ST – “Environmental biology a hot subject”

“Environmental biology a hot subject,” by Grace Chua.
The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2009
NUS, NTU to offer more courses in recognition of field’s growing value

ENVIRONMENTAL biology is making a comeback here as well as worldwide, as universities recognise the discipline’s role in the study of climate change and environmental issues like pollution.

Both the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) plan to revamp their curricula to include more topics in the field, and the latter has applied for funding to set up a Research Centre of Excellence for environmental science.

As NUS’ biological sciences head Paul Matsudaira put it: ‘Singapore is at the epicentre of some of the major and most challenging environmental problems that have to be addressed.

‘The equatorial location is one asset, since tropical environmental problems are comparatively under-researched.’

Like other biology disciplines such as molecular biology and genetics, environmental biology is the study of living things, but in terms of their surroundings.

For example, it looks at how pollution and climate change affect species and biodiversity. Thus ecology, ecotoxicology and conservation biology might be considered aspects of environmental biology.

NUS, for instance, is offering several new courses on ecology and evolutionary biology this year, and in the last two years, it has hired at least four new faculty members in biology.

Meanwhile, NTU’s school of biological sciences has hired several international faculty members to study microbial ecology, said provost Bertil Andersson.

NTU’s attention to environmental biology, the school’s expertise in earth sciences and its experience in environmental engineering are all part of a new university-wide Sustainable Earth initiative, which is expected to be launched formally in February next year.

But these changes are not driven solely by university administrations. They have also come about because of rising student interest.

One in five life sciences majors at NUS, for example, now opts for environmental biology modules, up from 12 per cent seven years ago.

NUS started its integrated life sciences curriculum in 2001 and NTU started its School of Biological Sciences the following year, as part of a nationwide drive to train more students in the field.

But NUS biological sciences graduate Huang Danwei, now 28, felt he was not getting enough training in biodiversity and ecology. So in 2006, he and 10 others met the dean to propose curriculum changes.

The department listened to them, and classes in biodiversity and ecology are now available in the first- and second-year syllabuses.

There is demand for people with taxonomy skills and biodiversity know-how as fields like climate modelling and conservation grow.

For instance, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute of High Performance Computing had a recent job posting for a research officer with ‘expertise in data management, database, climate change scenarios and biodiversity’.

But will these changes translate into real environmental policy changes or scientific advances?

Professor Matsudaira said he expects the biggest impact to come from the development of science-backed environmental policy, where Singapore will directly influence the Asia-Pacific region.

‘Because we are scientifically strong, we will train students and scientists for jobs in government, research and industry,’ he said.

However, students and universities should not jump on the bandwagon simply because the field is hot, warned National Institute of Education biologist Shawn Lum.

‘We should do it not because it’s a fad, but because as educational institutions and as a country, we value it as a worthy field and endeavour, and our interest in it is not going to fall by the wayside the moment the next big thing comes along,’ he said.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.


Sea wall “construction site” outside Frog lab

Yes, the ruckus this past week is caused by Marine Lab's Lynette Loke's seawall project. Construction materials have been appearing outside the Frog Lab and over time, a mini-seawall factory appeared. Lynette told me another 180 tiles would arrive this evening.

But she has found help – the handy kungfu hands of a botanist no less, have been recruited to do the deadly dead of smashing tiles! How we love to see honours students hard at work – it motivates the rest of us!

Nalini, evolab publishes in JEB, not worksafe for flies (with videos)

N. Puniamoorthy, M. R. B. Ismail, D. S. H. Tan & R. Meier 2009, “From kissing to belly stridulation: comparative analysis reveals surprising diversity, rapid evolution, and much homoplasy in the mating behaviour of 27 species of sepsid flies (Diptera: Sepsidae).” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22, 2146-2156.

(Careful of impressionable minds looking over your shoulder while watching this)

The full list of videos can be accessed on the evolutionary biology website here

Paul awarded President’s Graduate Fellowship

Congratulations to Paul Chen from the Systematics and Ecology Lab on being awarded the President’s Graduate Fellowship. The fellowship is awarded to candidates who show exceptional promise or accomplishment in research. Only a number of Ph.D. research students are selected each semester by the University for the award.

paulpgsPaul with his honors poster on stidulatory behaviour of Perisesarma eumolpe

Paul graduated from the B.Sc. (Honors) Life Sciences (Biology) class of 2008/09 with first class honors. His thesis work was featured in the Straits Times science section earlier this year. Paul currently divides his time between working at the Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) and teaching at NUS and intends to pursue a Ph.D. in crustacean behaviour starting Jan 2010.

Enoka in Sri Lanka – “A day in the field”

Enoka is roughing it out in the field in Sri Lanka doing her field work. During one IM conversation – she bouncing around in a truck with a flashlight in her mouth and me comfortably at home, I persuaded her to send me this.

So now for a glimpse of “a day in the life” of a grad student in the field – she did a nice, quick job!

Job opportunity: Monitoring freshwater invertebrates

Research Assistant/Technical Support Officer opportunities with the Department of Biological Sciences, NUS and the Public Utilities Board, PUB.

As Singapore is one of most water-scarce countries in the world, water management is critical. The Public Utilities Board recently commissioned the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences to develop a lentic macro-invertebrate biotic index for the island’s waterways, with an emphasis on shallow tropical lakes. This will now complement the extensive water quality sampling regime already in place.

We are seeking three Research Assistants and/or Laboratory Technicians to assist a team with monitoring freshwater invertebrates in Singapore.

