Five questions with… Dr Tan Swee Hee (The Straits Times, 31 December 2011)

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Five questions with… Dr Tan Swee Hee

Biologist Tan Swee Hee is in charge of setting up Singapore’s first dedicated natural history museum in four decades.

Dr Tan, 40, a crab taxonomist by training, is based at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

How did you get interested in what you do?

My earliest memory is of observing ornamental fist in aquariums. At university, I realised there was a lot more out there than what I had read about in ornamental fish magazines. That was when I started studying other groups of animals, especially crabs.

Can you tell us a bit about the museum?

Singapore has not seen the likes of a natural history museum for more than 40 years. This is a very exciting time for the local biodiversity education and research scene.

What’s the greatest misconception people have of your work?

That we sit in the office or laboratory all day long.

We do field work to obtain data for research and to interptret information for exhibitions at the museum. Local field trips are typically one-day or half-day affairs.

We also have to be in the field when the animals are active. For example, to observe intertidal animals, we have to go out at low tide – sometimes 3am.

It is hard work, and clocking 18-hour days is the norm, but we get to see some of the most remote and pristine habitats in this part of the world, and to discover new species.

The best thing about my job is…

Visiting natural history museum while on holiday. Fortunately, my family shares my interest.

Our last such visit was to the National Museum of Nature and Science at Ueno in Tokyo. It is probably one of the most comprehensive natural history museums in Asia, and has lots of specimens on display, including dinosaurs.

What are your hopes for your field of work?

That we can be more aware of our environment and the pressures we impose on it as a result of our activities.

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