Happy Accidents

Brittany Sabol didn't plan to become an environmental educator but her background in theater and ecology ended up being the perfect preparation.

Brittany Sabol had two passions as a child: acting and animals. Her mom started a lion collection for her when she was just a baby, foreshadowing her lifelong fascination with animals and the environment. A self-professed animal geek with a near-encyclopedic knowledge of animal facts, Sabol dreamed of a life in stagecraft, not science.

“For the longest time, I was going to be an actress,” says Sabol, who made appearances in many school plays and children’s theater productions growing up. But her interest in animals remained keen. A trip to the zoo with a friend before leaving for the U of M to study drama led to an epiphany: Why not follow both passions?

“I was at the zoo with a friend rattling off facts about various animals. My friend said I would be good as a zookeeper. That struck me,” says Sabol. “I soon realized that I happened to be going to a school with a top-notch ecology program; one where it also just so happened [lion expert and EEB faculty member] Craig Packer was doing research. It was a happy accident.” She decided to double major in theater and ecology, evolution and behavior and ended up doing an honors research project in Packer’s lab in on why lion’s have manes.

Eventually, Sabol moved from center stage to backstage learning the technical side of theater. She shifted her focus after an internship with the bird show at the Minnesota Zoo. “[The bird show] is where I really got connected with the education portion of what zoos do.” And taking classes with the likes of world-renowned ecologist David Tilman sparked her interest in environment.

Sabol recalls taking an introductory ecology course with Tilman. “One of the things he talked about were resource models,” she says. “I remember him describing one of them in some detail. When I studied abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland, the professor there started talking about the same resource model but he called it the Tilman model. [Professor Tilman] hadn’t told us he developed the model!”

Twelve years ago, Sabol and her husband moved to the Bay Area so he could give the Silicon Valley start-up experience a go. Sabol worked as a science educator at The Tech Museum in San Jose for five years and now spends her days training volunteers and running education programs for Environmental Volunteers, a nonprofit based in Palo Alto, California that trains volunteers to teach natural science in classrooms and runs nature programs at the Palo Alto Baylands EcoCenter.

Whether by “happy accident” or design, Sabol’s unique background has served her well. “What I do now actually makes good use of my background in theater,” she says. “My experiences as an actor and stage manager ended up being very useful in my work as a science educator and project manager.”

– Stephanie Xenos