Arcadia University – B.A. Psychobiology
University of London - Royal Veterinary College - MSc Wild Animal Biology
From a very young age, Sara Sullivan had a innate love for animals and a genuine drive to work with them. And after scaling the ranks and swapping a few zip codes, she’s now an associate population biologist at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill.
Sara diligently worked toward degrees in psychobiology and wild animal biology in the U.S. and the U.K, all while maintaining zoo jobs, industry contacts and side research projects—including studying her favorite species, cheetahs. Pretty wild. (Bad pun intended.) After graduating and pursuing job after job in the competitive field, Sara has already reached her goal of working in population biology. And only in her early twenties, she’s excited to see what comes next. “I currently don’t have any grand plans for my immediate future, other than to continue to learn and increase my expertise as a population biologist … I have no idea what the future holds or how what we do now might be different in five years, but I’m excited to find out.”
Life often throws us surprises, so rather than think about it too much and plan out what my life ‘should’ look like, I just try to sit back and enjoy the story.
What inspired you to pursue a career in animal biology/zoology?
Since I was little, I’ve always had a strong fascination with and love for animals. The first job I dreamed about was to become a paleontologist. The idea of spending my days digging up dinosaur bones and trying to hypothesize about their behavior and biology seemed like an amazing life to me, but eventually, I decided it would be more fulfilling to study living animals.
It’s important to me to contribute to the conservation of our living wildlife, which face so many threats today, largely as a result of human impacts due to activities like unsustainable fishing practices, road building and palm oil plantations—to name a few. I feel like humans have a responsibility to address these issues, promote and implement sustainable practices and restore natural habitats.
And conserving our zoo populations works hand-in-hand with field conservation, as reintroduction programs have already successfully been implemented for a number of species, like black-footed ferrets, California condors and golden lion tamarins. This is largely why I specifically pursued a career as a population biologist—I assist in maintaining genetically healthy zoo populations that may one day help to ensure their own species’ persistence into the future.
You studied abroad and completed your master's in London—any memorable moments working with animals/zoos over there?
Of course! I have so many memories, it’s hard to narrow them down. One of the most memorable experiences for me involved animals at London’s sister zoo, Whipsnade Zoo. Before working at Zoological Society of London or studying for my master’s degree, I worked closely with keepers at Philadelphia Zoo to carry out behavioral research on cheetah reproduction in zoos. Cheetahs (my favorite species) are unique in so many ways, including in their physiology and genetic history. Additionally, they’re notoriously difficult to breed successfully in zoos.
Whipsnade Zoo had been one of the few historically (reliably) successful breeding institutions in the past, and at the time I was in London, they had just built a new breeding area. I was lucky enough to get to know the lead keeper, who invited me to watch and assist in a breeding introduction there. I learned so much during that experience—I was able to see the same process I had studied in the past taking place in a completely different set up with animals who had their own distinctive personalities. It was unforgettable. I’ve very grateful for that opportunity.
You've worked a variety of roles at the Philadelphia Zoo, London Zoo, Cape May County Zoo and now the Lincoln Park Zoo. How did you land each position?
I’ve wanted to work in this field from a very young age and I knew what an important role Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited zoos and aquariums play in preserving our wildlife for future generations. In fact, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums contribute $160 million per year to wildlife conservation, supporting thousands of conservation projects in 130 countries. They set incredibly high standards of animal welfare, veterinary care, wildlife conservation, scientific research, education, expert staffing and safety for all its members. So although initially, I wasn’t sure what area I wanted to pursue in the long run, the obvious first step was to start volunteering in a zoo, which is what I did at the Philadelphia Zoo.
I started volunteering in the education department when I was 14 years old. Even though it wasn’t the path I wanted to pursue, it was a great opportunity for me to get my foot in the door, make some contacts and gain experience for my resume. My research on the cheetahs at the zoo actually stemmed from a behavioral project I was completing for one of my undergraduate courses. The cheetah breeding introductions were just starting at the same time, and although this interfered with my original observations, it also triggered a real interest in the challenges of managing our zoo populations. I actually decided to base my final thesis on the husbandry and genetic challenges of breeding cheetahs in zoos. This led to my internship with the keeper and we worked very closely together during that year. And today, I consider him to be one of my most influential mentors and a very good friend.
