A soft spot for giant clams

04 April 2017 | General News
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Dr Neo is a marine biologist with a deep love for the environment

Her peers have endearingly nicknamed her the “Mother of Clams” and “Obsessive Speciologist”. From a young age, Dr Neo Mei Lin had a fondness for the natural world. A trip to St. John’s Island many years later would offer the opportunity to interact with marine life and local marine biologists and eventually cement her decision to pursue a career in environmentalism.

Today, the passionate marine biologist and Research Fellow at the Tropical Marine Science Institute at NUS is making waves in the field, synergising research and conservation science to help protect endangered marine species such as the giant clams.

Later this month she will be sharing her passion on the global stage with her very own TED Talk in Vancouver, Canada, after being selected as one of only 15 TED Fellows in 2017. The honour is reserved for young innovators who display outstanding achievement, exemplary character and an innovative approach to solving the world’s tough problems.

I strongly believe in making a scientific contribution, no matter how small it may be, as that small effort will help make a big difference to the environment.

Dr Neo graduated from NUS with a Bachelor’s Degree in Life Sciences and a PhD in Biology. She has been studying giant clams — the world's largest bivalves — since late 2006 and led Singapore’s giant clam restocking and conservation programme in 2011. The programme has since seen cohorts of juvenile fluted giant clams transplanted onto coral reefs across the southern islands, where they have shown good growth rates and play host to a variety of marine biodiversity.

Giant clams, which can grow to more than a metre long and weigh about 300kg, play important ecological roles as food and shelter for other organisms, as well as reef-builders. However, due to development and pollution they are highly endangered, with roughly a quarter of coral reefs worldwide already considered damaged beyond repair and another two-thirds severely threatened.

Prior to Dr Neo’s comprehensive assessment of the giant clams in Singapore, knowledge of the marine species was sparse. Her research serves to facilitate current population restoration efforts on Singapore’s coral reefs, something which she is proud of, and rightly so.

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Dr Neo’s favourite marine animal, the giant clam

The young trailblazer already has multiple accolades under her belt, including making it to Forbes’ inaugural 30 Under 30 Asia list in 2016, being awarded the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science National Fellowship in 2015, and being nominated for The Singapore’s Women Weekly: Great Women of Our Time Award that same year. 

Even her free time is usually spent engaged in nature-related pastimes like diving, nature photography and bird-watching.

The big-hearted scientist has no plans of slowing down anytime soon, despite the challenges of conservation work which yields little profitable returns and requires a long time to see results. “I want to continue engaging and collaborating with researchers, non-governmental organisations, government stakeholders and members of the public in meaningful environmental outreach work. I strongly believe in making a scientific contribution, no matter how small it may be, as that small effort will help make a big difference to the environment,” she said.

She also hopes more can be done to advance women in science. “I think there has been a conscientious effort to recognise female scientists today, but this needs to be reinforced by actions to support them. Often, a career in science requires long hours. I still find myself struggling to have a work-life balance.

“I’ve found the courage to push ahead because of the support I’ve received from supervisors, colleagues, family and friends. I am also fortunate to have met someone who not only supports my dreams, but sees the potential in me to do great work. However, this is a fairly idealistic opinion as I have colleagues elsewhere who feel marginalised as a female scientist. We still have much work to do in improving the quality of life for women in science,” she opined.

Like others before her, Dr Neo emphasised the importance of having utmost passion for one’s work, saying, “There may be times when you feel like giving up but the passion you have for your work will somehow see you through”.

This is the second of a five-part series by NUS News profiling some of the University’s prominent females making waves in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).