Sarika Cullis-Suzuki, Marine Biologist

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sarika standing in field wearing leather jacket

Sarika Cullis-Suzuki; Victoria, B.C.


Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I’m a marine biologist who studies fish. I care about the health of the ocean, and try to speak out about its declining health.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

I did my undergrad at the University of California, Berkeley for marine biology. I took all my science classes at the university, and then had an amazing year abroad where I studied juvenile lemon sharks in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and sustainable fishing practices in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. I did my Master of Science, in fisheries science, at the University of British Columbia, and my PhD in marine biology at the University of York in the U.K.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

I only recently finished going to school! [laughs]. My first paying job after my PhD was working for Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria, doing communications work.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

Hmm, not sure I’m there yet, but one amazing opportunity occurred when I had just finished my MSc. I was invited to speak at the United Nations headquarters in NYC, and present the findings of my research. I’ll never forget it, because it was the first time I spoke to industry; it wasn’t pretty, but I realized the power of scientific research, and that it really can lead to change.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

I knew since I was six years old I was going to be a marine biologist, so if there was a moment, I’ve long forgotten it!

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

I think the hardest thing to do is stick to one thing. There are so many exciting and important things to do in life, and I’ve had to accept that you can’t do everything. It’s really difficult to maintain rigorous research-planning, executing, writing and publishing—while also working as a communicator, and continuing to volunteer for various boards. And having a young family! That is what I find most difficult; being able to juggle everything. I always feel behind.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

One of my favourite pieces of advice came from my MSc advisor, Daniel Pauly. It’s particularly relevant in the field of ocean science, or anything to do with conservation. I went into his office one day feeling absolutely flattened. I was overwhelmed thinking about the enormity of our environmental problems, and I asked Daniel how he kept going, how he could work in the face of such devastating news. His answer: “I take one piece of the puzzle, and I work on that. When I’m done with that one piece, I go on to the next. And then the next. And while I’m doing this, someone else is working on their piece, and someone else, theirs, and so on and so on. One day the hope is that we will fit all these pieces together.” It’s a simple concept, but it gives me a lot of strength.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

“Marine biology?? You’ll never get a job in THAT field.”

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

In fisheries science, where I went to school, the number of female grad students was pretty high, but the numbers dropped as you went up the ranks: there were about 14 faculty members and only one was a woman. Many women in this field left academia to work for other groups, like NGOs or government; why is that? For me, the barriers I’ve faced have to do with having kids—starting with taking maternity leave and finding support for childcare. I’m sure men face it, too, but it’s amplified when you consider, for example, complications with pregnancy or circumstances around nursing. It’s a difficult field to stay on top of your game in if you’re not regularly contributing.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?

I will never complain about my work but I don’t think you get into this field for the money! And  I always have side projects going on (although they’re rarely paid).

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That we’re not passionate.

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