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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

The Ultimate Wildlife Gap Year Program with Lisa Chen, CCC Alum

Updated: May 31, 2022


Have you ever thought about becoming a marine biologist? Perhaps you have an interest in this fascinating field, but can’t seem to find the resources or opportunities to further explore it. Well, you are in luck, because in today’s episode, Lisa Chen, a Marine Biology Conservationist, Educator and Entrepreneur, shares her story of working in the industry and her incredible experience through the Canadian Conservation Corps!

Listen in to hear Chen’s international learning and teaching journey, hands-on research, and animal care stories. Stick around until the end to learn how to use a gap year to explore such passions, like Marine Biology, that can lead to an exciting career path!

Topics Discussed

  • Lisa Chen’s journey of studying Marine Biology and teaching internationally in places like Thailand and Vietnam.

  • How you can get involved in Canadian Conservation Corps, a program subsidized by the Canadian government and Canadian Wildlife Federation.

  • The different stages that make up the Canadian Conservation Corps, which includes a Wilderness Journey, training and obtaining a hands-on leadership certification.

  • A Day in the Life of a Marine Biologist, which includes travel, assessing marine animals, conducting experiments and surveys, all while educating people along the way!

  • Overcoming the struggles of finding experiences and work placements. Moreover, how a Gap Year can help!

  • Climate crises, sustainability and Chen’s movement “Let’s Talk Butts” and how you can make a difference.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association

Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

Have you ever dreamed of being a marine biologist, or do you just really care about the environment?

Well, today's podcast. Our guest Lisa, has done everything from snorkeling and scuba diving in Southeast Asia to working at an aquarium to running education programs to make sure that the world is aware of how we can be better to our planet.

So if you're passionate about these things and want to learn how you can get involved in the Canadian Conservation Corps, which is a program subsidized by the federal government and the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

You've got to take a listen to this episode, this is an opportunity that you shouldn't miss.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:32

Hey everyone, welcome to the Gap Year podcast.

My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and gap your expert. And today on the podcast we are bringing in another guest who is living the dream. Many of you have dreams of being a marine biologist and I want to introduce you to our friend today who's coming to join us.

This is Lisa, and Lisa has an incredible story that she's going to share with us that incorporates a lot of hands-on experience that she got over the course of her younger years and how it led to the career she has today.

So Lisa, welcome to the show.

Lisa – 2:07

Thank you, Michelle.

My name is Lisa.

As Michelle mentioned, I'm a marine biologist, conservationist, educator and entrepreneur.

I have recently just completed my master of Marine Management degree at Dalhousie University and I'm currently working as a science analyst on the Marine One mental quality team at Fisheries and Oceans Canada working on ocean noise and seismic surveys.

In my spare time, as Michelle mentioned, I've been doing a lot of volunteer work, which we've probably gotten into, just in a few minutes.

Michelle – 2:52

Amazing! This is exciting and I think a lot of people are probably curious, because when I talk to like 7 or 8 year olds or even kids in high school and they say they want to be a marine biologist, and some of them have this vision that they'll be like swimming with dolphins and the field is so much bigger than that.

So maybe you can give us some insight into what a day in the life looks like or what it's really like to be a marine biologist.

Lisa Chen -

Yeah, as you mentioned, marine biologist is a very wide field, so my previous experience I have worked in Florida, in manatees research, where we go on boat or planes or cars to visit docks to look at manatees and we take pictures of them and what we do is we match them with the scars. So oftentimes, Manatees, wanting to both and they ended up with different types of scars.

So using scars we are able to track their population status and assess how healthy the population amenities are and what we can do to save them.

So that's one of my experiences and another experience I had was I work in Thailand as a marine. We are coral researchers and conservationists. So what we do is we actually go out and do underwater type surveys.

Lisa Chen - 04:21

So this type of service differs from day to day. So some days we will go out and look at the type of coral we see after swimming 100 meter in a certain direction.

On certain chance that sometimes we go and look at predators or looking at what is eating the coral and sometimes we go out and actually look at urchins, sea stars or like fish like swimming the same landfall for that 100 meters see and what type of fish we can see and how many there are to assess what their biodiversity is like.

I also work at an aquarium in Euclid, BC before as a marine biologist and Aquarius, so that job entails more of animal care taking care of that animal. Make sure they are healthy. And to answer any questions that visitors might have about the animals, so that's more towards the educational side of things.

Lisa Chen - 05:31

And finally I work in Vietnam as a fisheries biologist, so that is more of looking at how healthy the aquaculture and fisheries are and how we can support the continual production of sustainable seafood.

Michelle Dittmer -

So you really have a wide variety of experience, everything from the education side of things to like underwater to doing the research side of things to animal care. So it really is such a diverse field, so I'm curious what along your journey, like if you go back to like your high school days and then after high school, what were some of the things that solidified that? Yeah, this was probably the right direction for you.

