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Spotlight: Writing her own story

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Cheryl Chan

Finance and Operations Manager

Published March 13, 2023

If you asked me five years ago what I saw myself doing, I wouldn’t have pictured myself in finance and research administration.

My story is not linear. I was born in Hong Kong, by the ocean. My family moved to Canada when I was 10 months old. We didn’t travel much, but when I was 12, we took a tour bus to Boston, where we went whale watching. That’s the first time I remember seeing the ocean.

After college, I moved to China to teach science. We had summers off, so the teachers would travel. One summer, my friend suggested we go to Thailand and get our scuba certification. I expected to see beautiful reefs, like the ones in documentaries, but what I saw was destruction, which community members described as the result of dynamite fishing.

The experience sparked my interest in the marine environment. It is such an unknown space, yet we're destroying it faster than we're understanding it. I was fascinated by the relationship between oceans and the communities that depend on them.

I went on to get a Master’s Degree in Environmental Studies, where I studied community marine conservation in Jamaica. I enjoyed the research space but wasn’t ready to pursue a PhD, so I transitioned into research and program management.

The opportunity to work at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions allowed me to continue building my skill set. I also really enjoy universities because of the energy around discovery and learning. For me, learning a new skill or subject area is very motivating. That said, I’ve never been a person with one career destination in mind: I don’t limit myself to thinking “This is my only option in the future.” I tend to follow my interests and go with what feels best at the time, suits my life at that time, and suits who I am at that time. 

On paper, I’m a finance and operations manager, but I feel like a mechanic: I keep the Center for Ocean Solutions running day in and day out. 

For a small center, we work quite globally. We mostly partner with smaller institutions in the countries where we’re working. Part of my role is to make research administration accessible to our collaborators. It’s about being there to support people when they have questions and issues. What can make administration challenging is navigating cultural differences and expectations.

I think growing up as a cross-cultural kid and traveling throughout my twenties strengthened social and emotional skills for navigating different cultural contexts. It's so humbling to live and work in different places. I wish that everybody had that opportunity because we would have way more empathy for each other. 

I love meeting our partners. It’s inspiring to know that people are out there doing this work every day for oceans and coastal communities, and being able to support them is very rewarding.

A couple years ago, I remember being on a career panel for an undergraduate seminar, alongside people with more linear paths. I said, ‘It’s never too late to start over.’ Obviously, there are caveats. But a lot of people’s stories are very linear, and those are the stories we are told are the right stories. I think it’s important to show people that you can choose how to write your own story.