From catching longkang fish to heading Singapore's only natural history museum

Growing up, Associate Professor Darren Yeo spent a lot of time roaming around the Changi area where his family lived, catching guppies and tilapias in the longkangs (drains).

“I was lucky enough to be able to explore ditches, drains and streams crisscrossing the neighbourhood,” reminisced Assoc Prof Yeo. The area that is now mainly occupied by part of Changi Air Base was not fenced up in the past, which enabled a curious child to explore the various flora and fauna that proliferated.

Little did he know that what began as a childhood pastime would blossom into a lifelong career in taxonomy, the science of classifying, describing, and naming organisms.

While in the third year of reading for his bachelor’s degree in Zoology (a precursor to the current Life Sciences major) at NUS in 1994, he became convinced of his passion for this area of study.

Surveys of nature reserves and a project on freshwater shrimps took him back to his childhood days. “But this time with a little bit more knowledge and understanding of what I was doing,” he quipped.

He then pursued a PhD at NUS to study freshwater crabs in the Indochinese region, expanding his scope of fieldwork and taxonomic study to Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Remaining in academia, he was a researcher and then instructor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS before being appointed an Assistant Professor there in 2010.

A decade later, Assoc Prof Yeo was appointed Deputy Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM), which has one of the most comprehensive collections of zoological specimens from Southeast Asia that dates back to the 19th century.

In July 2022, he will take on the mantle as Head of Singapore’s only natural history museum with over a million specimens—from dinosaur fossils to the skeleton of a sperm whale that was discovered off the shores of Jurong in 2015.

Not just a depository of “dead animals in a bottle” 

Assoc Prof Yeo first joined the Museum in 2001—then known as the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research—as a research officer for four years. Even after he left to focus on undergraduate teaching as an instructor, he continued to conduct research in close collaboration with the Museum.

“As a researcher, I would deposit specimens I collected for my research projects in the Museum or refer to the specimens in the Museum for my work,” he said, happy to contribute to the collection and learn at the same time.

His return to the Museum as Deputy Head, however, while informed by his experience in it, has less to do with hands-on taxonomic research and deals more with managing the Research, Curriculum and Collection (RCC) section—the largest group in the Museum.

This section comprises about 20 people, including lecturers, scientific managers and officers, and specialist associates. “All of them are responsible for some aspect of managing, running and taking care of the specimen collections,” added Assoc Prof Yeo.

He oversees the RCC team and their meticulous handling of all specimens, which includes vertebrates such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fishes, as well as invertebrates like insects, molluscs and crustaceans. They are either kept dry or in ethanol, as microscope slides or in other collections.

“These collections are really important as they form the core of the Museum’s specimen-based research,” he explained. They are not simply “dead animals in bottles”, but provide plenty of biological and historical information. 

For example, if a new species was discovered, one of the original specimens identified would be designated the holotype specimen, serving as a permanent reference point, for that species. “A hundred years down the line, when all of us at the Museum are no longer here, this will remain the key representative that defines the species,” he added.

Keeping natural history alive

As Head of the Museum, his primary focus will be to keep the facility funded, support and further strengthen its specimen-based research capabilities, and raise awareness of its rich collections, including Singapore’s only record of a leatherback turtle that was found dead on a beach near Siglap in 1883.

The Museum was officially launched as the LKCNHM in 2015 and became a self-supporting unit. Part of Assoc Prof Yeo’s job will be to ensure the Museum remains self-funded and self-sufficient through fostering continued as well as new engagements of donors, and by boosting the Museum’s programmes and development.

Having worked closely with other prominent natural history museums around the world such as London’s Natural History Museum, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the National Museum of Natural History in France, he believes that LKCNHM is comparable to them in terms of its role as a repository of zoological specimens and information, and international centre for taxonomic research. He intends to continue to support and enhance existing programmes in the Museum for zoological exploration, discovery and research as well as to initiate new ones.       

But the Museum is perhaps less recognised locally in Singapore, he observed, attributing this to its location within the university in the western side of the country, and highlighting, as another of his priorities, the push for greater outreach to raise awareness of the Museum and attract more Singaporeans from across the island to visit.

Going forward, he intends to actively oversee the raising of the Museum’s profile through social media, and enhance engagement with schools, companies, government agencies and the public. Bringing in more youths and younger leaders interested in natural history will also be a boost—there are plenty of opportunities for them to engage with the Museum, he shares. “We have student interns helping with various aspects of operating the Museum, including curation, field and lab research and managing the front-of-house of the gallery,” said Assoc Prof Yeo.

Discovering new species, and giving others the opportunity to do the same, is what Assoc Prof Yeo finds most fulfilling about his job. “The exploration and discovery that go on in and through the Museum, and witnessing other people's excitement in that discovery, are very rewarding,” he reflected.