Lisa Chen - 06:31

I guess it's more like all the documentaries I saw growing up. It's very hard for me to pinpoint a moment that I got passionate about the ocean.

Like my masters research, is actually on Ocean Legacy is how do we get people to learn more about the ocean to care about the ocean?

But when I was doing the research I was just looking at myself. I couldn't pin down a point in time where I actually got passionate about the ocean.

So for example, I don't live beside the coast, so distance is not an issue.

My family coming from an Asian family is where you saw that issue. You know, like the stereotype, wanting you to go into business, accounting or like doctor or engineer so it did not come from my family, so I think probably because of documentaries and like learning more about it.

Lisa Chen - 07:24

That there's still a lot of mystery, like a lot of things that we don't understand about the underwater world, and that's what drove me to it.

And actually, when I started my undergrad degree, I did want to become a doctor.

But after the first semester, I feel like that is not it for me.

Like I wouldn't enjoy doing things that the doctors would do, but I enjoy hanging out with animals, learning more about our animals and that's how I got interested in the animal side of things, and then I guess plus the Oceanside, just keeps fascinating me.

Michelle - 08:00

And yeah, and I think it's I think it's so neat to be able to like look back on ourselves as Grown Ups and see our own journey because we at the Canadian Gap Year Association, we support people that are in the middle of that journey and really understanding how we start to explore the things that we're curious about.

And you mentioned documentaries. And people when they think about their gap year, they're always thinking about these big international experiences.

And these things that are going to have all of these huge impacts on their lives.

And they sometimes forget that those little things like watching those documentaries or reading those books or exploring those things that you're curious about, can actually really uncover so many things that you can be passionate about, and that can turn into a full fledged career.

So you spoke about your parents and the pressure to take. Certain tracks because they were like the honorable ones. They were the ones that were going to be guaranteed good money and I think a lot of people feel that pressure.

But we always have those little guiding beacons or those things that keep popping up for us. Whether it's a documentary that we keep gravitating towards or going on vacation always to the ocean or whatever it might be, there are those little signs.

Those little tells that keep popping up for us. And I think we have to really.

Honor those things and a gap year is a really great way to start to explore that a little bit more and to test out these things to see.

Michelle Dittmer - 09:39

Hey do I actually like this? Is this just a hobby thing or is this a career thing and they can give us a lot of really great experiences to kind of give us that reassurance or give our parents the reassurance that there is a forward direction for us in this line of work.

So I'm curious if you participated. Some Canadian programming with the Canadian Conservation Corps, correct? Yeah, can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Lisa Chen - 10:00

Yeah, so I actually got into it by accident. My previous journey, I don't know if you are familiar with the feel of marine biology, is actually a very difficult deal to find a career you know, make enough money to put on the table to pay your bills.

So prior to the Canadian consideration Court experience, I just spent like equal number of years or months working as a teacher overseas as well as working my marine biologist jobs. Oftentimes whatever salary I save up for my teaching jobs was a less amount of money I might make working as a marine biologist.

So I found out about the program through chatting with a friend who at the time was also working at a dead end job that she did not enjoy in Calgary.

And we were like, OK, it looks like an interesting experience and what came out to me was that it had an internship that is consideration based.

So as you hear a lot of my experience actually came internationally. So, coming home, trying to get a conservation job, they always ask about my Canadian experience, but because I don't have any Canadian experience like it just ended up into this negative cycle where I couldn't find a job that I like in Canada, I save up money and then I go and work overboard and it might not pay us well, but I really enjoy myself that kind of thing.

So I just ended up signing up for the program and I actually got in at an earlier cohort, but at that time that friend sent me the details and I already bought a one way ticket to Southeast Asia.

So I actually defer my experience of the Canadian Conservation Corps. I'm like, hey, can you wait half a year? After I come back, I don't know when I'm coming back, but eventually I will come back to Canada and want to take that internship opportunity.

And I think that's exactly what we did, I. Defer my acceptance that was about in 2019. Or actually earlier 2018, when we left.

Lisa Chen - 12:52

I mean, I started Canadian Conservation Corps in 2019, so it will be 2018. I defer my application back to May or June. We left for our trip and actually it's sitting.

I remember sitting in Laos where it was positive 30 degrees. I get this email from the Canadian Conservation Corps saying like hey, we are winter cohort going out.

We are going winter snowshoeing and this is the weather condition like mine is negative

30 not positive what you'll like to join us and then at that point I we were like at least I was like. Yeah it still sounds like a good experience at that point.

