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Women in Science with Sarah Callan

When most people walk into work on any given day, they have a planned schedule and an idea of how their day is going to play out. They have meetings set up and a list of tasks to get accomplished. Although I have a to-do list each day and meetings that occur, what I love about my job is that at any given moment, the plans for my day can go completely out the door! Each day is different, and I am always learning something new.  As the Assistant Manager of the Animal Rescue Program at Mystic Aquarium, my job responsibilities are vast. Our program has a coverage area of CT, RI, and Fishers Island, NY, and responds to a variety of marine mammals and sea turtles that call our shoreline home. We have a 24-hour hotline for the public to call if they ever find a marine animal that may be in distress. I have received hotline calls about everything from a seal on the street at 5 a.m. that needed to be relocated, an entangled Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that needed help, and a live dolphin that was stranded on the beach. Every animal that we respond to has a different story and teaches us something new about the species as a whole.

In order for our program to have the success that it does, we rely heavily on volunteers. The Animal Rescue Team is made up of over 320 volunteer first responders and thirty clinic volunteers. Each person plays an integral role in these animals getting a second chance at life. In cases where a seal or sea turtle is in need of medical attention, they will be brought to our rehabilitation clinic and receive world-class care from our staff, volunteers, and veterinarians with the goal of releasing every animal back into the ocean. Every time we have a release, I think about how grateful I am to have a job in the science field, where I can give animals a second chance at life. My path to get to this point has not been the most traditional, but I feel that each experience I had was vital in leading me to where I am today.

As a native CT resident, I grew up coming to Mystic Aquarium and have always had a love for marine life and the ocean. After high school, I attended a liberal arts college in upstate New York called St. Lawrence University and graduated with a bachelor of science in Psychology. While attending St. Lawrence University, I played Division I ice hockey, which was another big passion of mine. Once I graduated from college, I ended up getting an opportunity to play for the Brisbane Goannas ice hockey team in Queensland, Australia. While in Australia I volunteered at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary where I participated in the rehabilitation and medical care for native Australian wildlife. After my first day volunteering, a fire was lit inside my soul, and I knew that I needed to continue to stay involved in the care of animals. I returned back to CT after a year in Australia and began volunteering here at Mystic Aquarium with our Steller sea lions and harbor seals. I was fascinated by the training involved in the daily care and health of the animals. I took what l learned at Mystic Aquarium all the way to Oahu, Hawaii, where I interned with the Waikiki Aquarium’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Program. It was amazing getting the opportunity to work with a critically endangered species. In addition, I volunteered at the Honolulu Zoo with chimpanzees, giraffes, and fennec foxes. After my internship, I was hired at the Waikiki Aquarium as an aquarist and shortly after was given an opportunity to conduct research on Hawaiian monk seals with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hawaiian Monk Seal Health and Disease Program.

The fieldwork with NOAA brought me 1,000 miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to an island called, Laysan. Laysan Island is uninhabited, and I lived there in a tent for 3 months without any cellphone service and minimal contact with the outside world. This experience had a huge impact on my life and ultimately altered my career path. The island that I was studying the Hawaiian monk seals on was in the middle of a massive gyre of marine debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Every day, new pieces of trash washed up on the island from all over the world. Some of the items that frequently washed up include televisions, water bottles, refrigerators, car tires, car bumpers, laundry baskets, shoes, toothbrushes, lighters, etc. The list could go on. The most disheartening thing for me was not being able to do anything about it. I was so far out in the middle of the ocean that I had nowhere to bring the items that kept washing up and ended up living amongst it, along with thousands of other animals that called Laysan home. I saw daily the impacts this marine debris had on the health of the marine life. After that experience, I returned to the mainland with a new sense of urgency and a mission to educate people on how we needed to do better to protect our oceans.

Upon my return, my life came full circle and I ended up getting my absolute DREAM JOB back at Mystic Aquarium with our Animal Rescue Program. I couldn’t think of a better position that aligned with my goals of working directly in the medical care and research of marine mammals and sea turtles off of our coastline, while simultaneously educating the public on various threats that these animals face and the importance in the conservation of these species. Education and outreach are one of the most important parts of my job as I cannot help these animals alone. We all need to take action to ensure the health and survival of these marine animals.

The rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals and sea turtles involve multiple aspects of the science, writing, and math fields. Chemistry is used on a daily basis to test the water quality in our pools and ensure that it is a safe environment for our rehab patients to be in. Math and statistics are used to calculate calories in each animal’s diet to ensure that they are on the right track to gain the weight that they need. Interpersonal communication skills are important when speaking to the public on our hotline and outreaching with people on the beach during responses. Knowing the anatomy and physiology of the animals we respond to helps us treat patients and assess their health on x-rays and ultrasounds. Writing and data entry skills are also used on a regular basis to record information we learn from each response and rescue we do. There really are so many avenues one can take in this field and there are many ways women can get involved in the sciences! As long as you enjoy going to work every day and love what you do, then you can’t go wrong!

When reflecting on why I am so passionate about the work that I do, I often think of a quote by Robert Swan, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”. It takes a village to do the work that we do and requires a diverse group of people from various backgrounds to come together to achieve the same goal. For all the women out there who share the same passion as I do and dream of a career in this field – it is absolutely possible if you believe in yourself and put in the hard work. Always strive to participate in new opportunities, even if they aren’t exactly what you expected! Each experience teaches you something new and helps you grow in the field. Keep dreaming big!

When reflecting on why I am so passionate about the work that I do, I often think of a quote by Robert Swan, “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”. It takes a village to do the work that we do and requires a diverse group of people from various backgrounds to come together to achieve the same goal. For all the women out there who share the same passion as I do and dream of a career in this field – it is absolutely possible if you believe in yourself and put in the hard work. Always strive to participate in new opportunities, even if they aren’t exactly what you expected! Each experience teaches you something new and helps you grow in the field. Keep dreaming big!

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