Written by: Natalia Brown

Behind every non-profit organization is a group of individuals invested in advancing its mission. Debris Free Oceans is fortunate enough to have a dynamic dream team composed of engaged scientists and passionate activists exemplifying and spreading its mission while cultivating forward-thinking change within and beyond Miami. This quick read will offer you a glimpse into the people, ideas and moments that have created our uniquely engaged culture and brought DFO’s mission to life!

Caiti Waks is the ringleader of our bunch—she’s a trail-blazing go-getter, long-time advocate for marine ecosystem conservation, and soon to be momma! Upon internalizing the severity of the projection that, by 2050, there will be more plastic marine debris in our oceans than fish; Caiti wholeheartedly committed herself to protecting the oceans she had always found serenity in. During her post-graduate studies of coastal and marine law and policy at the University of Florida, she embarked on a cross-country bicycling trip to raise money and build awareness for young adults with cancer. During the hours she spent peddling away, DFO was born of her desire to address the escalating plastic pollution problem, evident in the overwhelming coastal marine debris she had recently been stumbling over.

Shortly after, this brain-child began to take shape with the help of her best friend from law school, Saira Fida, and now husband, Jeremy Waks.

Jeremy Waks, one of DFO’s co-founders, is an ocean-grown avid diver and surfer with a long-standing passion for the sea. After studying Environmental Science at the University of Florida, he delved into developing this organization, alongside Caiti and Saira, from the group up. Beyond his work with DFO, Jeremy is an environmentally-conscious business owner and member of the Miami Beach Sustainability Committee.

Fun Fact: Jeremy and Caiti are a happy couple … expecting a beach-cleaning baby this month!

Also one of DFO’s co-founders and our Treasurer, Saira Fida joined the dream team with great joy to be working alongside her best friend and genuine desire to leave the world a little better than she found it. She was born and raised in the sunshine state, where she’s developed a strong connection to the beauty and serenity of our natural landscape.

Saira is an avid yogi who, much like her passion for sustainability, aims to make the practice more accessible and approachable to those who many not feel confident or flexible enough, as she once did.

Nathan Laxague is DFO’s Director of Science⁠—an integral source of research-backed insight that guides our communication of actionable changes for the Miami community. He took on this position at the time of DFO’s inception, all while pursuing his Ph.D. in Applied Marine Physics on the dynamic physical interactions between our atmosphere and oceans. Throughout the years, Nathan has engaged our leadership team in discussions of recent findings on air-sea interaction physics, ocean surface currents, pollutant transport, and other fields relevant to the contemporary crisis of marine debris.

Today, he actively studies physical air-sea interactions related to near-surface ocean currents as a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Fun Fact: Nathan married someone he met at DFO’s very first Keg + Klean event! 

Tracy Nolan likewise joined DFO in its early days and has been deeply devoted to elevating our mission since. Fully invested in the foundation of this organization, she presented her masters thesis on how this non-profit was built from the ground up. She worked closely with Caiti to develop many of the engaging, research-backed educational materials that we use to inform and inspire the community to take action against plastic pollution. In fact, Keg + Klean (one of our most popular cleanup events) was born of her passion for zero waste living, interest in supporting local businesses, and regard for the value of community engagement. Although she is no longer living in Miami, we are proud that Tracy continues to exemplify and spread the DFO mission while advocating for marine conservation, supporting sustainable action, and keeping us in-the-loop on recent findings in the scientific community!

As our Eco-Fashion Director, Colleen Coughlin educates and inspires the Miami community to strive for zero-waste living through lifestyle and fashion. She holds degrees in both Apparel Design from SUNY College at Buffalo and Textile/Surface Design from The Fashion Institute of Technology. Frustrated with the incredible waste she saw as a Victoria’s Secret Designer, Colleen quit her job and founded TheFullEdit, a professional closet editing service which helps people cut their own fashion waste, resells high-quality pieces and upcycles fabrics. She brings over 13 years of NYC design experience to her endeavors; having worked with fashion and lifestyle companies such as VSPINK, C2C, Tesla, StartUpFashion, The NBA, Elle, Nylon, and Glamour. Through DFO, Colleen co-organized organized Miami’s First Annual Eco Fashion Show!