Eventually, I had to put my cheetah research aside as I studied abroad in London, which included a keeper internship component at London Zoo. I was a keeper intern, working with wallabies, emus, Bactrian camels, bearded pigs, llamas, alpacas and many different primate species. It was my first introduction to the life of a zoo keeper, and although it’s one of the most physically demanding and unglamorous jobs one could choose, it’s very rewarding and can be a lot of fun. I worked extremely hard during that time and was very lucky to be offered a paid position after just a few months. This is what I considered to be my “big break,” because having paid experience on your resume is invaluable. I would’ve loved to stay longer, but sadly visas do expire, so I returned and finished my undergraduate degree that year.
But I decided I wasn’t through with London or London Zoo just yet, so I applied and was accepted into to the MSc Wild Animal Biology program offered by the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London in association with ZSL’s Institute of Zoology. This was an intense one-year program: we not only received lectures from some of the most renowned researchers in the field, we were also provided with funding to carry out our own research. I continued with my interest in the challenges of managing zoo populations with unique genetic histories and decided to look into reproductive outcome and survival in the European zoo population of Asiatic lions. During this time, I also was able to volunteer and work with many of the same animals at London Zoo that I had previously, which allowed me to continue gaining useful keeper experience.
After graduating, I considered pursuing a PhD in the U.K., but it was difficult to find funding for non-European Union students. Eventually, I decided transitioning back into American zoos would be the most beneficial option for me anyway. I had been eyeing the Population Management Center looking for population biologist positions, but ended up being offered a zoo keeping role at the Cape May County Zoo in New Jersey almost immediately after my return. I only spent six months there before being offered my current position at the, but I had a lot of fun during that time, worked with some of my favorite animals and met some really great people! Although I really miss working with the animals, I still feel very much fulfilled, because I’m becoming an expert in a field that I love and am hopefully having a beneficial impact on our zoo populations.
I waited very patiently for this position, but am very appreciative of the journey it took to get here!
You've lived in a few cities since graduation. Do you like to travel, or is it more about having to move to find the next job in your field?
I would say it’s a mix of both. I’m an adventurer at heart and always have been. The idea of living in one place my whole life and not really seeing or experiencing anything beyond that was never appealing to me. Traveling, especially when young and not yet set in our ways, can be invaluable to personal development. It’s good to expose yourself to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world so that you can become more independent, adaptable and appreciative in your own life.
So far, all of my traveling has been influenced by my career and the places I’ve lived have not all necessarily been at the top of my “bucket list.” I simply searched for opportunities I thought would bring me one step closer to the career I wanted, so that’s where I went. Leaving for the unknown is always a little scary but exciting, and when you want something badly enough, you don’t even think twice about taking that risk.
The zoo field is actually incredibly competitive and it can take a lot of moving around the country—or to other countries!—accepting temporary positions for young zoo keepers, researchers and the like to gain enough practical experience to get that permanent “dream” position.
What does your typical job schedule and day look like?
My days as a population biologist are spent very differently than my zoo keeping days. Unfortunately, I don’t get to work directly with the animals anymore, although I still get to work in the zoo. I work more with people now than animals: I often spend seven to eight hours a day analyzing data, assessing the genetic and demographic health of various species of all different taxa, preparing breeding and transfer plans and offering advice to zoo professionals around the country on how to keep our populations healthy and sustainable.
As population biologists with the Population Management Center, we’re responsible for conducting genetic and demographic analyses and preparing breeding and transfer plans for nearly 600 species in more than 200 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums. We also attend yearly conferences and teach AZA’s professional training courses on population management, so our schedules are pretty busy year-round. To see which species we’re currently working on, you can check out the PMC calendar on our website.
Can you name an “I made it!” moment in your career?
Recently I was communicating via email with a colleague from a different zoo about a software issue and it hit me: you’re talking to a researcher who has contributed so much to this field and whose research you’ve cited countless times in the past! It was a really cool, unexpected moment for me and it reminded me I’m not that young student trying to find my way in this field anymore. After my fair share of hard work, I’ve made it. And I can be taken seriously as a population biologist playing an important role in zoo population management.
I still have a lot to learn, but where better to learn that than at the center of it all?
What challenges do you face in your job?
The advice we give influences management decisions about our zoo populations. And the decisions we make today will influence the statuses of our populations in the future, so some pressure can stem from that. Fortunately, population management is a collaborative process. Although each population biologist plans for specific species, we can go to each other and discuss different strategies and solutions and look at similarly challenging populations that have been planned in the past.
What surprises people about your job?
The fact that my job even exists surprises people! Visitors come to the zoo and see all of our animals, but they often have no idea that people like myself are scientifically managing these populations, often on a very detailed level, in order to keep them healthy and sustainable. An incredible amount of work and collaboration goes into this process.
