The White House Names Monterey Bay Aquarium Conservation Interpreter a 'Champion of Change'

Sarah Mae Nelson, seven others honored for their work interpreting climate change to the public

Feb 06, 2015

Aquarium News
Conservation & Science

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is proud to announce that on Monday (February 9), the White House will honor Conservation Interpreter Sarah Mae Nelson and seven other individuals as “Champions of Change for Climate Education and Literacy.” Nelson is the only honoree to represent a zoo or aquarium.

The award event on Monday will “celebrate Americans who are doing extraordinary work to enhance climate education and literacy in classrooms and communities across the country,” according to the White House. It will include remarks by White House officials and a conversation with the champions.

The event will be streamed live on Monday on the White House website at from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. PST. The public can join the conversation on Twitter by following #WHChamps and #ActionClimate.

“I never dreamed as a 5-year old on my first visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium that the wonders I beheld would help to shape my life, and that one day I would spend my adult life helping to shape the future of protection for the entire ocean,” said Nelson, who was nominated by Cynthia Vernon, the aquarium’s vice president of education, guest and conservation programs.

“Sarah Mae excels at communicating complex climate science information to visitors in ways that make it understandable and relevant,” Vernon said. “More importantly, she inspires those around her to make changes in their own lives that will have a positive impact on the ocean.”

As Conservation Interpreter, Nelson creates and shares specialized training materials focusing on climate literacy and interpretation. She has helped train hundreds of staff and volunteers to effectively discuss climate change impacts and solutions with the aquarium’s 2 million annual visitors. She also committed to living plastic-free for a year and blogged about her experience to educate and inspire others to reduce their environmental impacts.

Nelson started at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1996 as a volunteer student guide, and served in a volunteer capacity until 2006, when she joined the staff. In 2009 she became the aquarium’s first-ever climate change interpretive specialist, and last year became conservation interpreter.

She is also online community manager for, a forum where informal science educators from aquariums, zoos, museums and parks share resources that help the public better understand climate change.

The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans.

Supplemental Information

In addition to Nelson, the other honorees are:

Gina Fiorile, Environmental Studies student at University of Vermont, Saranac Lake, NY.

A freshman Environmental Studies major and Aiken Scholar at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, represents the many students and youth who are committed to climate justice and the protection of our future environment.

Linda Gancitano, Physical Education Teacher at Driftwood Middle School, Hollywood, FL.

Gancitano is a physical education teacher at Driftwood Middle School (DMS) Academy of Health and Wellness. As an educator, she has received recognition as a Florida Green School Teacher of the Year, DMS Teacher of the Year, and Broward County Physical Education Teacher of the Year. 

Craig Johnson, High-School Educator at School of Environmental Studies, Apple Valley, MN.

Johnson has been an environmental and climate-change educator at the School of Environmental Studies for over a decade, integrating climate change into his classroom curricula through field-based experiences. 

David Lustick, Associate Professor of Science Education, University of Massachusetts Lowell, Nashua, NH.

Lustick is an Associate Professor of Science Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Graduate School of Education, where he conducts research on adult learning and climate-change communication.

John Morris, Interpretive Program Manager, National Park Service (retired), Eagle River, AK.

Morris is a retired Interpretive Program Manager for the National Park Service. He has worked actively over the past 10 years to develop exhibits and publications, provide training to interpreters and educators and help park managers communicate about the implications of climate change in National Parks.

Amber Nave, Georgia Program Manager, Alliance for Climate Education, Atlanta, GA.

Nave serves as the Georgia Program Manager for the Alliance for Climate Education. Through her work, she educates high school students about climate science and inspires them to take action.

Amy Snover, Assistant Dean for Applied Research, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Snover is the Director of the Climate Impacts Group and Assistant Dean for Applied Research in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. Her leadership over the past several decades has helped put communities in Pacific Northwest at the forefront of climate adaptation.

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The mission of the nonprofit Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the ocean.