Senior Virginia Weiskopf and PhD candidate Emily Nocito, both in environmental studies, head to the United Nations to research marine conservation
There are many roads to U. N. Headquarters in New York City. Senior in environmental studies and 2022 UROP-grant recipient Virginia Weiskopf chose one that Robert Frost might have called “less taken.”
“I just kind of bothered a lot of people,” says Weiskopf.
But she didn’t bother just any people. She bothered the right people. People like University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies Assistant Professor Cassandra Brooks.
“I took a class with Dr. Brooks called Governing the Environment,” says Weiskopf. “I was so inspired. So I bothered her many times: ‘Hey, could you be my mentor?’ ‘Can I work with you?’ ‘Can I please work with you?’”
Weiskopf’s persistence paid off. “OK,” Weiskopf recalled Brooks saying. “What do you want to do?”
Weiskopf admits that, “like any 21-year-old,” she didn’t exactly know. She just knew she wanted to protect the environment. So she told Brooks, “I really like what you do, so could you just give me something to do?”
Brooks helped Weiskopf narrow her research focus and introduced her to Emily Nocito, a fifth-year PhD candidate in environmental studies.
Nocito is no stranger to the United Nations. She’s been there many times—so many times, in fact, that she calls it a second home. She’s attended conferences there, participated in the U.N.’s Major Group for Children and Youth, and gave a speech there after winning the 2015-16 Millennium Oceans Prize for founding 10 by 2020, a youth-led nonprofit dedicated to ocean education and literacy.
Visiting the United Nations
This August, Nocito and Weiskopf journeyed to U.N. Headquarters to attend the fifth Intergovernmental Conference on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, the purpose of which is to finalize a multinational agreement (Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ) for protecting the high seas, those stretches of ocean that lie beyond any one country’s borders.
Nocito and Weiskopf want to know what goes into striking such high-stakes deals. How, for example, might more regional marine conservation efforts, like those enacted by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, influence large-scale agreements like the BBNJ and vice versa?
What Nocito and Weiskopf learn at the United Nations will affect not only their current research projects—Nocito’s dissertation and Weiskopf’s honors thesis—but their work post-graduation as well.
“Being at the conference,” says Weiskopf, “you get behind the scenes of what is going on in the debates,” which “you wouldn’t see reflected in the draft and final text of the agreement.”
Nocito agrees: “You get so much more than just reading the newspaper article. … You actually get to see how the sausage is made.”
Yet unlike with sausage, seeing how these deals are made hasn’t turned Weiskopf’s and Nocito’s stomachs. It’s done precisely the opposite.
“For every moment that I’m exhausted and frustrated and under-caffeinated and I just want to go to bed,” says Nocito, “there are a 100,000 more moments of me wanting to be a part of this process. This is a historic treaty, and to say that I’ve been involved in any capacity is something that I’m sure I’ll be telling my kids and grandkids and people on the streets. It’ll be my fun fact for life.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to the U.N. and be involved with international relations and the environment,” says Weiskopf. “It’s a dream come true.”
Protecting the high seas
When asked why this work matters, Nocito and Weiskopf are wary of drifting into the deep and dizzying waters of philosophy, a subject they say lies outside their comfort zones. And yet they admit that understanding the importance of the high seas, and of protecting them, requires some imagination.
Not that the high seas aren’t intrinsically valuable. They are, Weiskopf and Nocito argue. “It’s just amazing that they’re part of our universe,” Weiskopf says. “It would break my heart to lose all that biodiversity.”
I’ve always wanted to go to the U.N. and be involved with international relations and the environment. ... It’s a dream come true.
And not that the high seas serve no practical purpose. They do. “Every other breath we take comes from phytoplankton algae,” says Nocito, referencing the microscopic organisms that inhabit our oceans.
No, it’s for reasons of place and time that we must draw upon the imagination.
For one thing, Nocito explains, most people will never visit the high seas. “It’s two hundred nautical miles out. You’d need to be on a fishing vessel for six months, a year, two years to see it.”
And though the BBNJ will benefit us now, Nocito and Weiskopf assert that it’ll prove even more critical for those yet to be born.
“The people at the U.N., they’re working on something bigger than themselves,” Nocito says.
Weiskopf agrees, adding: “for future generations.”
Some may find it discouraging to devote their time and energy to places they’ll never see and people they’ll never meet, but not Nocito and Weiskopf.
“There’s something poetic about it,” says Nocito.
They may not be philosophers. But poets? Poets they may be.