A very small forest, the central catchment area is…

Last week I presented some of my students’ work at the 8th Flora Malesiana conference. It was on the gene flow of some species of native plants in Singapore (which included Rhopaloblaste singaporensis) and also a short highlight on palm distribution projects that I am starting with my current JC students. The gene flow work was from Shufen’s excellent work for her Honours thesis.

In preparation for one of the slides to show where the individuals of Rhopaloblaste singaporensis was collected (with permits from NParks) for the DNA sampling, I realised how small our Central Catchment Nature Reserve is. This area would include Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Macritchie reservoir, Pierce reservoir and Nee Soon Swamp forest.


I used Google Earth to measure the width of the Catchment area and what I got was a little over 5km at some points…. And then it dawned on me also that we could easily walk round Macritchie in 1.5 hours.

So that was one of those epiphanies I got in preparation for that talk and it lingers.

When I brought 2 of my students to map the distribution of palms in Macritchie, they told me their friends had asked them “why work on the forest palms when there are so many palm species in the urban landscape, along the wayside and in the gardens”… Well, it didn’t take too long, as we began to map and identify the forest species, before they realised that the forest species are special, threatened and misunderstood.


A mini-“World Food Programme”

On Tue, Oct 20, 2009 I asked for articles about Norman Borlaug from my friends when I got this email digest link on a retrospective on Norman Ernest Borlaug. Immediately Siva sent me the pdf and also mentioned that he “talks about Borlaug Borlaug in soil ecology and south east asia conservation. 3-4 slides only with Ehrlich saying millions would starve and then came along Borlaug with dwarf spring wheat…” Siva also mentioned that he had seen an episode in the West Wing that mentioned Borlaug. He blogged about it here I as discover

Norman Borlaug’s scientific contribution and industry was compelling and something I felt I could share with my science class. So I did up a just-in-time lecture. It’s true that when you teach, you learn twice as my landlady used to say. So the more I did up my slides, the more I learnt of his enormous contribution to alleviating hunger. We’ve heard so much about the Green Revolution but when I dip-stick any class about who Norman Borlaugh was, I get blank stares. Then again, lots of people I know don’t even know what types of food are made from wheat flour. And here was a man who almost single-handedly solve world hunger; and for India and Pakistan, their wheat yields went from famine levels to levels of self-sufficiency in just over half a decade, with India going on to becoming a net wheat exporter.

Within a few days of doing up the JIT lecture, I heard that the National Institute of Education was hosting Dr. M. Vijaya Gupta, World Food Prize Laureate who would talk about his fish programme in Bangladesh in the 1980s. The stories of how women become empowered through rural aquaculture were riveting and heartwarming.

It became a need for me now to package this into some sort of programme for students to get a more first-hand experience of “food”. So that was how the Raffles “World Food Programme” was born. Interestingly, this food programme idea got people I spoke to, more interested than when i spoke about any other science workshops or electives that I have carried out. Food is such a common denominator.


and our first harvest of pak choy. Extremely delicious with a taste of the earth.


And just when I thought food issues were not going to be resurfaced again, Nature.com publishes a special feature entitled “Can science feed the world?” and just yesterday.

Celebrating the mangroves

I use this video very often to tell stories to new students. Somehow it also gives me credibility! I guess like the moon, I shine with borrowed light from the likes of Attenborough and our resident mangrove denizen – Otterman. The whole picture of our local mangrove Otterman pulling the legend is cause for quite and deep celebration.

I remember during the busiest part of my school teaching term, Siva asks me to be a chauffeur for some visiting scientist who wanted to visit mangroves. I said yes before even getting any details and didnt think much of it… Must be another day out with european zoologists that needed some samples and then a good prata somewhere.

The next day I drove and parked at the rendevous, Orchid Hotel Lobby where the BBC team was. I walked out of my car and towards to lobby only to see a vision of Sir David Attenborough appearing next to the concierge with a beaming Otterman in usual bermudas and torn polo t-shirt to receive him.

The only other time I was close to Attenborough was when I was hiking through Richmond in London after a lab session at Kew and someone told me he lived around there.

Here’s Otterman’s version of the mangrove episode.

