The Tropical Marine Science Institute – a starting point that may soon be coming to an end?

Back from an unexpected hiatus (I’ve got a pile of drafts that never made it out), and only something this drastic would spur me to put blogging here a priority.

Tropical Marine Science Institute on St John's Island

Tropical Marine Science Institute on St John’s Island

The news came out a couple of weeks ago that the Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) research facility on St John’s Island (SJI) Singapore might be closed down due to lack of funding. I didn’t have much time to blog at that point, so I just dug up some photos from the days I spent at TMSI-SJI and posted them on Facebook, along with the following

While I can’t say that TMSI-SJI is/was a huge part of my life, I did my H3 Science Research Project in TMSI on St John’s Island, Singapore in 2009, looking at animals under rocks (supervised by Dr Tan Koh Siang). And though my research skills at that point left much to be desired, it was a great experience going there and definitely fuelled my interest in marine biology. It’s a tragedy that TMSI-SJI might be closed down due to lack of funding, especially now when we know the value of biodiversity, there is so much unknown still about marine stuff, there is a shortage of people with the expertise and there are so many kids in the future who might be inspired to go down this (or related) field but will be less able to do so. 😦

TMSI is the only marine science research institute in Singapore, part of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and has two bases, one on mainland at Kent Ridge, and another on St John’s Island, a 20-30 minute ferry ride away. I can’t recall now when I first heard about TMSI, when I was still in Raffles Girls School (Secondary) (RGS) or when I was already in Raffles Junior College (now Raffles Institution). Whichever it was, my involvement with TMSI started with my A-level Science Research Project (SRP) as mentioned in my Facebook post.

View of the mainland from Tanjong Hakin, SJI

View of the mainland from Tanjong Hakin, SJI

I remember my first time going to TMSI-SJI. It was during the June holidays, cos the ferry only runs at 7.30am and 8.30am in the mornings, so I (and the two other RI students who also did their SRP on TMSI-SJI. Samuel Tan is also studying natural sciences in Cambridge (first year) and Abel Ang is in Yale-NUS.) could only go when we didn’t have school. We weren’t warned beforehand that there were no shops on the island, and that we would have to prepare our own lunch. And so we were quite miserable, I think, when we found out. But thankfully, Dr Abigayle Ng from Raffles Science Institute was leading a trip with a few other students to SJI as well that day, and so we were saved from an unexpected fast. We spent the next few weeks commuting to SJI on the ferry almost every day (with our lunches!), working on our research project.

Samuel Tan & Abel Ang photographing the cats of St John's Island

Samuel Tan & Abel Ang photographing the cats of St John’s Island

My project was on Upside-down fauna: Animal communities under intertidal rocks on St John’s Island, Singapore. This was my second science research project (the first was on seagrasses at Labrador Nature Reserve), and looking back now, I learned so much from it than I had probably given it credit.

Looking at animals under the rocks on the intertidal shore

Looking at animals under the rocks on the intertidal shore – a lot of indistinguishable blobs ><

All I really remember from that project was a lot of things I couldn’t identify – my research skills at that point were really terrible. I remember having to go to the NUS Science library and borrow a book on polychaete (segmented marine worms) taxonomy and identification (or something along those lines). But it didn’t really help me because most of the identification of polychaetes required dissection and close examination of the jaws and various other parts and I was a terrible student and couldn’t be bothered. I know, I know, if I had the chance, I’d go back and do it all properly and maybe end up as an amateur on polychaete classification. As it is, all I know is that we have a huge diversity of worms and no one really knows much about it and so going into polychaete taxonomy you might be able to “discover” a great many new species!

The delicate head of one of those polychaete worms

The delicate head of one of those polychaete worms

Anyway, ignoring what I should have done to be a better research student, it was a great experience doing my SRP at TMSI-SJI. Being a research facility located offshore, it is quite awesome (at least at the start) that you get to take the ferry to “work” everyday. And you get the feeling you’re doing something cool. I also learnt/mastered more practical skills like using the stereomicroscope (to examine the critters more closely).

A really cute sacoglossan nudibranch

A really cute sacoglossan nudibranch

I got relatively familiar with various marine invertebrate families, and discovered what collembolans (springtails) were, thanks to Sean Yap. All in all, I learn what marine research was like and how much more there was that was unknown.

Apart from hosting some SRP for A level students, TMSI does a lot of other research as well. One of those that have been featured in the media quite prominently in recent years is the Comprehensive Marine Biodiversity Survey (CMBS) aka Mega Marine Survey, done in conjunction with the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (soon to reopen as Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum) and the National Parks Board. I was also involved in it as a citizen science volunteer, going on collecting surveys and helping to sort out the collections. TMSI also has, among many other research, a Singapore Wild Marine Mammal Survey that monitors wild dolphins, porpoises and dugongs around our waters, that can help contribute to regional conservation.

In short, TMSI does a lot, in terms of research, conservation and education. I’ve been to TMSI-SJI quite a few times for guiding trips (to students from Raffles Institution as part of Raffles Science Institute programmes), and there were also quite a number of public educational trips as well, if I remember right. Should the facility really be closed due to lack of funding, I think the greatest loss might possibly be in the loss of potential impact on future generations of scientists, conservationists and educators.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on quite a bit. For more on this issue, check out some of the other blogposts:
Ria Tan: The value of Singapore’s only marine station
Neo Mei Lin: Singapore’s only marine station
Heng Pei Yan: My love for TMSI-SJI

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About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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