Asia’s Rising Scientists: Neo Mei Lin

Neo Mei Lin, a research fellow at the Tropical Marine Science Institute in Singapore, champions marine conservation—particularly of the iconic giant clam.

Neo Mei Lin
Research Fellow, Tropical Marine Science Institute
National University of Singapore

AsianScientist (Jun. 16, 2016) – The world’s fragile coral reef ecosystems are in grave danger. Roughly a quarter of coral reefs worldwide are already considered damaged beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat of facing the same fate.

Marine biologist Neo Mei Lin wants to see change. As a child, she was fascinated with marine life. This fascination continued into adulthood; while studying for her PhD, Neo decided to conduct doctoral research on giant clams, an unlikely dissertation topic at the time.

Today, her research efforts have led to population restoration efforts of this iconic bivalve on Singapore’s coral reefs, and in 2015, Neo received the 2015 L’Oréal Singapore For Women In Science National Fellowship and SG$30,000 (~US$22,000) in grant money.

Below, Neo shares with Asian Scientist Magazine what first drew her to marine biology, the importance of science communications, and her hopes for Singapore’s marine ecosystems.

  1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

    Synergizing research and conservation science to help protect endangered marine species such as the giant clams—the world’s largest bivalves!

  2. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

    To be honest, none—or rather, not completed yet. I find it difficult to put an end date to my projects as most biodiversity research, particularly those dealing with conservation, tend to require years or decades of efforts before it comes to fruition.

    Even so, I don’t think there will be an actual end, but perhaps I will be satisfied when I see improvement in species population and their habitats. That’s how I see my work in conservation and protection of the giant clams on coral reef ecosystems.

    If I have to describe one aspect of my research that I’m most proud of, it would be my doctoral dissertation. Prior to my research, our knowledge of the iconic giant clam was limited and sparse. In fact, it was an unlikely doctoral dissertation topic, as we had no idea if there were even wild giant clams to work on.

    Despite the initial challenges, I’m very proud of myself for completing a comprehensive investigation into the local populations of giant clams—from revealing their ecological roles on coral reefs, to culturing the species for experimental ecology. This research has led to current population restoration efforts on Singapore’s coral reefs.

  3. What do you hope your research will accomplish in the next decade?

    For the next decade, I hope that our conservation research of the giant clams continues to be a flagship program for upcoming marine conservation efforts, both locally and regionally. More importantly, I want to continue engaging and collaborating with researchers, non-governmental organizations, government stakeholders and members of the public in meaningful environmental outreach work.

  4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

    As a young kid, I had always been fascinated and curious about the natural world. My parents would take us outdoors during weekends, exploring every nook and cranny of Singapore. My fond memories of childhood include when I would take my plant book on car rides and point out the trees I saw along the roadside.

    As to how I chose marine biology, it was when I first visited our marine station based on St John’s Island. For a city girl, it was a first for me to physically interact with actual living marine life in the lab and meeting the local marine biologists working on them.

    That first-hand experience became a life decision to pursue marine science research and conservation work.

  5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

    Although the research landscape in Singapore has improved vastly for environmental biologists, funding basic research remains a problem. While our conservation research of the giant clams has its fair share of successes, I know that the long-term prospects of conservation-based efforts can be difficult to fund or sustain.

    In reality, conservation work is not easy to ‘sell,’ and many grantors seek out returns from the research. Despite that, I still carry much hope that our efforts will pay off progressively.

  6.  Neo with undergraduate students from the NUS field studies module at Tioman Island, Malaysia. Credit: Neo Mei Lin
    Neo with undergraduate students from the NUS field studies module at Tioman Island, Malaysia. Credit: Neo Mei Lin

  7. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?

    I think one of the remaining challenges is to bridge the communication gap between scientists and everyone else. In my years of work, it is apparent to me that for my research to become relevant and applicable, I need to be able to present the science to non-experts, such as decision-makers.

    At least for the environmental sciences, science communication is vital now more than ever, to help bring about the societal change needed to reverse damaging environmental trends. Conservationists need to be more proactive and purposeful in increasing environmental literacy.

    As a first step, an increasing number of grantors, recognizing the importance of science communication, now expect researchers to include an outreach component in their research proposal. Whether they like it or not, they need to put in at least some effort to raise awareness of their science to the public. There is no perfect solution, but hopefully, more scientists will come to realize the importance of science communication in their own area of research.

  8. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

    My childhood ambition was to become a teacher. I enjoy sharing and talking to people, and thought that teaching was a great way to keep in touch with people and share my passion for the environment with them. Although I did not become a teacher, in a way, I consider myself one now as I’m still sharing my knowledge of marine biology and conservation with my fellow colleagues and students, as well as members of the public.

  9. What do you do outside of work to relax?

    I enjoy scuba diving, nature photography and blogging. Most of my hobbies are still nature-related, but there are simply too many things to learn from Mother Nature!

  10. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

    I hope to reverse the damage done to our marine ecosystems. Undoubtedly, human activity has led and is leading to the extinction of marine species and destruction of coral reefs in various oceans. The fragile reef ecosystems, which took millions of years to perfect, are in danger of vanishing. We need more scientists to not only step up, but also speak up for the coral reefs before it is too late.

  11. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

    Don’t be afraid to dream big! You never know where your dreams will take you next. At least, I know mine took me a little further than I had imagined myself…

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Aaron Low.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Coming from a design background, Filzah brings a fresh perspective to science communications. She is particularly interested in healthcare and technology.

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