Featured Scientist

  • January 13, 2017

Colleen Young is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz. Her primary job duties include oil spill contingency planning for sea otters and other marine wildlife, maintaining response equipment and working as part of the Wildlife Recovery team during spills.

During non-spill times, Colleen’s responsibilities shift to sea otter research and conservation projects. This work includes ground and aerial sea otter census surveys, sea otter stranding response, performing postmortem examinations on sea otters and occasionally other species, tagging and monitoring wild sea otters and working on sea otter disturbance issues. She is on the CDFW SCUBA diving team and is one of two CDFW divers trained to use re-breathers to capture sea otters. These projects are done in close collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, UC Santa Cruz, Sea Otter Savvy and other partner organizations.

Colleen earned a B.S. in Animal Biology from UC Davis in 2006 and an M.S. in Marine Science with an emphasis in Vertebrate Ecology from Moss Landing Marine Laboratories/San Jose State University in 2009. She began working as a scientific aide for CDFW in 2010 and was hired for her current position in 2011. Colleen is grateful to have a job that involves working with such an ecologically important, threatened species, and that allows her to work outside and live along California’s beautiful Central Coast.

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

I had some really amazing science teachers in high school that showed me that science was really fun and interesting. When I started volunteering to help with research projects when I was an undergraduate in college, I knew that doing scientific research was something that I wanted to pursue further. When I got certified to SCUBA dive and started doing research in and around the ocean, I knew I wanted to do that for a career.

What got you interested in working with wildlife?

Growing up we had lots of pets, so I’ve always had a deep connection with and respect for animals. I considered pursuing a career involving companion animals, but I really enjoy working outside, in nature, and wild animals absolutely fascinate and amaze me. I was hooked on wildlife after doing an internship studying wild bottlenose dolphins.

Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?

Just after finishing graduate school I was hired to work at the CDFW office in Santa Cruz to work on some grant-funded seabird projects. I really enjoyed the work that I was doing and saw great value in the sea otter work that my CDFW colleagues were doing, so when a permanent job became available, applying was a no-brainer. I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon, since I love my job and I get to live in this beautiful place.

scientist looking through scope

What is a typical day like for you at work?

There is no such thing as a typical day for me, which is just the way I like it. It is very unusual for me to spend a whole day working at my desk. You can usually find me working in our necropsy lab, on the beach responding to a stranded sea otter call, working on oil spill preparedness (testing equipment, working on protocols, etc.) or doing a proficiency dive with my dive buddy so we’re ready for our next round of sea otter captures. At the end of the day, I always try to read and respond to emails, but I often get interrupted by a stranding call, so I can’t always answer emails as quickly as I’d like.

What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?

I think probably the Santa Barbara oil spill near Refugio State Beach in 2015. This was my first major spill since starting at the Department and I worked as part of the Wildlife Recovery team. It was really rewarding to collect all those oiled animals, which likely would’ve died without our help.

Over the course of your career, was there a discovery or an incident that surprised you?

I am surprised all the time! A big part of my job is performing necropsies (animal autopsies) on sea otters, and sometimes other species as well. Often it looks like the cause of death will be obvious, but when we get inside we see all sorts of weird, unexpected things. That’s one of the things that keeps my job fun and interesting … we never know what we’re going to find!

If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?

I would love to work more on one of my ongoing projects, which is looking into the mechanism by which some sea otters acquire purple staining on their teeth and bones. This phenomenon, known as echinochrome staining, has been documented for decades, and is extremely common in sea otters. It almost certainly occurs when sea otters consume copious amounts of echinochrome-containing prey items like sea urchins and other echinoderms, but the mechanism and physiology of the process has not been described. I would love to have time (and funding) to really understand how and when staining occurs, and whether there are any individual health implications, or broader ecological implications, of this process. Until I have unlimited time and funding though, I’ll just keep working on this project a little at a time.

What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?

I get to spend so much time outside being active. I spend a lot of time on the beach, on the ocean and in the ocean (diving), and most of it is pretty physical, so I get to exercise and spend time in nature as part of my job. Oh, and working with animals is pretty cool too. Doesn’t get any better than that!

The world of science and managing natural resources is often confusing or mysterious for the average person. What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know that will take away the mystery?

Effective management of natural resources should be based on good scientific data. It takes time to develop protocols, to collect and analyze data, and to summarize and disseminate findings. So sometimes when it looks like no action is being taken on an issue there are probably people working hard behind the scenes on it. Furthermore, it can be difficult for one program or even one agency to collect all the adequate scientific data that is needed to make good management decisions. Therefore, collaboration is key. Agencies and organizations often work together to collect data and implement management decisions. In the case of sea otters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority, but CDFW and other agencies and organizations work collaboratively with USFWS to collect and share data that help inform management decisions. Having multiple partners can sometimes slow things down, but in the end usually yields better results.

Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?

I can speak most to marine biologists. When most people think of marine biologists, they picture someone training and hugging dolphins, or getting up close and personal with cute, charismatic animals all the time. In reality though, marine biology is not very glamorous or easy work. It often requires working long hours, sometimes very early or late, depending on the tides. You are often wet, cold, dirty and stinky. Many biologists never even lay hands on the animals they are studying … they collect and/or study scat (poop), tracks and photographs, and make observations from afar. Some biologists, like me, mainly study their species by examining dead animals, which can be stinky and gross, but also extremely interesting and informative.

Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?

Get as much hands-on field experience as possible. Not only does that allow you to figure out what types of work you do and do not like, but having field experience is a huge advantage when applying for jobs. Also, attend conferences and events that will allow you to network with people who have careers you are interested in. Ask them questions about what they do and don’t like about their jobs, and what kind of experience and education you need to get that type of job.

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