Keen to be close to nature from young, Gervais Lee finds the National Parks Board a natural choice.
What sparked your interest in Forest Science?
I grew up with a fascination with nature, ecology and wild places. Some of my fondest childhood memories include exploring nature reserves, climbing trees with my bare hands, and travelling with my family across Malaysia visiting padi fields, rubber plantations and the moist highlands. If I were not outdoors, I would be watching nature documentaries, reading wildlife encyclopedias, setting up planted aquariums, or watching sunbirds breed among the trailing plants in my home’s balcony. So I grew up with a keen awareness of all things living, and how they interact with one another.
My first memorable encounter with a forest ecosystem was in the Karri forests of Perth, Australia, when I was still a child. I remember watching my dad climb a towering Eucalyptus tree via a spiral staircase, and looking on in awe as he disappeared into the forest canopy. That must have been the start of my interest in trees and forest ecosystems; I still get that same feeling of wonder when I look up into tree canopies, even to this day.
What led you to consider a career in NParks?
When I was in secondary school, I was fortunate to have a teacher-mentor who recognised my interest in ecology. Under his guidance, I embarked on a three-year long ecological research project at Labrador Nature Reserve, during which I learnt essential ecological concepts, field research techniques and scientific writing skills. In addition, I had the opportunity to present my research project, as well as other conservation topics, at student science fairs in various countries. I also conducted nature guided walks as a school volunteer. Because of these experiences, by the time I was in junior college, I realised that I had both the interest and the skillsets that could help me start a career in an ecological discipline.
I first heard about the NParks Undergraduate Scholarship during a scholarship fair. In fact, that was also the first time I realised that one could study forestry, and make a career out of it in Singapore. I also had the chance to speak to various NParks staff who gave me a glimpse into what an NParks career might look like. I took to NParks’ vision of incorporating greenery into our city to improve its ecological health and liveability, and a career in NParks appeared to be a good match with my interest and skillsets as well. And so, I decided to apply for the scholarship.
What opportunities have you enjoyed as an NParks scholar?
Getting an NParks scholarship provi-ded me with the means to study abroad in Vancouver, Canada. This not only enabled me to gain an education in a well-recognised forestry institution, but also gave me the chance to live in one of the most sustainable and liveable cities in North America. In my university, I had the opportunity to interact with professors who are leading experts in their specialisations. My learning opportunities did not only take place within classroom settings, but also occurred during field schools within and outside Canada. Interacting with classmates from different cultures and nationalities also helped to broaden my perspectives. In addition, during my stay, I was able to witness the city’s urban forestry practices and urban sustainability systems, and how they fall within the city’s bigger goal of becoming the most liveable city in the world. This gave me insight regarding future steps that Singapore can take, as we strive to become a sustainable and liveable city.
I also had the opportunity to intern with NParks during one of my summer breaks. This internship was particularly useful as it gave me a better sense of how NParks functions as an organisation, and how it interacts with other agencies, private landscape companies, and the public. The internship also increased my awareness regarding the current standards and practices of Singapore’s landscape industry in general. It was therefore easier for me to ease into my current role in NParks after I completed my studies.
What were some of the interesting encounters during your course of studies and why were they memorable?
In the summer of 2014, I spent four months in India – first for a month-long field school, and then for field research. During the field school, I had the opportunity to interact with local government officials, leading researchers, local eco-development committees, and various groups of indigenous people. I also visited numerous conservation reserves across the country, including the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is one of the best models of eco-development conservation in developing countries. After the field school, I remained in South India for almost three months to participate in a home garden biodiversity field research in Kerala. The Indian state is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, yet it also experiences immense conflict between conservation and land conversion. My field research stint therefore gave me a sense of how home gardens can serve as a strategy for biodiversity and green space conservation, in the midst of urban development pressures. In addition, the time in India enabled me to live among the locals and gain a deeper understanding of their culture. I witnessed how culture influences the conservation of biodiversity and green spaces, and how successful conservation strategies are often a result of effectively engaging local communities.
I also participated in several urban forestry and urban planning conferences throughout the course of my studies. During these conferences, I had the opportunity to attend guided tours of urban forests and sustainable design elements in Vancouver and other nearby cities. These tours were led by industry professionals and city officials, and were a showcase of different projects related to urban forestry, storm water management and sustainable urban design. These tours were particularly eye-opening due to the various innovative approaches that were presented, and I was certainly inspired to bring some of these ideas back into my work in Singapore.
Share your working experience in Streetscape Division. Also tell us about any notable projects you are currently working on.
As a Streetscape Manager, I am in charge of handling all issues pertaining to the trees along our streets, as well as other roadside greenery elements, within a certain area of Singapore. This includes the routine maintenance and care of trees, shrubs and turf along our streets. Every month, I conduct a round of inspections to ensure that these trees are free of disease. I also manage any public feedback that pertains to the streetscape in my area.
My current area of responsibility comprises primarily of mature residential estates, where there are many ongoing projects relating to housing development and the upgrading of utility services. Part of my job includes ensuring that these construction works do not affect the health of our roadside greenery. Prior to any development project, my input is sought regarding the preservation of mature roadside trees within the area slated for development. I enjoy the challenge of working together with colleagues, as well as other public agencies and private developers, to come up with creative solutions to conserve our mature trees, some of which are decades old and not easily replaceable.
I also work to enhance the intensity and diversity of roadside greenery within my area. This includes inter-planting works between existing mature trees, which improves the aesthetic beauty of our streets. Where possible, I select new and native tree species for these planting works. Increasing the diversity of tree species planted along our roadsides helps to sustain a greater diversity of native birds and butterflies, and increases the resilience of our roadside tree populations against natural disturbances such as disease and drought.
During the course of my work, I am given numerous opportunities to upgrade my knowledge and skillsets. In fact, my supervisors often encourage me to attend courses that will help me in my work performance. At the start of 2017, I will be working towards obtaining a professional certification in arboriculture. I really appreciate the fact that I can balance my work responsibilities with opportunities to improve myself.
What advice would you have for those who are exploring their scholarship options?
It is important to apply for the right scholarship. Part of this stems from having a keen awareness of where your interests and passions lie. For example, my interests in urban forestry and urban sustainability gave me the general direction to explore this as a career choice. If you know what issues grip you and the areas you want to have a positive impact in, then you go to the agencies dealing with these issues. Your choice of scholarship will then come naturally. And in the future, you will find greater meaning in your work too.
GERVAIS LEE YAN SHENG
NParks Overseas Undergraduate Scholarship
Now: Manager, Streetscape Division, Streetscape West Branch
Attained: First Class Honours, BSc (Forest Sciences), University of British Columbia
From: Raffles Institution