Lisa Chen - 13:36

I've been traveling for four months and starting to think about where I want to go next. So eventually you know the money. After traveling solid for four months the money is getting low and kind of. There's also a sense of missing home. It was the right time to come home, so I decided to take up that experience and sign all the paperworks and food home.

And yeah, suddenly one phone positive or 30 degrees to a trip that is minus 30. Yeah, I would say that kind of changed my life. Yeah, that's a big temperature difference and a big lifestyle difference, and I want to touch on something that you.

Michelle Dittmer - 14:20

You said that I think it is true for a lot of people that sometimes when we can't find jobs we get stuck in this cycle of no experience, no work, no work, no experience and it just gets. We just kind of get tossed around in that especially early in our career that all of the job postings are saying you need five years experience.

But if you don't have five years experience you can't get any jobs. And we can go around and around and around like that and I think one of the things that a gap year allows you to do is to build that experience and find programs like the Canadian Conservation Corps that are designed to give young people that experience.

That entry point that something that they can put on their resume, build some experience, build some skills that will give them that edge so when they are applying to those jobs that need some experience, they actually already have that.

And I think that that's a really great thing that you were able to recognize that, and you saw this opportunity, and it became available to you. And so you jumped on it.

Michelle Dittmer - 15:26

And to kind of break that cycle to get something there that can break you into an industry within Canada that you wanted to get into.

So can you tell us, maybe a little bit more about what you did as part of the Canadian Conservation Corps.

Lisa Chen - 15:45

Yes, so the Canadian Conservation Corps is divided in three stages, so stage one includes a wilderness journey. So I mentioned more being in negative 30, so my trip involved snowshoeing. In New Brunswick, one of the national parks, for two weeks.

So there were some nights that went to minus 30 to 34 degrees and we ended up having to haul off gear doing that for two weeks.

Lisa Chen - 16:23

Other than that, two weeks on stage 2 or two other weeks that entail training so doing that time we did a lot of hands-on leadership certifications. In course, outdoor Council of Canada certifications for hiking and kayaking, leadership certificates.

Of course, first aid certificates and we spend a lot of time learning how to collaborate with other people and building that team. Assignment as well as learning about environmental education. How to teach how to develop lesson plans.

Experiential learning and games to engage people on very difficult conservation concepts.

Lisa Chen- 17:17

So those were the two weeks.

So in my second stage two, I actually ended up in an aquarium in BC.

The island that was my placement there for three months.

So because I was basically the only one with a marine back when I got placed there to learn about how to basically combine my experience.

As a teacher or working overseas and the environmental education components that I learned during stage one, as well as my biology experience knowing about different animals, so learning.

How do you communicate and engage with the public to get them to care about the environment?

And then on stage three we were sent home back to our home community.

Lisan Chen - 18:10

So for me it was based here in Ontario.

We are expected to carry out our own community based conservation project to basically give back to the Community.

So for me I started a let's talk about campaign which focuses on tackling cigarette butts litter.

So for those that don't know, cigarette butt litter is the number one litter item by number in the world and they are just everywhere and a lot of people don't know that they actually are.

Very harmful for our environment, so other than all the toxins that are inside of a cigarette, they are in the cigarette butts on leeches into our soil.

They are also a plastic item so it just keeps breaking down into our environment into these microplastics that eventually end up in our food tray, but at the same time they are cyclable.

Lisa Chen - 19:09

So for me it doesn't make sense to toss them out.

So what we did is we.

Start at this campaign.

One is to educate people about what they can do about cigarette butts too.

We did a lot of cleanups and letter mapping to identify hotspots and pass the information to our municipalities hoping that they can put in some cigarette butts infrastructure to collect the butts.

So this project has since been growing quite big like it where we have some international volunteers.

And it grew way bigger than my family.

Michelle Dittmer - 19:50

Amazing, I love it! I think that's incredible that you were able to develop something that has a ripple effect.

Not only are you influencing policy at the municipal level and targeting some of those environmental issues and taking it down to something so niche.

That you can actually make a dent in it, and I think a lot of people feel very overwhelmed when they're looking at the climate crisis and they're looking at sustainability. There are just so many things that are causing trouble to narrow down and to find something that you can make a difference in.

I think is really powerful, and I think your example is a really, really great one that you were equipped with all of the skills that you needed in order to make change happen and to hear that, It warms my heart, but it also doesn't surprise me because you were very well prepared through your education and through the support that the Canadian Service Corps provided in terms of those three stages like setting you up for success.

That first stage of having that adventure and getting that education and learning different skills that you're going to be able to put to use.

And then that second phase of the internship or the placement getting the hands on experience building.

More confidence building your independence, learning from people who are already on the ground and then being able to apply it and turn it into something really meaningful.

I think that journey is so well thought out and really, really supports an incredible journey for you as an individual and also making dents in some of the challenges that we see in the world around us.

