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Meet Sara Young, Protected Species Biologist

August 31, 2021

Sara Young issues scientific research permits under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Two scientists stand on boat during marine mammal survey in Scotland Balmy weather for a marine mammal survey in Scotland. Sara and a colleague on the Atlantic Ocean doing research in graduate school. Credit: Sara Young

What is your key responsibility?  

Even though I work for NOAA Fisheries, ironically my day-to-day job has little to do with fish or fisheries. My key responsibility is implementing a certain part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, specifically Section 104. I issue scientific research permits, and sometimes photography permits, for marine mammals. My job is to implement the permitting process from start to finish:

  • Receiving a researcher’s application for a permit

  • Guiding the applicant through the review process

  • Coordinating a public comment period and reviews by agency experts

  • Recommending whether to issue a permit based on MMPA criteria

  • Reviewing reports required by that permit

I am part of a team of about 10 people in the NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources who work on scientific research permits under the MMPA. My area of focus specifically is issuing research permits for pinnipeds (i.e., seals and sea lions). 

Where did you grow up?  

I was born and raised in New England and am still a New Englander in my soul. I

Sara Young in Guasca, Colombia
Finding our lunch spot outside the town of Guasca, Colombia. This was the land of the Muisca people, who spoke the Chibcha language, before the Spanish built the colonial architecture seen here. Credit: Sara Young

lived in Connecticut and Massachusetts as a kid, which meant spending summers swimming in or sailing on the freezing cold Atlantic Ocean. My grandparents would rent a house on the beach in Maine every summer and I loved the area so much that I didn’t want to leave. I ended up going to college in Maine. The plot twist in my typical New England upbringing is that once or twice a year my family would pack up and fly down to Bogotá, Colombia. My mom is from Bogotá and all of my extended family still live there. It was important to my parents that we spent a lot of time with my Colombian relatives. We would go visit for about a month over Christmas and sometimes again in the summers. 

What is your educational background?  

From about age five, I told my teachers I wanted to be a marine biologist and my career path never deviated from that statement. My one unexpected education and career twist is that I grew up saying I wanted to study whales. Now I know, through hard-earned wisdom, that seals are the coolest animals. 

I applied to undergraduate colleges thinking I wanted to study marine biology at a relatively small school. However, I ultimately chose to go to the University of New England because it was financially sensible for me and was in a part of the country I already loved. While there, I found the one marine mammalogy professor and wrangled a spot in her laboratory helping with studies of gray and harbor seals. At the time, the university also had a marine animal rehabilitation center which was a great way to get valuable direct animal experience. This rehabilitation center is also how I got hooked on seals. I majored in marine biology with concentrations in chemistry and math (I’m really fun at parties). After undergraduate, I knew I wanted to continue my education in graduate school. 

I went to graduate school right after college and got my Masters of Research in Marine Mammal Science at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom. One of my last courses in that program was on marine mammal policy and that ultimately is what led me to a career at NOAA today. Prior to that class I assumed the only path for someone interested in marine mammals was academia. That class opened my eyes to potential job opportunities at the intersection of science and policy. 

What does National Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? 

For me, National Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to reflect on where we are as Hispanic-Americans and where we’re going. Especially living in the greater DC area, I feel like Hispanic culture is around me everywhere, not just in my home, which brings me such joy. However, one place I don’t cross paths with many Hispanic people is at my job. So Hispanic Heritage Month is a great time to contemplate how to bring more Hispanic people into NOAA and into the broader federal government community. 

Family rides horses in La Calera, Columbia
A family horseback ride at the family farm in La Calera, Colombia, which is a town in the eastern range of the Colombian Andes mountains. Credit: Sara Young

What does being a career civil servant mean to you?

Every time I have brought American friends with me to Colombia, they comment on the people more than the scenery. They remark on how kind, helpful, and welcoming Colombian people are; in my experience those traits are highly valued in Hispanic cultures. Being a civil servant is a chance to put those values at the forefront of my job. I try to be welcoming and helpful to the researchers who use our services all for the higher purpose of responsibly managing our natural resources. 

What advice do you have for today’s youth interested in a federal government career? 

Don’t underestimate the value of people. I got into this job for the animals, because I want to conserve marine mammals. However, it’s the people I work with who made my best and worst jobs the best and worst experiences. Working with colleagues and teammates that are supportive and always push me to improve have made me a drastically better biologist. 

Don’t be afraid to try something new and don’t be afraid to admit it’s not for you. Trying new things can lead to some of the best surprises in life. At the same time, not everything you try will be for you, and that is okay. Especially in federal careers, we tend to think very long-term. We have high retention rates in positions compared to the private sector, and can be slow to change. Perseverance is important but if you give something a fair chance and it isn’t the right choice for you, it is perfectly acceptable to move along to the next new experience. Keep chasing what inspires you and the rest will fall into place.