Longtime marine scientist and educator Dr. Jessica Kastler has been named director of The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Marine Education Center (MEC), located at the University’s Cedar Point site in Ocean Springs, Miss. Kastler has been serving as the center’s interim director since last spring.
The MEC works across USM’s Coastal Operations to engage members of the public in ocean sciences, promoting careers and fostering community involvement through formal and informal education programs that provide participants with a better understanding of the Gulf.
Kastler, who came to USM in 2007, notes that she is excited to see the MEC gradually return to regular programming as the effects from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to recede.
“I look forward to guiding the MEC in a new landscape as it reopens from COVID-19 shutdowns to offer outdoor learning programs onsite, while continuing to develop the virtual programs we initiated in the past year as we worked remotely,” she said. “We will reach out to new audiences from diverse communities, including groups we can now work with from a distance. As we move forward with programs modified to reflect what we learned in the last year, we will collect concrete data to evaluate our success in reaching and teaching all of our audiences.”
As MEC director, Kastler’s primary duties include:
- Manage and direct the Marine Education Center and its programs, through engagement of USM scientists and the public.
- Direct the undergraduate Summer Field Program in coordination with academic units.
- Coordinate and direct grant funded research projects.
- Advance marine education and outreach initiatives of the University of Southern Mississippi and its Coastal Operations.
- Collaborate with internal and external partners and represent USM in efforts to promote environmental and science literacy and engagement.
- As part of the coastal research leadership team, participate in events involving state and regional groups (legislators, political leaders, agencies, contractors, non-governmental organizations, etc.) to advance USM’s research and educational missions.
Dr. Kelly Lucas, Associate Vice President for Research, Coastal Operations, says that Kastler’s ability to reach across communities and bring together diverse audiences to engage in marine and environmental research and educational programming will further enhance the Marine Education Center and benefit USM Coastal Operations.
“Dr. Kastler has served in the capacity on an interim basis since March of 2020 just as we were shutting our doors due to the pandemic. Dr. Kastler and her team at the MEC were able to continue to offer virtual programs but the Center’s funding was heavily impacted by the pandemic,” said Lucas. “She navigated the changing landscape of the pandemic and virtual programming while engaging in new opportunities to elevate and integrate the MEC across our Coastal Operations.”
A New Orleans native, Kastler earned her PhD in Oceanography and Coastal Sciences (1999) and BS in Geology (1987) from Louisiana State University, and her MS in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia (1993).
After completing postdoctoral research considering hypoxia in Gulf of Mexico sediments at Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, she began her journey to enrich student-active learning in field settings while directing LUMCON’s Marine Education program. She has continued this work at USM’s Marine Education Center since 2007.
Kastler points out that some of her favorite projects since joining the MEC have helped build bridges between scientists and other communities through outdoor learning in marshes, on beaches, in kayaks, and on research vessels.
“People learn better by doing,” she said.
And by doing its part to inform and educate visitors, Kastler stresses that USM’s Marine Education Center remains a unique resource for communities throughout the Gulf South region and beyond.
“At our award-winning center, students of all ages learn how science works by exploring coastal habitats using the tools of scientists and in the company of professional science educators,” said Kastler. “Groups from different sectors and states meet to create partnerships. The MEC links the work of USM Coastal Operations to communities across the Gulf Coast to help young people learn ocean science and technology news and build their confidence, while making decisions that improve resilience and environmental stewardship.”