So kudos to you.

That's really amazing, thank you Lisa. Do you have any other examples of some of the other things that some of your peers did on their placement for their placement or for their project, anything that stands out?

Lisa Chen - 21:59

I know some of my peers. They work for hopeful wildlife in West Scotia. So hopeful wildlife started with an individual called Hope. Who decided to do an animal rescue and rehabilitation so for their 3 month placement, they basically help rehabilitate all this wild animals that got brought into the organization so they are always posting cute cuddly animal pictures on our Facebook page.

Some of my peers got placed at a snake nature park in Ontario, so that's focused more on snakes.

Lisa Chen - 22:51

Snakes and other reptiles, there is a lot of misunderstanding on what snakes are and a lot of people are actually afraid of them.

So for their program they know they serve that niche. Also to educate people about snakes and how to care for them and things like that.

And I know some people get placed in Ontario Fishers and Angular Association working on getting people involved, if like getting them outdoor to get passionate about fishing or other activities so they put together Bay boxes and come out and say half a day to experience some fishing and learn more about the activity and then some of my peer got placed in different provincial parks.

Lisa Chen - 23:52

There were placements at the Pacific Rim Provincial Park so they did a lot of plot part maintenance. So some are like building trails. All removing invasive species or helping out with their salamander surveys so they would go out and look at salamander eggs and things like that.

Yeah, those are the top stage two placements out of the top of my mind.

I know a few stage three projects.

Yeah, so one stage three project that was memorable, I don’t remember his name, but essentially what they did was they partnered with Mac on providing outdoor gear so they get like free paddling gear to go out on the water.

For a free kind of thing, but I think they need to do something to get that freebie and conservation related, I don’t quite remember off the top of my head what they did and of course some of my friends that community gardens.

So a lot of pollinator gardens that they partnered with church or like schools to create that Ripple effect. And yeah, that's just so many projects and I don't know which ones to highlight.

Michelle Dittmer - 25:30

Yeah, well, I think it's great because I think what people need to understand is that when it comes to conservation, it is such a wide spectrum like you don't have to be like a granola backcountry tree planter to be involved in conservation.

There's things that are urban. There are things that are more in the wilderness.

There are projects to do, Like you said, with pollination with specific animals with the oceans with litter. There are just so many different ways that we can tackle conservation and so I guess it kind of leads me to my next question which is who is the Canadian Conservation Corps for? Who should apply to this program?

What are some of the things that maybe some of our listeners might recognize in themselves and say oh this is actually something that's for me?

So do you have any tips on that?

Lisa Chen

The Canadian Conservation Corps is run by the Canadian Wildlife Federation for anyone 18 to 30. So there's no requirement for entering the program other than that age limit.

They encourage anyone that loves nature or actually doesn't know what they want to do with conservation or just wants to learn more, learn more about conservation to apply.

So there's no requirement other than the age and being in Canada, obviously.

Michelle Dittmer - 27:10

Yeah, well, I think I think that's great and the skills that you're going to be able to take away from it.

You're definitely going to make a whole group of people that are very interesting coming from diverse backgrounds and passionate about maybe some of the similar things that you were talking about.

You're definitely going to develop a lot of those leadership skills that you were talking about that are very transferable.

So even if you don't end up in conservation, your first aid is going to translate across different things, but working as a group, the communication of all of those skills are very transferable.

And then there are the ones that are very specific to conservation and environmentalism in itself.

And I think that no matter where you are, I think this is an incredible opportunity to have a program like this in Canada that is heavily subsidized by the federal government.

Which means it's very, very accessible financially to a lot of people, because a lot of those programs, if you want to go and volunteer in Thailand, for example.

A lot of those programs have huge price tags attached to them, and we're very lucky that the government here is investing in young people and their connection to conservation work.

So I just wanted to make sure to highlight that as well for sure.

Michelle Dittmer - 28:45

Well thank you so much for being with me today in this podcast.

It's been such a pleasure to hear about your story.

And to get a little bit of insight into what it might be like to participate in programs like this and how you can actually find your way based on getting your hands dirty.

Or in your case wet with different opportunities that are before you.

So thank you so much for joining me today.

Lisa Chen

Thank you Michelle.

Michelle Dittmer

Now if people wanted to follow along with your journey or learn a little bit more about you, is there somewhere where they could do that?

Lisa Chen - 29:21

Yeah we have a website called or you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram at “Let’s Talk Butts”.

Michelle Dittmer

I love it all right.

We will make sure to include all of those links in our show notes, so if that's something that's interesting to you, we'll make sure that you can get access to that and follow Lisa and make sure that we are making a positive impact on this planet.

Lisa Chen

Yeah, thank you very much, Michelle.

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