Thinking about biological diversity

As we journey in life, we keep changing and learning, pausing to reflect on how much we’ve internalised only at the end of every year, if that. With the entry of Facebook and the publishing of our lives on the platform, I find that I’m prompted to think and reflect on these changes more often, with every ‘memory’ I shared on the platform from years ago. This day 8 years ago, Facebook reminds me, I was helping to organise the inaugural Festival of Biodiversity in Singapore, prompted by a photo of an excited, younger me and Siva, my mentor.

The International Day for Biological Diversity was last week (22 May), proclaimed by the UN “to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues”.

Image taken from:

My relationship with the concept of biological diversity (‘biodiversity’) is quite central to my identity and what I think is (one of) my purpose in life, heavily influencing the decisions I make, and may be it will resonate with some.

City girl to biodiversity advocate

Similar to many others who grow up in a city (particularly a city-state), I was pretty much insulated and isolated from ‘nature’ as a kid, one of those who find it ‘icky’ to sit on the ground/dirt/earth, and rather squeamish about touching non-human creatures. I didn’t mind being outdoors, per se, but I didn’t have any profound interactions with nature as a child that made me think about our relationship with the planet we live on or the many other creatures we share it with. I was/am privileged in my majority Chinese, middle-class upbringing in Singapore, and the following was experienced from that position.

The ‘revelation’ came about in secondary school (13-16 yo), with a great biology teacher (Mr Lim, who wasn’t actually my biology teacher) introducing plants (a durian tree, while on a hike in MacRitchie, Central Catchment Nature Reserve), the interconnectedness of organisms, ecology, biodiversity, and all the cool facts about plants and animals. Thus I started exploring biodiversity and habitats (marine intertides, seagrasses, tropical forests…), reading up at the same time about biophilia (a hypothesis put forth by E.O. Wilson), nature deficit disorder (proposed by Richard Louv) and various other nature writings.

During this time in school, I did ecology-oriented research projects, organised field trips with other students, and volunteered on citizen science monitoring projects (Team Seagrass, Mega Marine Survey; I do miss the marine tropical intertidal areas, and all the wonderful people there…). Through these interactions, I realised these natural habitats and the biodiversity that live within are threatened by development (I still refuse to visit Universal Studios on Pulau Belakang Mati/Sentosa), and moved towards a space of raising awareness about our local biodiversity, their importance to urban residents, and generally educating about the value of nature/the outdoors.

The most visible of these efforts was helping to organise the Festival of Biodiversity when working at NParks during my gap year post A-levels. Following that, I did my undergraduate and master’s focusing on ecology and conservation, learning about the science and tools to protect natural habitats – protected areas, spatial planning, prioritisation, modelling, monitoring, reporting, evaluating effectiveness etc. I thought that my learning was more or less complete and I would just go into refining my understanding of these tools and issues, and trying to effect change in practice.

Towards decolonising biodiversity conservation

Over time (during/post-masters), I realised that the science wasn’t really delivering results (biodiversity is still rapidly declining, habitats still being lost at incredible rates etc.). People-centred conservation was important, since it is humans after all who effect changes, not what the science says or policies being written. I got interested in the human dimensions of conservation, coupled human and natural systems, socio-ecological systems etc., trying to understand human relationships to the land and biodiversity, and how conservation (as a field trying to make changes to the way people live their lives) need to take these into account.

As I delved into these topics, I also started reading on different conservation narratives and paradigms, realising that conservationists are not a homogenous entity. In what we want to achieve, I think we are similar – we are all for giving ‘nature’ breathing space and reducing ‘human’ pressures on the environment/planet, broadly speaking. How to achieve that, is where most of the differences lie. And so I was drawn into conversations and discussions about conservation philosophy, ecocentrism vs anthrocentrism, role of (neoliberal) capitalism etc, drawing on the Future of Conservation.

