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Bringing Nature Closer To Home

Bringing Nature Closer To Home

Zestin Soh feels satisfied knowing that his job has made a tangible impact on the lives of Singaporeans, young and old.

What sparked your interest in Ecology and Environmental Sciences?
My earliest memories involve long golden hours exploring an unassuming community garden in my HDB estate. It was there that I first discovered the leaves of the Mimosa plant that move in response to the slightest touch; the Love Grass seeds that stick to your socks for dispersal; and the Common Flying Dragon’s spectacular ability to glide from tree to tree – all tiny glimpses of the immense diversity of plants and animals we have. As I grew older, I spent many weekends venturing into the parks and nature reserves across ­Singapore. Each experience with nature left me with an increasing awe for ecosystems, and a desire to discover more about them.

What led you to consider a career in NParks?
My teachers saw my keenness for the natural world and encouraged me to ­consider a career in this area. Fresh out of National Service in 2012, I decided to take up a seven month internship with the ­National Biodiversity Centre to experience what working at NParks was like. My time there gave me a heightened appreciation of the challenges and behind-the-scenes work that goes into conserving biodiversity in Singapore. Meeting passionate NParks staff who were committed to ­enhancing green spaces for native wildlife and ­Singaporeans alike, influenced me further. I admired the work that NParks was doing, as well as the organisation’s ability to ­attract a skilled and driven workforce. These two ­aspects convinced me to apply for the scholarship and a future career with NParks.

What opportunities have you enjoyed as an NParks Scholar?
The NParks Scholarship gave me the privilege of pursuing an education at ­Imperial College London. This opened up my horizons to a host of new experiences: ­living in a different country, interacting with top thinkers from around the world, and much more. Much of the learning also took place outside the classroom, with at least one major field course each semester. My second year took me to the Durrell Conservation Academy on Jersey Island for two weeks, where I gained a unique insight into practical considerations for enhancing the success of ex-situ conservation of endangered species. Jersey Island also had the third largest tidal range in the world, and so it was one of the best places for us to conduct marine ecology research at the ­inter-tidal zone.

London was especially rich in opportunities for me to learn about green space management and involving the ­community in nature conservation. I took part in ­seasonal bioblitzes held by the London ­Natural History Society, attended events at the ­Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, observed the Chelsea Flower Show, and ­interned at the Natural History Museum of London.

The NParks Scholarship also ­supported me in many key ventures throughout my four years abroad, allowing me to ­challenge myself and gain experiences beyond a ­typical university education. For ­example, the scholarship provided me with the means to take part in learning journeys during my summer holidays, such as ­Operation ­Wallacea – where I worked as a field research assistant in the flooded ­forests of the Peruvian Amazon and in the montane cloud forests of Honduras; and the bee course in Arizona, USA – where I learned from the world’s foremost bee experts and gained specialised techniques which I still use in my work at NParks today.

What were some of the memorable ­­encounters during your studies?
One of my most memorable ­experiences was encountering an insect! Let me set the scene: it was my third year at university, and I was on an ecological field course in the Klipbokkop Mountain Reserve of South Africa. While sweep-netting insects for my research, I was astonished to encounter a Heelwalker – a very rare and poorly studied insect that occurs only in Africa. I had read about Heelwalkers, but never imagined that I would see one in real life. While I was personally satisfied with seeing and ­sharing this amazing creature with my coursemates, the course coordinators informed me that I was the first person they have met to find and identify a Heelwalker – and so, they provided me with a venue to give a mini lecture on Heelwalkers to both the locals and the rest of my cohort!

Share your working experience in Parks Division. Do also share about any ­notable projects you are currently ­working or have worked on.
My main role as a community parks manager is to ensure that the neighbourhood parks under my care are attractive and safe spaces for residents to enjoy. For instance – there is a surprisingly great deal of technical expertise that goes into designing and maintaining playgrounds that allow children to challenge themselves while preventing serious injuries. A perk of the job is seeing Singaporeans young and old enjoy the parks I manage and knowing that my job has made a tangible impact on their lives.

My work also places a special emphasis on ensuring that community parks are inclusive for everyone. One way that I do this is to help to organise and facilitate a variety of events that take place at the park, ­including concerts, educational talks, ­volunteering opportunities, and so on. ­Often faced with the challenge of balancing different needs and wants in a finite green space, the job of park management is highly dynamic and I rarely have a ‘typical day at the office’.

A project that I’m currently spearheading seeks to get people to be in touch with nature. Research in recent years shows that children lacking such opportunities have a declining appreciation for nature. Thus I view my work as significant for providing the next generation of Singaporeans with crucial opportunities to experience the ­local biodiversity.

We are encouraged to innovate and find new ways to solve problems. Fortunately NParks provides the support and frequently sends us for courses to upgrade our technical skills. Additionally I have had the privilege of attending events such as the World Urban Parks Congress, where cutting-edge research on recreation and green spaces was presented. All of this support has been invaluable to me in my work and personal development.

Beyond my core job as a park manager, NParks has also allowed me to pursue my interest in developing conservation and outreach efforts for a highly misunderstood group of animal: the bees. Despite their unfriendly image, the vast majority of bee species are harmless to humans, and they make major contributions as pollinators. Over the past year, I’ve conducted bee workshops and talks at major events, started educational programmes on bees for schools, and even created an outreach video on bees.

What advice would you have for those who are exploring for their scholarship options?
Looking back, I’m thankful to have had friends and family who recognised my passions and encouraged me to pursue a career where I could fully utilise them. So in the same way, I would encourage everyone to carefully consider their interests, passions and skill sets, and then narrow down their scholarship options accordingly. While it may be tempting to pursue a scholarship simply because of the perks it offers, it is difficult to sustain the motivation for any job under those conditions alone. Ideally, there should be a good match between the mission of the organisation and the interests of the applicant – that way, both sides benefit. And if you have a passion for both people and nature, I would definitely encourage you to apply for a scholarship with NParks.

ZESTIN SOH
NParks Overseas Undergraduate Scholar
www.nparks.gov.sg/about-us/scholarships
Age: 26
Attained:BSc (Biology with Management) from Imperial College London
Now: Manager, Community Parks
From: National JC