as examples of geology, as well. When students found out I had cycled across the country, they asked, “Can you do that? Is it legal?”
Well, when I was that age people did that kind of stuff all the time. There has been a resurgence in biking in the city, so the club started as a response to that. It’s for all types of bikers-fixed gear, people who want to race. I’ve been trying to get people involved in more long distance trips, so once a semester we do a weekend ride/camping trip to the Indiana Dunes.
What motivates you to be so active in the Columbia community and spend time with students?
You’ve got to give back something. I like music, building instruments; I like being around people and biking. I feel like I found a whole new generation that hungered for some of these things.
When you accumulate certain things in your life, you have to pass them onto a new generation. That’s how I look at it.
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