The candidates should have:

  • either a polytechnic diploma or degree in biology or a related subject,
  • field experience,
  • preferably a Singaporean driving licence,
  • experience of ecological sampling protocols and/or freshwater macro-invertebrates. This would be advantageous but full training will be provided ‘on the job’.

The posts are initially for 6 months with a likely possibility of longer-term employment depending on the performance on the job and/or progress of the project. Positions are available immediately.

Interested candidates are invited to send their CV to Dr Esther Clews at

Closing date for applications: Thursday 29th October 2009.
Interviews will take place during the first week of November.

Dr Esther Clews
Postdoctoral Fellow
Marine Biology Laboratory
Department of Biological Sciences
National University of Singapore
14, Science Drive 4, Blk S1,
#02-05 Singapore 117543
Phone: +65 6516 6867

Gwynne wins Fulbright Scholarship!

Just received some marvelous news; congratulations, Gwynne!

Gwynne “Don’t trash my planet” Lim
Photo by Nalini Puniamoorthy

Congratulations to Gwynne Shimin Lim from the Evolutionary Biology Laboratory on winning an International Fulbright Science and Technology Award. Her award allows her to pursue a Ph.D. in Science, Technology and Engineering at a leading US university. The fellowship comes with assistance in admission as well as three years of full financial support (tuition, living expenses, travel expenses, book allowance).

The Science & Technology award is co-sponsored by the US Department of State and the US Department of Education in order to underscore the commitment of the United States to welcoming future researchers and leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering. It was started in 2006 and the number of annual awards is 40 worldwide.

Gwynne graduated from NUS and USP in 2007 with a B.Sc. (Honours) in Life Science (Biology). She subsequently pursued a Master of Science in Life Science and has published four papers including one in Annual Review of Entomology. She has also attended four international conferences and recently won the Don Rozen award for her presentation at the XXVIII. Annual Meeting of the Willi Hennig Society.

Gwynne is active in Singapore’s biodiversity community and was the Editor-in-Chief of the inaugural issue of NUS’s chapter of “The Triple Helix” which is dedicated to popularizing science across the campuses of major world universities.

She intends to pursue a PhD in plant systematics.

Her award is only the second one for Singapore. The first went to another NUS student and USP graduate (Mr. Reuben Ng) who majored in psychology, pursued a M.Sc. in Management Research at the University of Oxford before using his Fulbright award to pursue a Ph.D. in Public Health at Yale University.

More information on Fulbright Fellowships can be found at the International Fulbright Science and Technology Award and the US Embassy’s Fulbright in Singapore webpage.

“How cities drive plants extinct”

Richard Corlett is a co-author in Hahs et al., 2009. A global synthesis of plant extinction rates in urban areas. Ecology Letters 12, DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2009.01372.x

Abstract – “… We compiled plant extinction rate data for 22 cities around the world. Two-thirds of the variation in plant extinction rates was explained by a combination of the city’s historical development and the current proportion of native vegetation, with the former explaining the greatest variability. As a single variable, the amount of native vegetation remaining also influenced extinction rates, particularly in cities > 200 years old.

Our study demonstrates that the legacies of landscape transformations by agrarian and urban development last for hundreds of years, and modern cities potentially carry a large extinction debt. This finding highlights the importance of preserving native vegetation in urban areas and the need for mitigation to minimize potential plant extinctions in the future.”

BBC is carrying the story: “How cities drive plants extinct,” by Matt Walker. BBC Earth News 08 Oct 2009:

Excerpt – “An international team of botanists has compared extinction rates of plants within 22 cities around the world.
Both Singapore and New York City in the US now contain less than one-tenth of their original vegetation, reveals the analysis published in Ecology Letters.
However, San Diego, US and Durban, South Africa still retain over two-thirds of their original flora.
Both the pace of urban change and how many plants remain in a city are good predictors of whether plant species will survive there in the future, says the report.”

Click to read the full story…

Happy faces at Labrador Rocky Shore

Our new, second-year ecology course, LSM2251, had students visit the Labrador Rocky Shore to study the flora, fauna and zonation there. It was nice leading an evening trip once again and to the rocky shore there. E-learning week helped as students did not have to rush from a previous lecture!

Group A1

Group A2

Group A3

Group A4

Group A5

Support Crew

This field trip arose after discovering most of the class had not studied the rocky shore fauna. Of the 42 who visited today, 83% were making their visit there.

They were split into five groups and scattered along the shore to examine the low, middle and upper littoral area. this kept the impact low with them well spaced out. Eventually they did come together on the beach to compare notes. which they will later share over Google Docs.

It was lovely seeing the rocky shore once again with a class. We’ll be back in two weeks time with the other half of the class.

More photos on Flickr.

Update – Son just passed me his lovely photos; also on Flickr.

Bicky is happy about his new lab t-shirt!

WHY is he so happy?

Update, 09 Oct 2009:

Front Panel

Back panel

Sam Howard explains,

“The back panel is Rhacophorus pardalis from a photo Dr Bickford took and has (sort of inadvertantly) become the lab emblem. The front panel is a regional map showing gross predictors of the effect of climate change on herpetofaunal species over the next 50(ish) years. It is by no means highly accurate and is a very simplified model accounting for only temperature, precipitation and elevation.

This t-shirt was designed to highlight that probable climate induced impacts which are going to hit these groups hard. Unfortunately the reality is likely to be worse than the simple model once factors such as continued deforestation etc. are accounted for.”

So he’s happy he is helping to get the message across but definitely not about the situation. Battle on comrades!