© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Women In STEM: Marine Mammal Center Combines Science With Animal Welfare

This story originally aired in 2014 and it aired again most recently in the March 6, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

If you went out for a walk along the coast of Point Reyes today, you might see some Northern Elephant seals — and some of them with pups! March marks the beginning of pupping season. And to give these mothers and newborns a safe space, the National Park service has closed Drake’s beach until further notice. The road and parking lot is open during the day to give people a chance to see the animals from a safe distance.

One group that is keeping a close eye on the seals is The Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands. The center is a combination emergency hospital, rehab center, and research institute for seals, sea lions, sea otters, whales, dolphins, and more. And it’s mostly run by women.

Women are historically underrepresented in a lot of scientific fields.Data from 2023 shows women only making up 16% of engineers, 36% of physical scientists and 27% of those in careers involving computer science and math.But veterinary science bucks that trend. Women now make up 70% of veterinarians in the US.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

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 90 paid staff, and an army of 1,400 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.


“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 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

Dr. Frances Gulland, who was the Marine Mammal Center’s senior scientist, 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. Gulland says we should be concerned because they share a diet with 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.

That story originally aired in August 2014. Since then Joelle Sweeney moved on from the center to become a veterinarian in Seattle, Washington. Lorraine Barbosa became part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis. And on the recommendation of then-President Barack Obama, Dr. Frances Gulland [GULL-und] was named one of three members of the US Marine Mammal Commission.

Jen Chien was the managing editor for Crosscurrents and KALW News from 2016 to 2018. She has been a contributor to All Things Considered, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, BBC/PRI’s The World, Making Contact, SF Public Press, East Bay Express, New America Media, and KPFA in Berkeley, where she took part in the First Voice Apprenticeship Program. She is the recipient of the 2013 Outstanding Emerging Journalist Award from the Society of Professional Journalists of Northern California. She holds a BA in American Studies from Smith College, and an MA in Interdisciplinary Performance from New College of California. Before entering the field of journalism, she had a successful career as a professional dance and theater artist, teacher, and massage therapist.