Why Singapore’s “Otterman” believes in learning beyond the classroom
In this series, NUS News explores how NUS is accelerating sustainability research and education in response to climate change challenges, and harnessing the knowledge and creativity of our people to pave the way to a greener future for all.
As a young boy, Mr N. Sivasothi recalls an encounter with a Nephila antipodiana, commonly known as the batik golden web spider, which sent him and neighbourhood friends screaming and fleeing. But that was the first and last time he ran away from critters.
He soon found an inherent love for nature and all it had to offer, exploring green pockets around his neighbourhood in the early years of newly independent Singapore.
These neighbourhood jaunts soon expanded into islandwide excursions as he grew up, and started cycling regularly. But as swathes of nature were gradually replaced by roads and buildings over the years, he made it his mission to protect the rich biodiversity that was being threatened by urban developments.
With a degree in zoology at NUS, he marked the start of a lifelong journey as “an educator who loves animals, nature and the environment”.
Today, the 56-year-old is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biological Sciences at NUS and a well-respected environmentalist. Some might also know him as “Otterman”, a nickname from his work with otters in the 1990s.
It began when Professor Peter Ng, then Head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, had asked if he wanted to “chase a furry creature in the mud”. He agreed and spent the next year scrutinising otters while studying a Master’s degree in Science at NUS.
Mr Sivasothi subsequently joined NUS as a researcher in 1999, started lecturring in 2004 and received the title of senior lecturer in 2017. He is also a Fellow at Ridge View Residental College, where he mentors staff.
The various teaching awards he has clinched over the years, such as the Faculty and University Teaching Excellence Awards, further bear testament to his effectiveness as an educator and ecologist.
“It’s just my DNA, my natural instinct,” he said. “You have to make people aware of environmental conservation. Coupled with that is the desire to do something and practicality. I can’t save the world, but can I do something?”
Up close and personal with nature
To this end, Mr Sivasothi engages in many forms of outreach efforts outside of teaching hours to educate others. For instance, he once hosted a plant walk around the university, inspired by a conversation with two staff members who did not know what a raintree was.
To get people to care about the environment, he believes that first-hand experience is vital. He fondly recalls getting students to jump off a boardwalk into mud just to experience nature.
The coordinator of NUS environmental volunteer group NUS Toddycats also taps his connections with the public and private sectors to arrange nature walks.
“We wanted people to appreciate the whole ecosystem. We’d talk about plants, animals, anything we encountered,” he said. “As they got exposed to their backyard nature, they saw something worth protecting.”
Some walks he arranges also directly link to Singapore’s heritage, such as the annual commemorative Battle of Pasir Panjang Anniversary Walk which sees participants follow the trail of the historic battle during World War II and hear about the history, geography and the flora and fauna of the area.
Today, Mr Sivasothi splits his time between several environmental conservation organisations, such as the NUS Toddycats and the Biodiversity Roundtable and Biodiversity Friends Forum in collaboration with the government agency NParks.
Michelle Wong, a Year 4 Sociology major and volunteer with the Toddycats, recalls Mr Sivasothi explaining the significance of coastal vegetation protection as they reintroduced native species to Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve during a replanting session. They frequently revisit and monitor the same areas, watching their efforts come to fruition.
Her main takeaway is volunteerism’s contagiousness. “When you plant something and see its growth, there’s a sense of satisfaction,” she enthused. “You share it with friends and get new people on board. That’s the ‘magic’ of these sessions.”
Through NParks, Mr Sivasothi has been educating youths even before they enter university. Since 2017, he has conducted the Biodiversity Friends Forum, holding workshops for pre-university students which expose them to mentors in the conservation community and opportunities to go on field trips with Biodiversity Friends leaders.
Linking the real world to the classroom
To Mr Sivasothi, advocacy efforts are essential for growth as an educator. His external work usually makes its way back to the University as research and teaching resources.
Similarly, he showcases his students’ work beyond the classroom by linking them up with external agencies.
Second-year Environmental Studies major Amanda Chai shared how her class developed ideas for the government’s ‘30 by 30’ plan – Singapore’s target to meet 30 per cent of the nation’s nutritional needs domestically by 2030 – as well as upcycling and reducing waste.
“These real-world projects allowed us to interact with field experts and learn about their work,” she explained. “We developed greater understanding of challenges we may face in reality.”
Indeed, Mr Sivasothi believes environmentalism’s academic and real-world aspects cannot and should not be mutually exclusive. “You cannot do one and not the other,” he said.
By linking the outside world to the classroom, students learn while keeping up with trends and developments on the ground and in the field, imparting valuable exposure and training for the future as well as grounding their work in a concrete purpose.
Second-year Life Sciences major Eugene Tan believes that it is necessary for real-world application. He remembers Mr Sivasothi sharing his experiences wading into the mangrove and with his favourite animal the otter, turning fieldwork experiences into memorable stories for classes. Mr Sivasothi also breaks down current events to help students process information.
To Eugene, Mr Sivasothi instils a mindset of environmentalism in students and volunteers. “It’s a culture of awareness that we are sharing the world with different species and we should always keep that in mind,” he underscored.
Mr Sivasothi hopes his efforts will encourage more youths to take on the mantle of environmental conservation – a key concern with climate change.
“Before the climate crisis, there was the biodiversity crisis. Right now, there’s a lot of focus on climate, but this year, there’s been many reminders not to forget biodiversity,” he shared.
“There’s a fundamental value of biodiversity which people seem to forget, which is that it feeds you, provides air and gives you water. You have to keep repeating this message.”
This is the sixth instalment of the Greening the Future series on sustainability and climate change.
Read about NUS' key efforts in sustainability research, including Prof Lee Poh Seng’s work on developing alternative liquid cooling systems for heat-producing data centres, and Assoc Prof Yan Ning’s work on ammonia as a clean energy source.