Likewise a member of the DFO BoardAna Meira is our strategy-savvy, creative media guru. With her innovative ideas and strong brand-development experience; she has revamped our online media presence and overall reach by making DFO resources more readily and aesthetically accessible! She is also a proud advocate for land and resource conservation as a board member of the Florida National Parks Association.

Fun Fact: Ana is a worldly creative director with skills beyond our borders! She speaks English, Spanish, Galician, Italian, French and Portuguese.

Maddie Kaufman got involved with DFO by attending a “Save the Reef” collaborative dive trip between DFO and Rescue a Reef (RAR), in which recreational divers helped to plant 100 corals and remove 200+ lbs of debris from the reef! She went on to work at South Beach Divers and become a PADI divemaster, volunteer as the DFO outreach coordinator, and volunteer in the coral restoration lab that runs RAR (to eventually be offered a part-time job and then a master’s position).

Fun Fact: Maddie ended up living with her dive buddy from this trip, Katy, for two years, and is now dating Dalton (who runs Rescue a Reef)— we can’t help but wonder where she would be if she hadn’t had gone on that trip!

She established our Dive Against Debris program, through which we’ve been able to run monthly reef cleanups out of the Miami Beach marina and collect and submit debris data to PADI Project AWARE and the FDEP. We are ecstatic that she has launched this initiative— DFO is one of the only groups to run these dives regularly in Miami-Dade County!

Dalton Hesley has been a proud supporter and strong contributor to the advancement of DFO’s mission as far back as we can all remember! He is the Program Manager for Rescue a Reef, a citizen science program using science-based techniques to grow threatened coal species and effectively restore coral reefs at the University of Miami. Soon after learning about DFO, he and Caiti teamed up to organize a collaborative offshore “Save the Reef” coral reef cleanup and restoration expedition. The event was a tremendous hit with a serious ripple effect! We have hosted an annual cleanup + restoration excursion ever since and collaborated on a number of other endeavors along the way. Hundreds of corals out-planted and hundreds of pounds of debris removed! 

With her great compassion and vibrant energy, it’s no surprise that Katy Roth also joined the DFO team and began forging meaningful connections soon after attending our very first dive clean-up! Growing up in Kansas, ocean protection wasn’t exactly a hot topic during her upbringing. However, Katy’s passion for positive change and environmental stewardship guided her to connect with our like-minded community, her waste stream, and the amazing oceans that surround us … even from afar in one the most landlocked states! Katy is especially proud of the strength and grounded optimism expressed by the DFO team in addressing the weighty environmental challenges we are facing as a society.

Fun fact: Katy met one of her all-time best friends, our own Maddie Kaufman, on the same dive she had first connected with our organization at the year before!

Sofia Mesa is a fashion-forward, plant-based powerhouse and the first of our team to experience the full breadth of the Chef Andrew Scholar Program. She has educated over 1300 students on the effects of plastic pollution and will be directing the continuation of this program as we recruit new scholars to lead and inspire their communities!

Fun Fact: Both Sofia and Esther Cai, our recently inaugurated Chef Andrew Scholar, first learned about our mission through DFO marine debris education presentations hosted at their high schools. Their motivation to reduce their own dependence on plastics and inspire other young people to join in making a difference through sustainable action truly brings the educational component of our mission full circle!

Then, there’s me! I’m Natalia Brown— student researcher, conscious consumption advocate, and intentional minimalist. When I first learned about DFO, I was immediately drawn to the ties between the organization’s mission and my personal values. Most recently, I’ve been conducting research on the use of recycled aggregate, nonmetallic reinforcements, and seawater in a more sustainable alternative to conventional concrete used in coastal infrastructure. I am ecstatic to be working with DFO in the coming months to amplify and inform our community’s essential conversations surrounding the plastic pollution crisis.

Let me know what topics you want DFO’s Trash Talk to explore next: natalia@debrisfreeoceans.org!