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Cool Jobs: Meet Chief of Conservation and Stewardship, Letise LaFeir, PhD
By New England Aquarium on Wednesday, January 31, 2024
By Maria Palomino
Water holds universal appeal for most young children. For Chief of Conservation and Stewardship, Letise LaFeir, PhD, it’s been a catalyst for lifelong scientific inquiry.
During a recent interview with blue, LaFeir, a Chicago native, shared a story from her childhood. As a four-year-old, she and her mother were strolling along Lake Michigan when LaFeir suddenly spied a fish in the water. “What’s in the water?” she yelled as she leapt off the pier to investigate. Dangling over the water—held only by her mom’s hand—that question was one of her early inquiries into marine life, although a Great Lake was the closest she could get at the time.
LaFeir’s face lights up as she discusses growing up watching underwater adventures on the Discovery Channel and PBS and visiting Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. By high school, she was committed to becoming a marine biologist. She went to college on the East Coast, where she double majored in aquatic biology (studying salt marshes) and English at Brown University in Rhode Island before heading to the University of Delaware to pursue a doctoral degree in marine biology.
While studying blue crabs at the University of Delaware, she became interested in how her research could inform local fisheries management practices.
That curiosity led her to pursue a marine policy fellowship through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), working for now-retired Congressman Sam Farr of California, where she first employed her skills as a marine scientist to help inform policy. “Just having the opportunity to write legislation and to get that hands-on experience of negotiating laws and actually writing some of the language that went into the bills…I loved it!” She recalls with emphasis and a warm laugh, “I loved it, and I couldn’t leave policy after that.”
LaFeir has worked at the nexus of science and policy ever since for a host of distinguished organizations, including as California ocean policy manager at Monterey Bay Aquarium; policy analyst, and later national outreach coordinator for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries; and director of government relations and education program coordinator at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Most recently, she was a “Day One” political appointee in the Biden-Harris Administration, serving as senior advisor at NOAA.
When she learned about the Aquarium’s chief of conservation and stewardship position, she says it was like discovering a unicorn. “It brought together…all these pieces I’ve been doing for my entire career, coming together into one role—it’s hard to pass that up,” she says.
LaFeir sees the Aquarium as having a unique advantage over other conservation organizations. “It’s a place where we can inspire people on a continuum,” she says, with visitors who “have a sense of responsibility and stewardship…not only when they come in through our doors, but when they do our community programs or engage with us online…they become better stewards over time.”
In her new role, a position also new to the Aquarium, LaFeir oversees Animal Care, Conservation Learning, Public Policy, Community Engagement, and the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life (the Aquarium’s research arm). One of her first priorities is to identify partnerships across these divisions to effect more direct integration of teams.
She also aims to create feedback loops throughout the organization to gauge how Aquarium visitors are reacting to information imparted by Conservation Learning educators. To this end, she is working to identify more opportunities for the Conservation Learning team to work alongside the Animal Care biologists and Anderson Cabot Center researchers.
“I want to be much more intentional about the cross-training and engagement of the Conservation Learning team and our broader conservation work. They’re not just delivering our messages, they’re helping us develop them and helping us execute on the mission,” she says.
She looks forward to leading the charge to further strengthen the Aquarium’s legislative partnerships, particularly at the state and national levels. “We need to determine and engage in federal policymaking, because that can affect how we’re succeeding in the region,”
As senior advisor at NOAA, LaFeir played a central role in authoring the government’s America the Beautiful report on behalf of the Biden administration. It is the US version of the worldwide 30 by 30 conservation initiative, which—according to NOAA’s website—aims to “challenge Americans to join together in an inclusive and locally led effort to conserve at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”
LaFeir sees this initiative dovetailing well with the Aquarium’s conservation mission. “We have to get to the point where communities welcome us into
their space. There are areas that are getting flooded all the time or they don’t have river walkways or other open spaces. We could engage with those communities and help prioritize some of their restoration work.”
On board since May 1, she is also focused on meeting more of the Aquarium’s staff and animals and eventually getting into the Giant Ocean Tank. A longtime scuba diver, LaFeir takes great pride in having experienced life on and under the water on seven continents and in the deep sea.
Long-term, she’s excited to share the Aquarium’s unique conservation ethos more broadly. “Overall, my goals are for our staff and our visitors to see themselves in our mission, because I truly believe that everyone can be an ocean champion.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of blue magazine.
A Q&A with Marine Conservation Action Fund Director Elizabeth Stephenson
Meet MCAF Director Elizabeth Stephenson and hear more about our work to support ocean conservation worldwide.