The point on this journey that I’m at right now, is realising that conservation is very much a colonial concept, and as practised now, is very much neo-colonialism in action (such as this). Biological diversity, as a western scientific concept, is but one way of viewing the abundance of life on earth. It is useful, but when we use the term biodiversity, we often preclude humans in the mix. But diversity of humans, and our diverse cultures and ways of seeing and understanding the world, is critically important to conservation. (Western/European) Colonisation has made us view people and nature as separate (amongst many other ills, like racial supremacy), but in many other (typically Indigenous) cultures, the interconnectness or wholeness of the system is emphasised.

Reading Conservation Revolution by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher has been refreshing, for bringing these ideas together and helping me understand the various links between economic development/growth/capitalism, conservation, and colonialism, and seeing solutions beyond more protected areas and marketisation/commodification of nature. I’m still very much in the process of learning about decolonisation (Decolonisation is not a metaphor by Tuck and Yang is a great read; also check out this The Conversation article on Decolonise Science: time to end another imperial era) and trying to understand it in the context of conservation and in Singapore. So goes on my journey and relationship with biodiversity, and I really hope to find again, that eager, excited younger self who was full of hope for positive change.

Learning to use HPC clusters, R Markdown & GitHub pages

I had just spent the last 3 weeks or so trying to figure out how to use R on the university’s HPC clusters, and thought it would be helpful to produce a guide to help other beginners as well. I wrote it using R Markdown, since I thought I might as well learn how to write in R Markdown better at the same time.

To turn it from a R Markdown (rmd) file to something others can see, I had several options, as pdf or as html. I could convert it to a pdf, and either share it with the lab or put it up somewhere online. The conversion to pdf produced problems with image placement (the images would be placed somewhere else from where I wanted them to be, so that things would fit nicely on the pages). I didn’t want to learn the hack (incorporating some LaTeX formatting etc.) so I thought I could just leave it as a local html which opens on my browser and then use ‘Save as PDF’ to turn it to a pdf. That removed some formatting and didn’t look very nice either.

I found out I could use the RWordpress package to publish the html file rendered to my WordPress site, which I tried (and actually published briefly for about 20 hours before I took it down from this site). Apart from broken image links which I had to fix manually by uploading my images to the media gallery here, it worked quite alright. The formatting wasn’t as nice perhaps, especially the bits with the code, but it worked.

Then I thought about it a bit more and decided perhaps I should learn how to publish it on my GitHub, because then it’ll be easier to make changes to the code and have the website all synced to changes. So I did! I’m quite pleased to have learned this now, it’s been quite fun writing in markdown language and mastering git a bit more. Here’s the guide if you’re interested. 

Yeast and yia yia

Do you think we’re mad …
when we say we spray down every package that
comes through the post;
that we wipe every pack of vegetables, cans of tomatoes and beans, bottles of milk, boxes of cereal;
wash our hands after touching the door knob;
all in a bid to hide
from an invisible 

This lockdown period has made it difficult for usual carers and relatives of my partner’s grandma (yia yia in Greek, pronounced ya ya) to help, so being the least vulnerable in the family, we’ve been spending weekends and some week nights helping how we can. Her being of a grand old age (>90 years old), we’re being ultra careful ourselves to not inadvertently catch and pass on anything. This extra alertness and care exerts a mental load, one that has now been normalised into the background. I look forward to not having to spray anti-bacterial (does it work for viruses though…) solutions on everything at some point in the future.

It is curious how we as humans exist in a world with so many creatures invisible to our naked eye, and celebrate some but vilify others. Our household has been having a go at making sourdough bread, keeping with the times. The starter seems to be thriving well, a concoction of yeast and beneficial bacteria. We’ve learned to harness their potential and ‘control’ them, and so find them less threatening. Yet should we seek to exterminate those that lie beyond our control, and may do us harm? To eliminate all harmful viruses and bacteria (as though that were possible in the first place), insects (like mosquitoes and flies) and whatever else that displeases us?

Struggles with getting the too-wet dough to shape. Many thanks and gratitude to my patient younger brother who dispenses bread-making and bread-saving advice across time zones.