Sarah-Mae Nelson is being honored as a Climate Education and Literacy Champion of Change.
My family is made up of Southerners and outdoorsmen. Some called the Great Smoky Mountains home, and others hunt and fish as a matter of course. I grew up visiting lakes and streams, mountains and plains, and spending as much time near the ocean as possible. I attended church every Sunday and Christian school from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. I learned that to waste naught was to want naught. I learned to treat others as I would have them treat me. I was raised by strong, confident women who taught me I could do anything and everything I wanted as long as I worked hard for it. My father took the time to chaperone field trips and take me to museums and into nature. My mother was my best friend.
It seems like I was born a scientist with endless questions and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I read encyclopedias, looked at creek water under a microscope, and was fascinated by the ocean and weather. A marine biology teacher in high school recognized my potential and introduced me to the student volunteering program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I started volunteering in 1996 and was introduced to the field of science interpretation. Science interpretation uses knowledge of audiences and resources, combined with communications techniques, to translate complex information into accessible messages for general audiences.
I was incredibly fortunate to train in interpretation concurrent with my undergraduate studies in marine science. Through interpretation, I learned how to communicate science to people who didn’t have access to the deep background knowledge I had acquired. Upon graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz, I entered the field of interpretation working in museums and aquariums.
Thanks to my upbringing in nature, I have always been aware of the environment around me. Through extensive readings, I was aware of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that indicated with increasing certainty that human activity was driving changes in global climate. In early 2007, an Aquarium colleague and I recognized that there was no one specializing in climate-change interpretation at our facility, and we decided to become the experts so we could fill that role. Over the next two years, the Aquariums and Climate Coalition was formed and hosted the first Communicating Climate Change Summit in December 2008. From this Summit, it was determined that climate change interpreters needed an online space to share ideas, and the website that would become climateinterpreter.org was born.
With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Monterey Bay Aquarium partnered with the National Aquarium and New England Aquarium in 2009 to create training and interpretation materials to communicate about climate change and the ocean. As part of this effort, I was asked to become one of the first-ever Climate Change Interpretive Specialists. By accepting this position, I helped lead the charge to train volunteers and staff on how to most effectively communicate climate science, ocean acidification, and climate-change impacts to Aquarium visitors.
Every day, I work with colleagues across the country to increase climate literacy through informal science education. I never imagined this was where my love of science and the ocean would take me, but I am so grateful to be here today. It is truly a joy to see understanding appear on someone’s face when they grasp what you are teaching. I live for those lightbulb moments and the change they mean for the world. There is a famous saying that tells us to “be the change.” I live the change I want to see in the world.
Sarah-Mae Nelson creates specialized training materials focusing on climate literacy and interpretation as Conservation Interpreter for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Online Community Manager for climateinterpreter.org.