In 2001, a group of scientists gave the organisms that cause red tide a new scientific name: Karenia brevis. The Karenia in that name is for Karen.
Research scientist Karen Steidinger spent decades working to better understand the harmful algal blooms that we can’t see evidence of until there’s so many that it’s a fish-killing, respiratory-irritating, long-occurring natural phenomenon.
“I am amazed by the structure in things so small,” Steidinger told the St. Petersburg Times in 2001. “They have a beautiful, hidden architecture.”
Steidinger’s work opened our eyes, from better understanding red tide to advocating new ways for science and government to work together. She died June 11 at 84 of natural causes.
The scientist, who lived in Parrish, first came to Florida in 1963 with, poetically, the red tide.
‘Lady biologist will study sea grasses next’
Steidinger grew up in New York and spent summers in Sarasota. When she moved to St. Petersburg with her mother and grandmother in 1963, it was during a red tide outbreak.
Steidinger, who had studied English, was looking for a job when she saw a newspaper ad for a lab tech. The budding scientist worked at the Department of Natural Resources and went to school, getting her bachelor’s in zoology, master’s in marine biology and later her Ph.D. in biology, according to a 1971 Tampa Tribune story with the headline “Lady biologist will study sea grasses next.”
It didn’t take long for Steidinger to become the person others went to when trying to understand red tide.
“Steidinger today is considered a national authority on the organism that periodically causes massive fish kills along Florida’s gulf coast,” the Times reported in 1978.
“But there’s much we have to learn,” she added.
And so she did.
While her research included harmful algal blooms, Steidinger’s own influence was a benevolent one.
“When she served as chief of Florida Marine Research Institute, she boosted her budget from $5,000 to $5 million in seven years, established many programs still in existence today, and secured funding to develop the state-of-the-art marine science complex in which she works,” Bay Soundings reported in 2003.
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Steidinger was one of the people behind the evolution of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, which is part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That organization was created through a constitutional amendment.
It’s built of three components, said Gil McRae, FWRI’s director: management, research and law enforcement.
“And the fact that research is identified in the constitution as a component of this government agency is really a testament to her influence,” he said. “To state that she literally formed the foundation for the type of work we do — objective, high-quality science within government — is an accurate statement.”
Steidinger was a writer and a poet. She loved animals and birds. She added humor and laughter to long hours at the microscope. And as much as she taught, she also was focused on learning and collaborating.
“People working together, sharing thoughts and data, that was the key, she always said that,” said Leanne Flewelling, a former student, mentee and colleague, who works at FWRI. “So many people are possessive with their theories and their work, and she just always put everything out there and wanted to work across boundaries.”
Steidinger advised on harmful algal blooms in dozens of countries and was published often and widely. And until she died, she kept working, including on a book of taxonomy on harmful algae in the Gulf of Mexico. This year, FWRI created its first paid internship program in Steidinger’s name. She would likely say her biggest impact was on the hundreds of young scientists she mentored, McRae said.
“But in terms of contributions to her discipline, the science of harmful algal blooms and red tides in particular, she’s been recognized with every award that’s been given out in that field,” he said. “There’s still some things we don’t know about red tide, but we’re much further along because of Karen’s contributions.”
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.