Illustration of Kristen Kusek
Illustration: Joel Kimmel
Kristen Kusek ’94

An Ocean of Stories

by Michael Blanding
Kristen Kusek ’94 fell in love with the ocean during childhood trips to the Jersey shore. Now, as director of strategic communications for the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, she combines a passion for science and storytelling to demystify the sea. Kusek also leads a new outreach program, Guardians of the Gulf, to teach marine science to disadvantaged youth. This fall, she made waves with a viral op-ed for the Tampa Bay Times decrying the rise of disinformation about COVID-19.

What motivates you to tell science stories?

I find it profoundly satisfying to be able to take what is often a scientist’s lifetime of work and distill it into a story that will not only get people to understand it but also to care about it. It’s a tremendous privilege.

How do you make science accessible to the public?

I try to get to know the scientists behind the science and understand what makes them tick. People don’t necessarily care about the ninth decimal point of the science, but they care about people and find it interesting to see why a scientist’s work is important through their own eyes.

You traveled to the bottom of the Pacific to film an IMAX movie — what was that like?

It was extraordinary! You are in a 6-foot submersible sphere with three people, and it takes two hours to make the descent. At one point, we turned on the lights and watched a reverse snowfall of bioluminescent creatures — it was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen. You can’t believe anything lives down there, let alone this wild kaleidoscope of colors. I always feel like one of my missions as a science writer is to make sure people know discovery is not dead.

Why do you think there is so much skepticism about science?

It’s a real tangled hairball of a problem that converged around COVID. There is a well-funded anti-science movement that’s really sophisticated and makes it hard to tell fact from fiction. People didn’t understand that we were watching science unfold in real time, and that science makes mistakes, but it also fixes itself and learns as it keeps going. Those of us who understand how science works appreciate and accept that. Others capitalized on that and turned it into skepticism.

What gives you hope for the future?

Most of the feedback I got from the op-ed has been big-time positive, and people have shared great resources with me about programs such as the News Literacy Project. I have tremendous passion for the new program I’m building for underserved youth, Guardians of the Gulf. Some of these kids live 5 miles from the beach, and they’ve never been there. If we can get kids to care about science and expose them to jobs in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math), we’ve got some hope to build the next generation of stewards.

On a lighter note, you collect Dr. Seuss books. Why?

I love Dr. Seuss’ playfulness. Even though his books are sing-songy and fun for kids, there’s often a more profound message grounding them that you only really appreciate as you grow into adulthood. Like the Lorax said: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”