Kenny Broad’s journey from a BA in CCS Literature (’89) to a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University to joining Miami University’s faculty and becoming National Geographic’s 2011 Explorer of the Year is anything but ordinary. While he is now a world-renowned cave diver, he joined CCS while still searching to find his place at UCSB. His passion for academia stemmed from the exceptional learning experience CCS offers all of its students.
In January 2017, Broad returned to UC Santa Barbara as a College of Creative Studies Distinguished fellow to give a lecture to a jam-packed Campbell Hall as part of the UCSB Arts and Lectures National Geographic Live series. Following the talk in Campbell Hall, Broad led a very engaging and inspiring two-hour conversation with CCS students.
Recently, media outlets from across North American have interviewed Broad about his career and expedition experiences, which include little known subjects such as how cocaine use spreads and the cultural role venomous snakes. The main focus of the conversation below is on his time at CCS. Additionally, he touches on his climate change research and the experiences that shaped him. Enjoy!
What drew you to CCS as a student?
I guess I was a student in search of a major, so I tried just about every major possible and found a lot of interesting things but nothing that really stuck. That might have been in part because of the larger classrooms that a lot of the introductory classes were taught in with lots of students. It just didn't really foster the kind of space for creativity on the student side anyway--at least for the most part. Then I actually ended up leaving school for a year and a half, and when I came back I was always kind of intrigued by the non-descript building with this strange title 'College of Creative Studies'. I happened to follow a dog into it, trying to meet the dog's owner, and I ended up walking right into an art reception that was going on in CCS. That is how I learned about it and I ended up applying. I picked Literature because I always liked to read and I kind of enjoyed writing. In retrospect, I am very glad that I chose that because no matter what field you end up in, you still have to communicate. Whether it is the quantitative sciences or out in the private sector, it is critical. You can make up for a lot with good communication.
While you were at CCS were you involved in any clubs, research on campus or anything like that?
No formal clubs, at least from what I can remember. I made lifelong friends, including a couple of my professors from CCS--we ended up living at the same time in New York City and became very good friends, Bob Blaisdell in particular. It was an interesting time at UCSB because of the anti-apartheid protest to try and get the UC system to divest. So I would say there was kind of an informal group where you got to know everyone, a lot of which was related to the protests and also some environmental issues of the time--related to overfishing, whaling and that kind of stuff. Outside the people of my class, that was the cohort that I hung out with and then I also had my surfing buddies.
Additionally, I used to work a lot of diving jobs from when I was a teenager, which is how I would make side-money. Sometimes I would leave school and do different types of diving either for science diving or underwater film. I was a diving medic and I did a lot of that during the year and a half that I took off of school.
During that year and a half did you stay in SB?
No I actually moved. I got into this art semiotics program at Brown University because I was also into filmmaking and I stayed for a whole semester--it was too cold and everyone wore all black. Then I got my EMT license, my Coast Guard 200-ton ship license, diving medical technician certification. I was working on those things and then for a range of reasons, which are pretty obvious, I decided to go back to school. And I missed Santa Barbara. If I remember correctly, I actually had to re-apply to UCSB.
How did CCS help prepare you for graduate school?
Unlike most of the, at least introductory, classes that I took at Letters and Sciences in UCSB, when I got into the smaller CCS classes I realized that it kind of felt like what graduate school is like. I really liked that and I think that is what planted the seed that academia can be a two-way conversation between students and faculty, as opposed to the loading dock approach of just handing over information to students to regurgitate out.
At the talk you said you try not to give advice to students, but you always say 'don't be afraid to try new things'. What keeps you trying to do new things?
I think for me, the only thing that keeps me going is learning new things. I am not very confortable once I am confortable with something and I want to try something else that pushes my limits. I think that was true to a certain degree when I was a student. I think the role of an undergraduate education is to expose people to as many different things as possible to see what clicks, what challenges them in a positive way, as opposed to a priori deciding what sort of career we want to be in. Most of us think we can envision the future and what we will be like in the future, but it rarely turns out that way.
When you were in CCS, do you remember what you thought your career would look like?
I had no clue, I still don't. I get surprised from situations I find myself in all the time.
That is interesting, especially because many of today’s CCS students seem to have a definitive plan for their career during their time here.
I have a lot of respect for people who have a drive and passion for one particular topic, I really do. My wife is like that. From when she was a kid, she knew she wanted to work on physics and she stuck with it and is now a university professor. She did her undergrad and grad in physics so I am not belittling those people; it is just not the way I work. Maybe that is why I chose anthropology as a PhD, because it is inherently interdisciplinary and inherently social. I learn better from direct contact from people. I think, again, that’s what was so great about the small class size at CCS.
How did it feel to be back and give a talk to UCSB and CCS students?
It was awesome! It was a full crowd at Campbell hall and I couldn’t believe the fact that people I have known for 30 years, including my roommates, came back; it was great. This was a talk that was about my personal experience about exploration and the tradeoffs between risk, science and the moral conundrums that you can find yourself in. It covered some of the projects I have I have been involved in over the past 25 years. In many ways, it was a good time to reflect and really it was the first time I have given the talk so it was fitting it was at UCSB. It was great to be there.
You said in a previous interview that 'real life experiences are what shape us'. What real life experiences shaped you the most?
I think certainly my interest in pursing environmentally related issues was driven by actually physically going to remote places and seeing what kind of impact even small populations of humans can have on the environment and how those changes in the environment can then feedback and influence local culture. So reading about it in a book is one thing. Diving with the locals in a place and hearing their stories of how things have changed and their understandings of why they have changed sort of brought it to life is another.
In almost every interview I’ve listened to, you talk about how fresh water supplies will be affected by the rising sea levels. This could affect millions of people, but doesn’t get much attention in the media or societal culture. Why do you think this is so?
As humans, we perceive risk based on experience and it is very hard to experience things that are going on out of sight and out of mind. These slow and invisible creeping problems, like climate change or sea level rise, and our mental models of them tend to be associated with issues like flooding, for example, or melting ice. We don't realize what is happening with even the tiniest bit of what is imperceptible to us as humans, without instruments that is, in relation to sea level rise, can actually be causing big changes. For example, if seawater (or polluted fresh water) flows not over the top of land, but actually into the land like a sponge and gets into our ground water, that is a problem. We are even more susceptible as population grows because we are pulling out that water for human and industrial uses. That is one of the reasons that I like cave diving because we can bring back imagery that actually shows the interface between the salt and fresh water.
What is your most memorable expedition, or an expedition that stood out to you?
They all stand out in unique ways. Some for tragic reasons--of people who died on the expeditions--some for the people I met and others for the natural phenomena I have seen. So it is a hard one to answer. I might have to use Bob Ballard, who is actually another UCSB graduate. When people ask 'what the favorite or most memorable place you have ever been', Bob's answer, which I will use, is 'the next place I am going.' In fact, one of the next projects I am doing is going to be in the Channel Islands this summer with Bob Ballard, exploring some of the submerged sea caves.