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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 the mother of DFO’s first beach-cleaning baby!

According to The World Economic Forumn’s 2016 report “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics,” plastic marine debris may outweigh the fish in our oceans by 2050. Upon learning this statistic, Caiti made a wholehearted commitment to protect the oceans she had long 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 those hours of cycling, the idea to start DFO was born of her desire to address the escalating plastic pollution problem—evident in the overwhelming coastal marine debris she was stumbling over throughout the ride. This brain-child began to take shape with the help of her best friend from law school Saira Fida and now husband Jeremy Waks.

Co-founder Jeremy Waks 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 building this organization alongside Caiti and Saira. Beyond his work with DFO, Jeremy is an environmentally-conscious business owner and member of the Miami Beach Sustainability Committee.

DFO Co-Founder and Treasurer Saira Fida joined the dream team with great joy to be working alongside her best friend and a 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 cherished a strong connection to our native flora and fauna.

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—a critical source of evidence-based insight that guides our communication of actionable changes for the Miami community. He took on this position at the time of DFO’s inception while pursuing a Ph.D. in Applied Marine Physics. 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 issues relevant to the spread 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 also 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 actually presented her master’s thesis on how this non-profit was built from the ground up!

Tracy worked closely with Caiti to develop many of the engaging, evidence-based educational materials that we use to inform and inspire the community to take action against plastic pollution.

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 and environmental sustainability 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. This professional closet editing service helps people cut their individual fashion waste, resells high-quality pieces, and up-cycles fabrics. She brings over 13 years of NYC design experience to her endeavorshaving worked with fashion and lifestyle companies such as VSPINK, C2C, Tesla, StartUpFashion, the NBA, Elle, Nylon, and Glamour.

Fun fact: Through DFO, Colleen co-organized Miami’s First Annual Eco Fashion Show!

Ana 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 has skills that transcend beyond our borders! She speaks English, Spanish, Galician, Italian, French and Portuguese.

Maddie Kaufman got involved with DFO by attending a collaborative dive trip between DFO and Rescue a Reef (RAR). At this event, recreational divers helped to plant 100 corals and remove 200+ lbs of debris! 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.

Fun Fact: Maddie ended up living with Katy (her dive buddy from this trip) for two years, and she is now dating Dalton (RAR Program Manager). We can’t help but wonder where she would be if she hadn’t had joined us for that trip!

Maddie spearheaded 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 Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 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 coral reef cleanup and restoration expedition called Save the Reef. The event was a tremendous hit with a serious ripple effect! We have hosted annual cleanup + restoration excursions ever since and collaborated on a number of other projects along the way.

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.

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 1,300 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!

I’m Natalia Brown— student researcher, avid small business supporter, and lover of all things sunny and sandy. 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!