Kenny Broad: Doing science under water

Photo by Leonard and Jayne Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy

UM Anthropologist Explores ‘Blue Holes’

Kenny Broad doesn’t fit the stereotype of a university research scientist – thick-rimmed glasses, white lab coat and shy demeanor.

He wears goggles instead of glasses, scuba gear instead of a white coat and he’s laid-back and outgoing. And Broad, an anthropologist at the University of Miami, does his work hundreds of feet under water, often in dark caves where one wrong move can be fatal.

“Cave diving is about risk management, with a dose of denial thrown in,” Broad said. “Preparation and over-preparation help.”

As the director of the University of Miami’s Leonard and Jane Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, Broad, 45, has been involved in exploring “blue holes” in the region. These are inland, underwater caves that appear on the surface to be crystal-blue lakes.

When Broad and his team put on their gear and slip beneath the surface, they delve into a vibrant, mysterious world filled with tunnels that branch out in all directions like an intricate underwater subway system.

The reason Broad and his team dive these holes is to find mineral samples that are tens of thousands of years old and discover species of aquatic life that no one has seen before.

“I can think of no other environment on earth that is so challenging to explore and gives us back so much scientifically,” Broad said in the August 2010 issue of National  Geographic magazine. “It’s an alien world down there that keeps pushing us beyond our dreams.”

The National Geographic cover story focused on the 2009 Bahamas Blue Hole Exploration, an endeavor conceived by Broad. He and his hand-picked team explored a blue hole named Stargate on Andros Island.

Such explorations, which require months and sometimes years of training and preparation, are not for the faint of heart. That’s because the clock is ticking every second they spend underwater.

A complication such as faulty equipment or the unpredictable release of gasses that disrupts visibility among team members can turn their scientific work into a struggle to reach the surface before oxygen runs out. Tick, tock.

Yet there’s no place Broad would rather be than in the water.

“I first went scuba diving when I was 11,” said Broad, “and all I ever wanted to do since then was” to be “in or under water.”

As exciting as cave-diving is, there are other aspects of Broad’s research that are just as crucial to learning more about the planet.

“He doesn’t just stick to one niche like most scientists do,” said Gina Maranto, a colleague of Broad’s at the Abess Center.  “He goes around to multiple fields. He’s very charismatic and well-versed in various areas of science.”

Broad also focuses on the theories of communication and participation in terms of how people find, interpret and react to information about  environmental issues.

“I need the mix of classroom and field to keep my sanity,” he said.

Broad is also co-director of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, where he earned his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1999.  He also has a master’s in marine science from the University of Miami and a bachelor’s in literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“Kenny is very free form, a great brainstormer,” said Amelia Moore, another University of Miami colleague. “He’s very enthusiastic about new things, exploring things that he’s never seen before.”

Another project that Broad and his Abess Center colleagues are excited about is a hands-on program that aims at getting people more involved in the environment around them. One activity of the Citizens Science Initiative   will be “shark-tagging,” in which participants put trackers on sharks and then follow their movements via home computers.

Broad has earned many honors during his career. Perhaps one of the biggest was his being named, with his late friend, Wes Skiles, as 2011 Explorers of the Year by the National Geographic Society. Skiles, who photographed the Bahamas Blue Hole with Broad’s team, died in a diving accident in 2010 off the Florida coast.

“I find the term ‘explorer’ a bit pretentious,” Broad said. “On the one hand, it’s a bit embarrassing, particularly when I look at amazing accomplishments in many fields that individuals are doing.

“On the other hand,” he said, “the recognition from Nat Geo, an organization I hold in high esteem, is quite meaningful. As an individual, the only recognition I should get is for choosing great collaborators and team members.”

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5 responses to “Kenny Broad: Doing science under water”

  1. Francis Oliver says:

    Wonderfully composed piece! I myself am a student at the University of Miami and have hoped to take a class with Professor Broad since I was exposed to his research via National Geographic. The depiction of danger in a dive was indeed nerve-wracking.

  2. It is good to know that there’s people that care about researching underwater. There’s so much more world to discover underwater and I am sure, many more species than we can think of. I am starting to scuba dive now and I am completely in love with it. The ocean is beautiful and I would encourage everyone to take the time to see it, feel it and live it.
    As a student I would like to say that the “mix of classroom and field” doesn’t only keep his sanity but, I am sure, his students attention as well. I think a professor needs to be continuously in contact with the field that is teaching because things move fast and you need to be on top of it all the time not to become obsolete.

  3. Sarah Mosler says:

    This story is like a firm handshake with a pretty interesting character. I enjoyed glancing into Dr. Broad’s reality and learning a little about him.

    As the child of parents who originally met caving, I grew up crawling through some of Florida’s untouched environments, and when I was accepted to the University of Miami I was dive certified within the year. I don’t imagine I’ll ever combine the two.

    Dr. Broad isn’t dramatizing when he says cave diving is about risk management. Many well-known cave divers like Skiles die doing what they love; it’s just that dangerous. I’m sure Dr. Broad would agree; however, it is worth it for the scientific discoveries.

  4. Pablo says:

    I find it awesome that Professor Broad was able to find his passion and stick to it as such a young age. The best teachers are those that love their subject matter and live for what they teach. It takes a lot of confidence to follow your heart into a profession, which is what I hope to do in my life.

  5. OliverB says:

    Wow this was an incredible story. I hope that people continue to do research underwater, as I think it is really awesome to hear what people like you found.