My name is Sam Brittain and I am the Animal Care & Research Manager at Seal Rescue Ireland. I have been working at Seal Rescue Ireland for 4 years since I started there as an Animal Care & Education intern and since learning all that I can about the seals of Ireland and their care. I have always had a keen interest in nature, wildlife and the planet. Starting from a young age I travelled a lot with my family and we always tried to visit ecological attractions such as wildlife and national parks. This led me to study Zoology in college and then Zoo Conservation Biology postgraduate. While I learned primarily how to care and manage for animals in zoos and aquariums, I find caring for the seals, rehabilitating them and releasing them back to the wild to be the best of both worlds and incredibly rewarding.
Has your opinion of STEM changed since you were a teenager?
I have always been fascinated by science and engineering and felt like a bit of a nerd in school. I feel that there are many issues in the world right now and these have become more and more dangerous and prevalent since I have been in school and now more than ever working and investing in STEM is of the utmost importance to the survival, repair and maintenance of our planet.
In your opinion, what is the biggest myth about STEM careers?
I think the biggest myth about STEM careers is that it’s all lab coats and exploding chemicals in labs. I would love to see more focus on the full spectrum of the jobs that are available within STEM.
Do you believe that there is enough being done to encourage girls and minorities to study STEM and pursue STEM careers?
I do think that this is struggle across all industries and there can always be more work done to include women and minorities and to celebrate the work done equally within STEM. In my portion of the industry, it is heartening to know that it is primarily female! Out of 20 staff I am usually the only male.
Describe an interesting day in your current position.
In truth every day is different and interesting in my role. Whether it’s a very sick seal being admitted to the hospital or hosting volunteer groups from major corporations to training new staff in how to care for a sick seal pup. My most memorable day was the day after Storm Ophelia in 2017 when we had no electricity or running water and still pulled together as a team to make sure we could help as many seal pups as we could while caring for our existing patients before the storm. After the storm, we admitted seven seals the first day and this rose to 30 across the following week (A normal wintery week is 5-6 admitted patients). In that week we received 300 separate seal calls on our rescue hotline. Part of my job is to determine what seals to be rescued or to be left on the beach and because there was so many needing help we really had to make some hard decisions that week.
What do you love about your current role?
My favourite part of the job is seeing the seals off to the sea after a successful rehabilitation.
What has been the most surprising element of your job?
For me, this has been learning to work through and remain calm in the case of “what can go wrong, will go wrong.” I guess also learning to multitask and keep eyes on 50 things at once!
What has been your most exciting career moment to date?
There have been several truly exciting and meaningful times here but for me it was the successful rehabilitation and release of Merida the seal who was badly entangled. She needed to be freed from the netting she was caught in, heal dreadful wounds and also have an eye removed that had become damaged in the entanglement. She went to UCD veterinary hospital for surgery which I joined her for, then afterwards she fattened up to healthy weight and went out to the ocean!
Do you get to work with any new technologies?
Not particularly but our team is currently adapting the Salesforce platform for customer retention into an Animal Care and Operations database. It was an exciting challenge for the Salesforce team and our Operations Manager was trained as a Salesforce Champion to be onsite technical support and to continue building the software.
Do you ever get to travel abroad for work?
Yes, the past two years, I have attended the European Seal Rescue Conferences which was established in 2018 as a joint venture between Seal Rescue Ireland and Exploris Aquarium in Northern Ireland. In 2019, it was held in Pieterbeuren Seal Rescue Center in Holland. In 2020, we will travel to Cornwall, UK for this and also I will attend the IUCN Human Wildlife Conflict conference in Oxford, UK.
What kind of other experts do you work with on a day to day basis?
As I am not a veterinarian or a vet nurse, we have a consulting vet from a local practise who comes frequently to advise on treatment plans for our seal patients.
Is your current job, and the work of the wider team, making a difference in the world?
I would love to think it does. Aside from seal care, half of our mission and work is about education. Starting from young ages groups right up to retirees, we work hard to make sure to educate the public on seal ecology, ocean conservation, environmental sustainability and holistic conservation. For example, aside from fundraiser events in aid of our rescue centre, we host outreach events such as tree planting, Coast Watch surveys, beach cleans and this year we took part in Water Heritage Day explaining the importance of riparian buffers and how they can prevent pollutants from reaching the ocean through our waterways but filtering the soil around rivers with trees and healthy eco-systems overall.
What do you hope to achieve in the next year in your current position?
This year, I hope to continue to fight to save seals every day and do all I can to make sure we are supporting and rehabilitating the seals affected by human activity the most.
Do you feel that you fit the stereotypical description of a person in your role?
As this is a very niche part of the STEM industry, I would say no. We have a wonderful group of diverse and interesting passionate people.
If a young person told you that they would like to get into your role, what advice would you give them?
I would recommend to start volunteering and gaining experience as soon as your age allows. Gaining experience of working around animals is invaluable in any capacity.
What do you want to see change in the industry in the next 10 years?
In Ireland, I would love to see more direct involvement from veterinarians in wildlife protection and assistance. I would also like to see the government provide more funding for animal welfare and environmental charities.
What are your priorities for the year ahead in your role?
In the coming year, I am working on honing my training protocols and optimising the aforementioned Salesforce platform for the seal care.
Did you complete any sort of placement or internship during your studies? If so, did it prepare you for what you do now?
In undergrad, I completed independent field research studying the habitat usage and foraging behaviour of juvenile Little Egrets in Cork Harbour. During my masters, I took part in volunteer zookeeping experience at a zoo local to Plymouth, and was assigned Research Officer in another zoo as I was undertaking my thesis research there.
Do you feel secure in the fact that you can earn a living from a career in STEM?
Yes, I do! It has been a hard career to get started in but with hard work and dedication to my dreams and the cause, I have made it sustainable and rewarding.
Name one thing on your bucket list.
I am always saving for more travels and I have always wanted to visit Galapagos Islands and observe the unique and fascinating wildlife there.
What television series are you currently watching?
I currently love the Good Place and the Haunting of Hill House.
What living person do you most admire, and why?
Growing up and to this day, I have always admired David Attenborough and the work he has done to for wildlife advocacy.