Reliable Info on Swine Flu

Check out Otterman‘s post on “Communicating the Swine influenza A (H1N1) crisis” at the Biorefugia

For the H1N1, I find these same (as in SARS) international and local sources useful:

* WHO Disease Outbreak News

* Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Swine Influenza (Flu): cdc.gov/swineflu/

* CDC has a twitter account, @CDCemergency!

* Ministry of Health, Singapore: Update on Global Human Swine Influenza – helpfully this URL: moh.gov.sg, brings you right there.

New sites I refer to include:

* Channel News Asia special on the Swine Flu Outbreak – note the useful, simple URL: channelnewsasia.com/swineflu/

* CNN Health: Swine Flu

* BBC: Swine Flu Special Report
* News aggregators (search term = “swine flu”): Google and Yahoo

The Just-in-time Swine influenza lecture

As a result, here it is: “Just-in-Time Lecture: Swine influenza A (H1N1) Outbreak in US & Mexico: Potential for a Pandemic,” by Rashid A. Chotani. Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS). Updated daily. The html and powerpoint versions are available at this Supercourse site at the WHO Collaborating Center, University of Pittsburgh.

Cheng Puay does a good post here at his blog to educate his students

The Paper Airplane Guy is here

The Science Centre is a regular place we visit with the kids – but today, there was a special treat; we got to see the Paper Airplane Guy – John Collin showing us how to make various paper airplanes that left the audience mesmerised with a craft that was both clever in terms of the science of flight and artful incorporation of Origami into the making of paper airplanes… This must rank as one of the most entertaining demonstrations I have been to.

See what I mean here

Almost all the airplanes are folded from a single sheet of US letter sized paper. My favorite are the planes built from phonebook pages which stay in flight when he walks with cardboard to create a draft below the craft and the bat plane, which flaps like a bat.

Catch him at the Singapore Science Centre (2 more days left) – see below

Singapore Science Centre: Events|The Paper Airplane Guy Show

Josh and Matt waiting for the autographed paper airplane book by John.


[He inspires a new category – “wow” in this blog]

Plant Viruses

Got activated by Siva yesterday to think about how to identify plant viruses for his Plant Virus pract. Fancy the zoologist doing a botany fieldtrip! But I understand he is helping out Prof Wong Sek Man. I don’t mind helping such a great prof out anyway.

Always one to seize such opportune and useful displacement activity, I scoured the net for search images of plant viruses and here are some useful links that I “delicioused” under the tag plant_virus. I put together a document that Otterman and I could use as a rough guide to spot plants that have been infected.

Siva lost his phone so by the time I had finished my meeting and made my way to the Bot Garden, it was hard to locate him and the students, so after 15 mins, I gave up and decided to do my own thing. My first aim was to locate the Canna hybrids which apparently are notoriously susceptible to the Yellow Streak Virus which cuases the pale streaks running parallel to the leaf veins; a closer look would show lots of speckles.


Another surprise I had was how many plant species showed the tell-tale signs of virus infection – chlorotic spots and ring spots with yellowing and vein clearing. The two pictures below were of leaves from Heliconia psittacorum


I decided to check out palm valley and lo and behold quite a few species were also infected. Here’s the majestic Corypha umbracaulifera (Talipot palm) clearly down with a bug.



Anyway, too bad I missed the group of students but the learning journey at the Bot Gdns was a welcome break. Here are some beautiful scenes; gosh how I miss the plants.



Photo_031209_Bot Gardens.jpg

Conjuring Heaven

Quite a few years ago when I was in University (year 1), I attended a talk by a priest who said.. heaven begins now, and he quoted some words from John in the new testament..

Fast forward many years to just 3 years ago, Br Broughton describes how he told students that they experience heaven as they meet up in a fast food restaurant and have fun and laughter over a meal, enjoy the company of close friends, and all worries and anxieties dissipate as they conjure up heaven.

A couple of days ago I was facilitator for a group of students on their 4 day camp. The 1st day’s campsite was pretty near the beach and after setting up the tents and having dinner, it was just 7.30 pm. The nightsky was beautiful; there was no light pollution at all and the stars just dotted the nightsky. In the morning when I awoke, the cool and fresh air filled my lungs – a long lost feeling from fieldtrips to Malaysia.

The memories of dragonboating, wakatobi, rafting and mangrove planting will remain… but the heaven conjured by the youth in those 4 days come remind me of those insights by the holy men. Why wait till we die? Heaven is here…