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Celebrating Women’s History Month: Seven Inspiring Women Making Waves at Mystic Aquarium

March 28, 2023

As we celebrate Women's History Month, we want to recognize and honor the important contributions of women at Mystic Aquarium. In this blog, we'll shine a spotlight on seven remarkable women who are among those who have been here the longest. Their dedication, hard work, and resilience have made them not only valuable members of our team but also inspiring role models for all women. Join us in celebrating their achievements and learning from their experiences as we honor them during Women's History Month.

We asked each of these women to reflect on their own history – what or who inspired them to pursue a career in their field, what challenges they faced. We asked them about their position now – what they love most about it, how it’s changed since they started their careers. And finally, we asked them about the advice they’d give young women and girls today as they start their careers and build the next generation of female conservationists.

Let’s hear what they had to say! We’re going to highlight some of their responses here, and at the end of this blog we’ll include a link to their full answers to all the questions.

Trina Barrett

On female mentors and inspiring others:

"I have always been interested in oceans and conservation and have had many female mentors who inspired me. Laura Kezer, who at the time was Director of Education, gave me the opportunity to become the elementary instructor which led to 45 years teaching pre-k through 6th grade.  I enjoyed designing programs and sharing knowledge with school children and membership youths. All the children were excited upon entering my classroom and learning about the ocean and its inhabitants! I have had the pleasure of seeing many students who as a result pursued a career in marine education."

Trina worked at Mystic Aquarium since its earliest days…arriving in 1973, the same year the Aquarium opened. When Mystic Aquarium launched Sea School, the first and only licenses preschool in an aquarium, Trina was one of its original teachers. Over the years, she has taught more than 1,000,000 students, sparking a love of learning and a love of the ocean in them!

Gayle Sirpenski

On how her career at Mystic Aquarium began:

“In 1979 when I started, there were very few women working with the animals. Most were in the education department. I was one of two females in my early days as an aquarist. I’m fortunate to have started working here at a time when we could easily get involved in just about any aspect of the animal care and there were lots of opportunities to do something new (rearing lots of seal pups, training behaviors, assisting the vets in procedures and necropsies, research trip to Turks & Caicos, collecting sharks in Cape May NJ, local collecting for exhibit specimens, exhibit design.) I was asked to lead the effort to transport our original 15 African penguins from the Baltimore Zoo. No one here had any penguin experience, so I researched penguin husbandry and called other zoos to gather information. I helped the exhibit construction crew with the features for the new exhibit. I took over the task of getting the penguins acclimated here and began the breeding program.” 

Today at Mystic Aquarium, the African penguin program is going strong. The colony has grown to 31 birds, with several of the original colony still in residence. Under Gayle’s leadership, Mystic Aquarium is an active participant in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program to save the African penguin and Gayle has been a co-coordinator of AZA’s African penguin Species Survival Plan (SSP) since the program began 25 years ago.

Laurie Macha

On how the field has changed during her time at Mystic Aquarium:

“It was a difficult road of making decisions, being young, just out of college and trying to decide what to study. Once getting my first job out of college and still being here now for 33 years I have experienced some challenges being a woman in the field that was initially dominated by men.  There were no female mentors to help me. Advancing in the field and being accepted for ideas and technical knowledge was also not well received.  Times have changed over the years, and it is a more diverse field and equality is a strong message and all are respected for their contributions. Today our field is a more female-dominated field, and the empowerment and successes today are rewarding.”

Laurie is the senior director of Marine Mammals & Birds at Mystic Aquarium, where she manages a diverse team. Over the past three decades, the field has changed from one where there were no female mentors to a team led by one. Now Laurie is fostering the development of young women entering the field of animal care, and particularly marine mammal care, offering them the tools and skills they need to succeed.

Amy DelMonaco

On inspiring the next generation of women in conservation:

"I would give young women the advice that entering the world of science is an area that can bring you to many different places. We need your generation to follow our mission. We need to protect our environment for many different reasons. So be strong, be confident, and teach and educate the next generation."

At Mystic Aquarium, Amy conducts all the diagnostic procedures in the lab and oversees the pharmacy. Under her guidance, the lab runs efficiently and effectively, allowing the entire team to provide optimal care to the animals at Mystic Aquarium. Amy was on hand for the construction of the Arctic Coast habitat, playing an instrumental role in testing the water quality to ensure its safety for its new residents once construction was complete.

Deb Pazzaglia

On balancing a career with family and advice to young women hoping for both:

"As a woman in the animal care field, you can be a mom and have a family, be a leader, a teacher, a caretaker. You can do it all. I'm living proof of someone who can wake up every day and say they truly love their job where it doesn't even feel like work- I get paid to do what I love. Not everyone can say that. For someone who would like to follow this path I would encourage them to seek an education where they earn a degree but also get involved in "hands on" experience. It is the real-life experience working alongside an animal, studying its behavior, where you gain knowledge and work ethics. Be ready to work hard, get dirty but also enjoy connecting with animals and the people you are trying to educate. You will become the advocates for any animal you have the pleasure of caring for and share their stories on behalf of all their counterparts on our ocean planet."

Deb is a Senior Trainer in the Marine Theater, home of the California sea lions. Her expertise, built on her education and experience, is invaluable to the team. As new trainers come in, Deb is a critical resource to them, helping them learn the ropes…both in terms of learning about the care and training of the sea lions, and how to develop the strength of character needed to succeed.

MaryEllen Mateleska

On inspiration, both in the past and now:

“I am and have always been surrounded by inspiring women! From my grandmothers, mother, and sisters who are some of the strongest women I have ever known – the number of challenges that these women face and overcome with courage, grace, and laughter would make anyone’s head spin – to my friends who work to inspire others to protect endangered amphibians, local habitats, dolphin species, and even dogs and cats.  These are just some of the women who I admire and are inspired by each day. I love that I work with so many community members who all share the goal of having a positive impact on the environment, plant and animal species, and each other.”

As the Senior Director of Education & Conservation, Mary Ellen interacts with thousands of community members each year. She passes on her passion for the field to everyone she encounters, and her enthusiasm is infectious…there’s no doubt she loves what she does, and it shows in the success of the environmental stewardship program she runs, Ocean Ambassadors. This program engages community members in conservation efforts, such as beach cleanups, amphibian monitoring, and environmental and water quality data collection. The program continues to grow under her efforts and has engaged more than 250,000 people since it launched in 2018.

Allison Tuttle

On finding a career you love and rising to the top:

"With a love of both the ocean and animals, a career in marine veterinary medicine seemed like just the thing! It's many years of schooling and postgraduate training, but it's worth it! I was supported in college by my professor Dr. Kate Verville who gave me the advice and support I needed to apply to vet school! I would tell all young women to follow their hearts, work hard, and not to let anyone tell them their dreams aren't possible! They can do it! Just be persistent and things will work out!”

As Chief Zoological Officer, Allison is part of Mystic Aquarium’s leadership team. She helps guide the future direction of the Aquarium, all while overseeing the care and wellbeing of all the animals at the Aquarium, including the rehabilitating seals and sea turtles rescued by our Animal Rescue Program. Under her guidance, Mystic Aquarium has become known for world-class animal care!