Happy Lunar New Year everyone! In the spirit of this festive season, the young ones in the family often get asked/questioned about their life stage (or some may say crisis!), such as ‘are you still studying’, ‘are you seeing anyone’, ‘when are you getting married’, and (hopefully finally!) ‘when are you going to start a family’. 😛
On a similar note but on my career path, I noticed that the questions I get these days have somewhat ‘transformed’ over the years. I remembered in the earlier years of my career, I typically talked about my scientific research, but nowadays people are curious about my life choices. So here are some examples of questions I get from all walks of life…
“What drew you to marine biology?”
“Who or what motivated you to go into your field of study?”
“How did you become passionate about marine biology, in particular getting fascinated with the giant clams?”
“What led you to study giant clams? What is it about them that fascinates you?”
“What is your motivation behind saving these gentle beasts?”
“So why giant clams?”
“Do you often get asked about why you’re doing this?”
Yes, (very) often, I get asked about what motivates me to choose this path, and how did I arrive at where I am today. Even until today, my family and friends still wonder why I chose to work in the area of marine research and conservation, although my choice of work is not surprising for me. So I decided to pen my personal story here to serve as both a reminder and resource for anyone who is interested to become a marine biologist in Singapore! I’m geographically limited because most of my educational background is from Singapore. So here we go!
My youth fascination with the natural world…
As a young child growing up in urban Singapore, I have always been fascinated and curious about the natural world. My parents would take my sibling and I to various outdoor places during the weekends, exploring every nook and cranny of Singapore. My most fond memories of my childhood included taking my plant book on car rides and pointing out the trees I see along the roadside. Yes, I used to love plants! 🙂
I never thought about becoming a marine biologist as a child, but the chance had only came through when I was older and curious…
Marine biology research and the marine station in Singapore…
As to how I chose marine biology, it was when I first visited our marine station based on St John’s Island. [Note: The facility is now known as the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory.] For a city girl, it was a first for me to physically interact with actual living marine life in the lab and meeting local marine biologists working on them. When I was shown the outdoor aquarium tanks, my first thought was “Wow, we have marine life right here in Singapore!” For the very first time, I saw live hard corals, baby giant clams, seaweeds, and everything marine – amazing! Not forgetting meeting up with the REAL marine biologists working at the laboratory, who shared with me their research, as well as their love for the marine world.
That first-hand experience became a life-decision to pursue marine science research. I had eventually overcame my mild claustrophobia, and took up diving lessons so that I can be closer to marine biodiversity. The more I had explored this amazing marine environment, the more committed I am to studying and protecting these fragile ecosystems. Eventually, the years of researching on the giant clams had paved my dedication to conserving the endangered giant clams from extinction in Singapore.
[Quick note: I studied my Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences (NUS) and focused on Biology. We do not have a degree for marine biology, and it’s through a few module courses that I got to learn about the fundamentals of the subject. I continued to do my PhD degree in Science (NUS), although I would include a description that I focused on Marine Ecology.]
Giant clams were my only option then… (hehe!)
I always giggle to myself when I get the question on ‘How did you choose the giant clams?’ and ‘Why them and not others?’ The backstory to how I ‘chose’ to work on the giant clams was not typical or ‘love at first sight’. My interest with the giant clams did not begin immediately, but developed over time during my university days. I had wanted to find out what biodiversity research was about, and the giant clam project was the only project available for sign-up! Lucky for me, even though I was neither a diver nor had any marine biology field experience, I was fortunate that my supervisor still took me in as his student.
When I first started out, I got hooked on experimental marine science research – I had so much fun setting up my experiments (and being obsessive about how I arranged my beakers, tanks, and rulers in neat rows and columns). My experiential learning through failures had not only motivated me to persevere and see through my projects, I had learnt to appreciate that I cannot control my animals’ behaviour! They simply do anything they want! For one of my experiments, I had to think of a contraption that prevents the baby clams from walking out of the beakers and out of my treatments!
With the giant clams, it’s very hard to not like them! Giant clams have to be one of the most fascinating groups of marine creatures. They are the world’s largest shellfish, where the biggest ones can grow to measure a meter long and weigh over 300 kilos – heavier than a baby elephant! They’re so big that people used to believe they were man-eaters! Some studies thought that giant clams could live to be 100 years old. These colourful clams are also ecologically essential to coral reefs.
Their biology and behaviour absolutely (and continues to) fascinate me – from how some of them can bear large pearls to how they can ‘see’ us, and the adorable baby clams that we culture at our marine facility! And as my research on giant clams progresses (and this is mainly from reading more of the literature and going for field trips), I saw how conservation efforts often need to be supported by sound scientific research. Since then, I have used different avenues to share our research and communicate scientific knowledge to public masses via blogging platforms and volunteering stints.
I want to make a difference for the environment…
For as long as I can remember my love for the environment, I have a life motto: “I believe in making a contribution, no matter how small it may be, as that small effort will help make a big difference to the environment.”
Before I knew I was going to be a scientist, I understood the problems of pollution and deforestation. I started with just using less paper, recycling my completed homework, and generally try to be ‘environmentally-friendly’. Although I must say that I may not have been aware if I am being friendly to the environment or not!
After I became a scientist/marine biologist, my goals have shifted towards contributing scientific knowledge that I hope will be helpful – in my case, towards species conservation. More recently, I am focused on using science communication to engage with the public.
Generally, I know that I am a highly-driven, independent, and hardworking person. When I set out to do something, I will somehow see through it, regardless if the impact may be big or small. I do agree that it would require a certain tenacity and the ‘never say die’ attitude to get past the many challenges and obstacles in front of me. Plus, I had a wonderful support network of friends, colleagues, and eventually, my family behind me all these while… If one component was missing or lacking, my career path would surely have been even tougher!
If you had asked me these same question 5 years ago, my response would be ‘Aiya, my story isn’t that interesting. Why do you want to know?’ In my later years of career, as paiseh (embarrassed) as I am to talk about my career journey, I am heartened to hear that my stories have resonated with people and that my stories have made them feel ‘better about themselves’. Personal journeys and stories are what make us more human and down-to-earth, relatable and less intimidating. Like others, I have my fair share of struggles before reaping the fruits of success. Like others, I cry, whine, and get angry, but I’ve learnt to embrace my faults and become a (slightly) better person.
Through my sharing, I hope that you can relate to my journey on achieving my dreams.