Career Spotlight of the Month (February 2019)

Name: Michelle Anne Olsen, RVT

Current Job: Educator at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada in Toronto


Q & A with Michelle

OAVT: Where did you go to school, and what made you decide to take a Veterinary Technology program?

Michelle: I attended Algonquin College's Veterinary Technician program, graduating in 2017.

I decided to pursue my veterinary technician diploma as a second career. I had previously received my Bachelor of Journalism degree from Carleton University and worked as a communications professional for a few years. But I was burned out and unhappy, and one day it hit me: I wanted to work at a job where I was making a tangible difference, and where I wasn't sitting at a desk all day. I've always loved animals, and used to dream of working with them, so my next move seemed obvious: I enrolled in Algonquin College's Veterinary Technician program, became Registered in 2017, and never looked back!

OAVT: You currently work as an Educator at Ripley's Aquarium of Canada. What other jobs have you had in the RVT field?

Michelle: Prior to this job I worked for a year in Toronto-area small animal clinics. I also volunteered for a summer as an animal care intern at Seal Rescue Ireland, an amazing organization that rescues, rehabilitates and releases common and grey seals off of the Irish coast, and participated in a series of pro-bono spay/neuter/wellness clinics in Northern Ontario with the Grey Bruce Aboriginal Qimmiq Team (GBAQT) in 2017.

OAVT: What do you love about your job? Do you have any cool experiences that you'll never forget?

Michelle: I love so many things about my job! From the time I was a kid, I've been obsessed with the ocean and marine life. Being surrounded by incredible marine animals like sharks, stingrays and sea turtles every day is an absolute dream come true for me.

A lot of my time is spent in the classroom teaching, but one of my favourite things to do as an Educator is lead guests on behind-the-scenes tours at the aquarium, as part of programs like our Stingray Experience, Discovery Dive and Aquarist for a Day. Not only do I get to show guests just how much work, organization and coordination go into the day-to-day operations of the aquarium (food prep alone is huge – we go through 800 pounds of seafood a week!), but I get to spend time up close and personal with our animals – some of my favourite experiences include feeding our green sea turtle, Spot, getting in the water with our cownose stingrays and interacting with one of our great pacific octopuses.

OAVT: How are your RVT skills being utilized in this job? Is it an ideal job for an RVT?

Michelle: In my current role I'm not involved in the day-to-day care of the aquarium's animals (that position is called Aquarist, or aquarium biologist), but I do feel that I'm filling another really important role of the RVT – that of providing education and advocacy to the public, not only about animals and animal welfare, but in this case, about their environment as well.

I'm up in the classrooms at the aquarium almost every day, teaching school groups curriculum-based programming about the animals at the aquarium, but also about broader topics such as biodiversity, invasive species, ocean acidification and the plastics crisis. Us Educators even lead classes about squid dissection (my personal favourite)! I use the skills that I learned as a client educator and pet advocate in a clinic setting every single day.

The Educators at Ripley's come from very diverse backgrounds, but I'm not the only RVT on the team. I think that the training RVTs receive in order to educate the public about complex animal health issues in an approachable, digestible fashion makes us especially great science communicators, and especially good at this job. We can take the big concepts and boil them down in a way that the average guest not only understands, but that might spur them to make changes in their everyday lives that benefit the ocean.

OAVT: What advice would you give to students and new RVTs who want to try their hand working as an RVT in non-traditional settings? What would you say to RVTs who want to branch out and try other sectors?

Michelle: I would say two things: first of all, don't think that because you're an RVT, you have to be working in a clinical setting, or doing surgery every day. I think a lot of RVTs think that that's the ultimate thing they can do with their training. I loved my in-clinic experience and I'm really grateful for it! But I always knew, in the back of my mind, that I wanted to work with marine life. I sometimes find myself having to justify why I'm not working directly in animal medicine, but I think it's important to remember that that's just one area that an RVT can excel and use their unique skillset in. So don't allow yourself to be pigeonholed or told that one line of work is better than another!

My other piece of advice is to seek out internship and continuing education opportunities in the area that you're passionate about. I had the most amazing training at Algonquin College – but I knew where I wanted to end up, and sought out internship opportunities over my summers and after graduation that would get me closer to those goals. If you want to do it, make it happen! Social media and online communities were hugely helpful for me in this regard – I was able to pick the brains of like-minded people, who then directed me to opportunities like the one at Seal Rescue Ireland.

OAVT: RVTs are passionate people, and every RVT has an area they are most passionate about. What is your passion? Does your current job allow you to fulfill that passion?

Michelle: My passion is definitely ocean conservation. I've loved ocean life since I was a little girl (I was obsessed with those Jacques Cousteau ocean exploration documentaries). These days the ocean and its animals are in a lot of trouble – from shark finning to plastic pollution to coral bleaching, we are hurting marine life with our wasteful actions. But the best tool to fight these trends is education – we can all make small differences in how we live our day-to-day lives that can add up for the animals like those I work with in a big way (invest in that reusable water bottle and coffee tumbler, people! Make sure your makeup products are shark-free!). I get to make that plea on behalf of the animals I love every day.

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