Colleague – Helen Sung

Project Info

Project Description


Words can’t even begin to describe my love and respect for Marisa and the CRC…so instead it’ll have to begin with a story. The story of an enthusiastic, high spirited, albeit naïve, young freshman at UCLA on her way of becoming a wildlife biologist. Like many undergraduates entering UCLA, I was overly eager to start gaining research experience the moment I stepped onto campus. My head was spinning at the possibility of working with some of the brightest minds in science, but the problem was… the brightest minds weren’t as eager to work with me, a young ignorant freshman. I contacted principle investigators, graduate students, even other departments to try to find some sort of lab willing to give me research experience, but after rejection after rejection AFTER REJECTION, in comes an email that would forever change my life. An email from a graduate student working with crocodilian parasitology telling me that if I’m willing to put some serious work in and get my hands “dirty”, to come down to her lab to meet her at once. I grabbed my hat, my longboard, and was out the door the second I finished reading that email. I sped down to her lab, probably dodged a few close calls, walked down what seemed like a dungeon reeking of ethanol and guts to meet some crazy haired lady in a cut up t-shirt, eating green pasta with light saber chopsticks. That was the day I met Marisa Tellez…


Over the course of my undergraduate career Marisa coached me, mentored me, and pushed me to become the researcher she knew I could be. When others just saw another overly eager freshman, she saw potential and guided me to whatever goals I chose to seek. In 2011, I joined her lab and started learning about crocodilian parasitology with American alligators, and from 2012 I began fieldwork with her in Belize and Guatemala working with American crocodiles, Morelet’s crocodiles, and Spectacled Caimans. With Marisa there was never a “here watch as I do this” kind of moment, but rather a “hands-on experience and learn as you go” mentality. Day one in the lab, “Ok, this is how you dissect alligator intestines and look for parasites.  Got it…Here is a scalpel, a microscope, and a jar of gator guts! Go for it! You won’t learn just standing there!” Day one off the airplane, “WELCOME TO BELIZE! Drop off your bag in the room, here’s some rope and a catch pole, your lessons on catching crocs starts now, aka we’re going croc catching right now!” When you work with Marisa, and you WILL get your hands (arms, body, clothes… probably face too) dirty, because working with Marisa is REAL work. There is no standing around watching as she and her team does everything, Marisa will make sure that you are working and working hard. When you become part of her team, you are the one wading waist deep into the water with her, you are the one jumping on the crocodile with her, you are the one getting vomited on by a croc, and chased by a hoard of bugs. Fieldwork is never easy, and those who say otherwise are either liars or don’t know what real fieldwork is. Fieldwork is hard, fickle, unrelenting, and sometimes mentally and physically debilitating, but with Marisa, it has always been the best times of my life.  


I honestly never thought I would be working with crocodiles, let alone falling in love with working with them. Marisa’s passion for what she does is infectious. I’ve always loved reptiles, but working with Marisa and seeing her passion only fueled mine. Seeing someone loving what they do in their career is a rare thing, but seeing someone love what they do and sharing that love for a greater purpose is a near impossible thing. I know the CRC will do amazing work, be an inspiration to its community, and serve a greater purpose. I know this because I know those who run the CRC. I know their passion, their commitment, their work ethics, and their love for what they do. I give my full support to the CRC because when I was nothing but a bright-eyed ignorant freshman, Marisa Tellez of the CRC was the one who believed and supported me. She took me to places I never thought I’d be, achieve things I’d never thought I’d be able to do, and live a life I never thought I’d have. I have nothing but the utmost respect and love for her, and if she could do all these things for me, imagine what she could do with an organization for the betterment of crocodilian conservation across the world.
And for Marisa, you’ve changed my life. Meeting you was probably the best thing that ever happened to me because my life has never been the same without you. You are everything I could have ever wanted in a mentor and more. You’ve taught me to “work hard, and play harder”. To always believe in myself despite the doubts, BS, and haters trying to drag me down along the way. You gave me a chance when no one else did, and gave me the tools I needed to pave my own way. We’ve been through so much together from me crying on your shoulder in your office to laughing from the dirty looks we got at the coffee shop when we walked in covered in croc vomit. You’ve been with me every step of my way, and so I’ll be there every step in yours. You are my mentor, my partner-in-crime, my big sister, my great friend, and my inspiration. The CRC will grow, thrive, and do amazing things, because I know the amazing person who will take it there. You and the CRC have my full support, just as you had mine. I love you, you crazy lady!

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