“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.
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