UCF doctoral student Callie Veelenturf always knew she wanted to have a positive impact on the natural world. As a child, she idolized environmentalist Jane Goodall and aspired to become a conservationist like her. The two even share a birthday, creating a special connection and fueling Veelenturf’s longstanding desire to make an impact on the planet.

As she grew older, Veelenturf began to recognize the gap between environmental policy and the direct implementation of such policies. Wanting to bridge the divide, she set out to work in the field and conduct research that could make a difference at a political level by contributing to the creation of new conservation policies.

In 2019, Veelenturf launched her own nonprofit organization, The Leatherback Project, to address the issues threatening turtles and ocean ecosystems. After searching for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to join that would support her vision for combatting threats to leatherbacks at sea and taking a rights-based approach, she realized that there were none. Determined to be a voice for the species, she decided to create her own nonprofit and advocate for the implementation of science-led, high-impact conservation measures and laws designed to establish the rights of this endangered species and ecosystems. Veelenturf knew that leatherbacks could act as flagship species, meaning that by discussing the threats facing their survival, she could draw attention to many of the most pressing threats facing the ocean today.

And the hard work and dedication to conservation efforts is being recognized around the globe.

In addition to being named one of the 2024 Future for Nature Award winners, the University of Rhode Island College of Life Science 2024 10 Under 10 Awardee and The Explorers Club 2024 New Explorer of the Year for her work in exploring new legal pathways to protect Nature as a scientist, her work has been featured on the front page of the Washington Post, and on CBS News, and in Smithsonian Magazine.

Veelenturf was also recognized by the United Nations Development Program Ocean Innovation Challenge as one of the 2022 winners and award recipients. Additionally, she’s been named a 2020 National Geographic Early Career Leader, a Scientist with the United Nations Harmony with Nature Programme, a Mission Blue Hope Spot Champion, a Fellow and United Nations Youth Representative for The Explorers Club, and one of the 2023 Ocean Youth Leaders of the year through the Sustainable Ocean Alliance.

Veelentuf now leads a team of scientists, local community members, storytellers, and students championing the conservation of leatherbacks and other threatened and endangered marine life through community empowerment, research and advocacy. Their work led to the passing of Panama’s Right of Nature Law 287 in 2022, which can inspire the passage of such laws in other nations around the world.

She’s also conducting research in Kate Mansfield’s Marine Turtle Research Group while working towards her Ph.D. in Integrative and Conservation Biology at UCF. Her strong desire to work with Mansfield was the primary reason she came to the university. Veelenturf, a native of Norfolk, Massachusetts, says she wanted to learn from the best and collaborate with someone equally passionate about marine conservation.

“The ocean is the largest ecosystem in the world, so preserving marine life to protect the seas is a vital effort,” Veelenturf says. “Today, one of the greatest threats to the marine ecosystems is fisheries bycatch, which is the unintentional capture of marine animals that are not the target species of a commercial fishing operation. It is a paramount issue, causing problems for both sea creatures and industrial fishermen alike and often results in the unnecessary deaths of marine life.”

One species most impacted by bycatch is the leatherback sea turtle, which is Veelenturf’s primary research focus. She aims to ideate creative solutions to complex environmental problems, including through the recognition of the legal intrinsic rights of these animals and their coastal and open ocean habitats. Without drastic measures, certain subpopulations of the leatherback turtle are in danger of becoming functionally extinct.

Over the years, Veelenturf has conducted marine research and advocacy in various countries around the globe, including Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, Equatorial Guinea and Costa Rica. Through a National Geographic Society Early Career Grant awarded in 2019, she became a National Geographic Explorer and initiated a pilot project to study sea turtles in the Pearl Islands Archipelago of Panama. She has since gone on to be a Scientist with the United Nations Harmony with Nature Programme, support numerous international conservation organizations, and serve as an advisor to various governments fighting for the Rights of Nature.

Veelenturf completed her bachelor’s degree in marine biology with a minor in wildlife conservation from the University of Rhode Island and her master’s in biology from Purdue University.