For example, when visitors come to a zoo and see a baby animal, they probably don’t consider the fact that this birth or hatch may have come from a very specific breeding recommendation developed from the collaboration of population biologists and species specialists after hours of analyzing genetic and demographic data. These data may have taken months or even longer to record and collect from zoos all across the country.
Furthermore, once a recommendation is made, many logistical and husbandry considerations concerning the safety and welfare of the animals involved must be thought out before a breeding pair can be put together—let alone breed. It can be a long process, depending on whether a recommendation involves a pre-existing or new breeding pair, and requires a lot of dedication and hard work on the part of zoo staff. Without the cooperation and collaborative efforts, scientifically managing our zoo populations in this way would be impossible.
With your busy schedule do you have problems maintaining a work/life balance? If so, how do you cope?
When I was a student, I was awful at creating balance in my life. I was so driven and focused on getting to where I needed to be in my career, I didn’t allow myself to take time for much else besides studying and working. That’s not a healthy way to live and I knew it, but did not fully acknowledge it until after I had moved abroad. While I still worked incredibly hard, I finally began to understand that there’s much more to life than “results.”
Today, I’d say I have a very balanced life. I value my work and give 200 percent of myself to it, but I don’t allow it to consume my life. I think that, for me, balance comes from understanding the importance of my work, my alone time and my social time with friends and family. All three components are essential and enjoyable in different ways, but I try not to let one dominate the others.
What are some of the rules you live by?
Be determined and self-motivated. You will not achieve your dreams by just waiting for something to happen.
Find happiness in yourself first before looking for it anywhere else.
Appreciate the people in your life and do not take them for granted. You can be the wealthiest, most successful person in this world, but without people to share your life experiences with, you will still feel unfulfilled.
Grow from negative experiences, rather than allowing yourself to feel like a victim. Reflect and think about what you learned, so you can grow into a stronger, wiser and more well-rounded person.
Be adventurous and open to change.
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful as a population biologist?
Detail-oriented, patient problem solvers who enjoy analyzing data and have a thorough understanding of the basic concepts of demography and genetics have the potential to make fantastic population biologists!
We analyze a wide range of taxa, so a broad knowledge of species biology and a strong background in population biology—including an understanding of the mechanisms underlying how and why populations change over time—are also necessary in order to handle the biological and logistical challenges associated with different populations.
Both written and oral communication skills are incredibly important for this position, too. Population biologists at the PMC communicate and collaborate with zoo professionals across the country on a daily basis. We not only offer informal advice, but also produce formal reports that are published and made available to all participating institutions. While we often do work independently, successful communication and collaboration are key to population management.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to walk in your shoes?
I strongly encourage anyone looking to get into this or a similar field to at least start volunteering or interning, whether it be at a zoo, aquarium, museum or a wildlife preserve. Careers in animal care and conservation can be highly competitive, particularly if you’re looking to work in an accredited zoo or aquarium here or abroad.
For me, volunteering in the education department at the Philadelphia Zoo was my first stepping stone. It was my foot in the door of the zoo community, and without it, I may not be where I am today—even though it wasn’t my main area of interest. If you’re considering animal care specifically, try to find a zoo that offers keeper internships. The life of a keeper is not for everyone, so it’s beneficial to learn early on which of the roles would be best suited to you, from educators and keepers to ecologists, nutritionists and veterinarians—just to name a few.
Also, allow your education to guide you. The field of biology is a big one; even the term wildlife biology encompasses a number of specialized areas in the field. If you have the opportunity to develop a thesis, choose to research something you’re interested in. It may just help you discover your niche. No matter what direction you take, always be proactive in trying to further your career. The AZA website is a fantastic tool to use when searching for internships or jobs. Try to gain as much experience and make as many contacts as possible. As long as you remain passionate about and dedicated to wildlife care and conservation, you too can have an impact!
Where do you see your career headed in the future?
Up to this point, I’ve always had this map in my head of where I need to go next. However, working in the field of population biology was my “end goal” and here I am! So I don’t currently have any grand plans for my immediate future, other than to continue to learn and increase my expertise as a population biologist. Science in general is a constantly advancing field and population biology is no different. I have no idea what the future holds or how what we do now might be different in five years, but I’m excited to find out.
As for the rest of my life, I have no clue. You might be able to map out your career path, but everything else is completely unpredictable and I prefer it that way. Living life is kind of like reading a book; you can guess based on what you’ve already experienced what might happen in the next chapter, but the reality of it is, you really have no idea (five years ago, I never thought I would be living in Chicago!). Life often throws us surprises, so rather than think about it too much and plan out what my life “should” look like, I just try to sit back and enjoy the story.