6:00pm

Tue August 19, 2014
Health, Science, Environment

Women in STEM: Marine Mammal Center combines science with animal welfare

Women are underrepresented in a lot of scientific fields, but there’s one branch of biological science that bucks the trend: veterinary science. Women now make up the majority of veterinarians in the US, and fill close to 80 percent of the seats in vet schools.  

The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands is a good example of this trend. The center is a combination emergency hospital, rehabilitation center, and research institute for seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, dolphins, and more. Seventy percent of its paid staff and 73 percent of the volunteer community are women.

On a sunny day at the center, the animal pen area is bustling. Seals and sea lions are housed here -- one, two, or three at a time -- in individual chain-link enclosures, each one containing its own small concrete pool.

Inside one pen, a group of about five women are gathered around a young California sea lion named Boomer. Boomer is about the size of a Labrador Retriever, and he has cuts and gouges on several areas of his body. Dr. Lorraine Barbosa, a veterinarian, leads the team in examining his wounds.

Barbosa sprays an orange liquid into the wounds, while a volunteer restrains the sea lion in a kind of kneeling wrestler’s stance, straddling the young animal while holding its head firmly against the ground. Most people here -- interns, volunteers, vet techs -- are well-trained in restraining their charges.

“We’re very careful with these guys because they are wild animals,” says Barbosa. “So even though they’re sick and injured and cute, we try to approach them as we would a wild animal, because they can be potentially dangerous in terms of biting us.”

Women make up the bulk of the workforce here. There are about 45 paid staff, and an army of 800 volunteers. At any given time, there may be 80 to 100 people at the center, showing school groups and visitors around, doing administrative or research work, or caring for the animals.

Part of that care is keeping these wild animals from getting too used to humans. All around the pen area, stacks of flat wooden boards with metal handles lean against the fences. People hold these boards in front of their bodies like shields as they approach the animals. Once one has been cornered, a wet towel gets wrapped around its head as a temporary blindfold and muzzle. Then they go down all in one motion into that wrestler’s stance.

But it doesn’t always go smoothly.

“Ouch!”

“Are you okay?”

One of the vet interns, trying to look at Boomer’s teeth, has gotten a bite on her thumb. She goes off to clean her own wound, while the rest of the crew finish up the exam. Satisfied with Boomer’s progress, the team lets him go and retreats from the pen.

Barbosa started here as an intern herself, while she was still in vet school. She works here on an as-needed basis. When she’s not nursing sick sea lions back to health, Barbosa cares for dogs and cats at her small animal practice in Santa Rosa. She says there are a lot of similarities between the two kinds of work.

“I go and use the skills I’ve learned here on mean, yappy Chihuahuas back in my small animal practice, because I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great way.’ We restrain them with towels, too!” Barbosa laughs. “I love it, I feel like I have the best of both worlds.”

Science and animal welfare

The Marine Mammal Center’s senior scientist, Dr. Frances Gulland, says the center’s work is “a great way of combining … science with a concern for animal welfare, so we’re mixing those two different passions and interests.”

About 20 years ago, the center was looking for a vet to develop a research program around its animal care. Gulland was working as a staff veterinarian at the London Zoo at the time, but she was itching to work with wild animals, out of captivity.

“So I thought I’d come here for a year and earn enough money to buy a truck and drive to Alaska,” she recalls. “And instead, 20 years later, I’m here, still here, and there’s just always more research to do.”

Right now, Gulland and her research staff are working on several big ongoing projects, including looking at the effects of harmful algae blooms on marine mammal health, and the prevalence of cancer in California sea lions.

“One in five of the sea lions that come into our center and die have cancer. That’s really a high prevalence for a wild animal,” says Gulland. “And we should be concerned because they share a diet with us. They’re swimming in the same water as us.”

That water contains toxins like DDT and PCB’s, which turn up in the blubber of adult California sea lions. They also show up in human tissue. So far, they haven’t found a direct connection between water pollution and increased sea lion cancer, but the research is ongoing.  Still, Gulland says that veterinary medicine is often dismissed by those in so-called “hard science”.

“I think there’s a perception that … you’re basically looking after dogs and that’s sort of cute, and it’s nice, but it’s not science,” she says. “But if you think about it, to repair a fracture involves understanding how bones heal. If you’re trying to treat gastrointestinal disease, you have to understand how the intestines respond to infections, and how inflammation works.”

Women coming to the fore

Veterinary medicine used to be a male-dominated field, but Gulland has seen a lot of change over the course of her career.

“Within the marine mammal community, all the older scientists were men. And now if you go to a conference of marine mammal scientists, it’s probably mostly women, even though there are still some of the senior positions that are still mostly male. But there is definitely a change,” says Gulland. “Veterinary school, when I was there, was mostly men. But now within the vet schools, the majority of students are female.”

Dr. Lorraine Barbosa and her all-female crew have now moved into an exam room. They’re preparing to put a sea lion named Eloise under anesthesia, so they can check how she’s healing from a flipper amputation.

Barbosa instructs one of the volunteers on the proper way to fit a mask over the sea lion’s head, so that anesthetic gas can flow freely into its nostrils.

“Once you have it all set up, get it nice and snug on there. Because we’re trying to create a seal,” she says, then laughs at her own inadvertent joke. “Create a 'seal' on a sea lion!”

Once Eloise goes under, the crew snaps into quiet, efficient action, getting her quickly onto the table, placing a tube into her mouth and preparing surgical instruments and medications. An electronic heart monitor beeps quietly in the background.

One of the women gathered around the operating table is Joelle Sweeney, who’s in her last year of vet school. She started here as a volunteer.

“It’s a dream place for me, and I’d love to come back and work as well,” says Sweeney.

If she does come back to work here, she’ll be following in the footsteps of some strong women scientists.

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