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Snapshots from the UN Ocean Conference

As part of the Knauss Fellowship, fellows have the opportunity to engage in professional development and travel related to their placements. This summer, a group of fellows traveled to Lisbon, Portugal, for the United Nations Ocean Conference. Each fellow engaged with different teams and topics at the conference. Hear from a few of those fellows about their unique experiences below.


Kaitlen Lang
NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Office of the Assistant Administrator

“I’ve traveled for work before, but not like this. I’m a fisheries biologist by training, and typically, traveling for work meant going to a small town in Ohio, nestled between corn fields and Phragmites, on the hot green shores of Lake Erie, to catch grass carp, a large, plant-eating invasive fish. This time, my work took me to Lisbon, Portugal, an ancient city known for its azulejo tiles, fresh seafood, and medieval castles. I was there to attend the United Nations Ocean Conference, a place for politicians, scientists and activists to meet, discuss pressing issues and adopt resolutions to solve them.


Specifically, I was there to help UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) put on several events that highlighted the Ocean Decade, including the Ocean Decade Forum. With an audience capacity of around 300 people, the Forum was one of the biggest side events at the conference, and it served as a platform to celebrate the community and progress of the Ocean Decade thus far. As a Knauss Fellow in NOAA Research’s Office of the Assistant Administrator, I worked closely with the IOC to select speakers, create a run-of-show, put together briefing materials for the moderators, create talking points and work with the technical team on the ground to ensure we had excellent lighting and sound. I was especially happy that NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Ocean Services and Coastal Zone Management, Nicole LeBeuof, participated as a speaker on a panel during the event.


I think it’s easy to get swept away in the glamor of a UN conference – with the celebrities, cocktail hours, and media frenzy. But I want to acknowledge that real substance came from the Ocean Conference, and that resolutions made during the conference represent more than just words. This language guides on-the-ground action through policy, funding opportunities, partnerships and grants. Witnessing these types of high-level political declarations gave me new insight into my professional career before the Knauss Fellowship; they’re likely the reason how and why I was employed as a fisheries biologist to manage grass carp. I can only hope that somewhere, someday, another young woman gets her start from the outcomes of the UN Ocean Conference.” 


Lauren Howe-Kerr
National Science Foundation, Division of Ocean Sciences

“As a Knauss fellow at the National Science Foundation (NSF), I attended the UN Ocean Conference as a part of the U.S. Delegation. This conference focused on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water and catalyzing the science we need for the ocean we want. This conference made me reflect on my first UN conference—the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (or Rio +20), which I attended in high school as part of a youth exchange. It was at Rio +20 that the UN first decided to author a set of Sustainable Development Goals. Little did I know, a decade later, I would be attending a subsequent UN conference in an official capacity, building momentum for a decade focused on sustaining our global ocean. 


The U.S. delegation had a carefully coordinated schedule to ensure that U.S. representatives were spread across as many events and meetings as possible so that we could collectively get a good grasp of the conversations taking place at the conference. Part of my duties involved taking notes during the main plenary. During the plenary, member countries provided five-minute statements about their main priorities and goals. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate (SPEC), John Kerry, led our delegation and provided the U.S. statement. A personal highlight for me was sitting at the U.S. desk next to SPEC Kerry— never has note-taking been so nerve-wracking or exciting! 


In my NSF role, I focused on attending events related to ocean-climate solutions. NSF is co-chairing a Federal working group focused on writing the first U.S.G. Ocean Climate Action Plan, so it was wonderful timing to get to learn about how governments, philanthropy, industry and others are thinking about how the oceans can be a part of our approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” 


Madyson Miller
NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program and U.S. Coral Reef Task Force

“An entire hub at the UN Ocean Conference was dedicated to coral reefs! The Reef Action Hub was organized by the International Coral Reef Initiative and the Global Fund for Coral Reefs. It provided a safe place for coral scientists, managers, advocates and champions to have conversations about coral reef conservation, restoration, action and innovative research. As the Knauss Fellow for NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program, I was able to shadow and participate in various conversations within the Reef Action Hub, including panels and meetings focused on gender equity, coral reef monitoring, global restoration efforts and the future of coral reefs (to name a few). It was an incredible opportunity to hear from some of the world’s most prominent coral reef experts as they came together to spread a message of hope for the future of coral reefs.


One of the highlights of my time in the Reef Action Hub was attending a breakfast hosted by the International Coral Reef Initiative, which the United States currently chairs. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs of the United States Monica Medina and the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere & NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D. represented the United States, but other coral champions in attendance included His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco and Her Royal Highness Princess Victoria of Sweden. The conversations around what each country represented is doing to support coral conservation inspired me and left me hopeful for the future of coral reefs. Dr. Spinrad even named me a coral champion (see my shocked face!) alongside my mentor Jennifer Koss, Director of NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program and Nicole LeBeouf, Assistant Secretary of NOAA’s National Ocean Service. Sitting in a room of such important political figures motivated to spearhead and help support coral reef initiatives, like the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, was amazing.” 

To learn more about the Knauss Fellowship visit


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