Nature Escapes

Women In Science Series:
Are You An Aspiring Zoologist or Scientist?



Ms. MacGyver: The Making of a Malaysian Zoologist

By Rick Gregory

The paths to a scientific career are wide and varied. Nobody knows what’s going to trigger the biology bug lying dormant inside a student’s brain.

For some it’s obvious, like watching a National Geographic documentary or a holiday excursion to observe proboscis monkeys and orangutans in the wilds of Sabah.

For others, like Nurul Ain Elias, it was MacGyver and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

“My hobby is watching TV,” says Nurul, a graduate student at the Science University of Malaysia (USM). “I liked the way MacGyver and Dr. Quinn used everything around them to solve problems. They knew the basics of science, how things operated and applied their knowledge in a simple way. That’s the reason why I got interested to learn science.”

Before choosing to be a zoologist Nurul wanted to become a pharmacist. It was during her first year at Kolej MARA in Kulim, Kedah when a teacher “showed me the beauty of biology.” She soon realized that she enjoyed the broader life landscape of biology that includes plants, animals, fungi and other organisms.

She then decided to take up zoology as her major course of study for her first degree. Nurul has since conducted research on small animal population ecology on such things as rodents, squirrels, bats and birds.


zoologist fieldwork fieldwork

“I prefer to be out of the classroom and love doing fieldwork,” she says. “It’s the best opportunity to experience nature by seeing, touching, feeling, hearing and smelling it.”

For researchers there are always question marks and the answers to plant and animal interactions and behaviour lies in the jungle, not the lecture hall. “We can practice the theories taught in class and learn how the ecosystem becomes stable.”

Many people still have misconceptions about the zoological world. Our first animal instinct is to associate zoology with the zoo. At the zoo, a veterinarian takes care of the animals in their artificial habitats. A zoologist, on the other hand, deals with wildlife ecology and management in natural habitats.

This requires lots of fieldwork to collect data and make assessments, followed by observation and monitoring activities in specific locations. “Zoologists are seen as mad scientists,” says Nurul, “because we catch frogs and rats and do weird experiments in the lab.”

She explains that small mammals play important roles as seed dispersers, pollinators and as a source of food for other vertebrate predators. Though sometimes labelled as pests and disease carriers, these small creatures help maintain the stability of the ecosystem. Most rainforest mammals eat plants and provide energy for larger species that would perish if smaller mammals declined.

The rigours of field research are not just left to men anymore. Today female biologists venture into the jungle to erase the outdated image of women as office staff and homemakers only.

“Actually women working with wildlife is not too extreme,” says Nurul. “Sometimes we are underestimated by men, they say we are too fussy or are afraid to deal with rats and reptiles. Everyone has their own weaknesses and their own way of handling it. I’m OK with rodents, but I am afraid of cockroaches and spiders.”

As a research officer, Nurul takes advantage of the opportunities to increase her knowledge. She attends courses and workshops to gain insights into proper field techniques, handling practices and species identification.

boat

She spent a few weeks on Tioman Island with a group of California university students studying the ecology and biology of reptiles and amphibians.

She has been involved in scientific expeditions, such as excursions to Langkawi Island, to help develop a database of faunal species.

Nurul advises women to not limit their future in the field of animal ecology and wildlife management:

Define your interest and be disciplined. If you want to educate, then choose to be an education officer or become a lecturer. If you want to focus on research, then strive to be a research assistant or scientific officer. Sometimes in these positions you may not be doing exactly what you want, but you can achieve the objective of monitoring and maintaining the biodiversity of the country.

She looks forward to new challenges and hopes that her contributions add to the conservation and protection of natural heritage in Malaysia. The roughness of field research, where everyone is tired, dirty and smelly for days on end is enough to give many people second thoughts about pursuing a wildlife career.

For Nurul though “all these things disappear when my colleagues and I find something new in science, it’s really worth it!”




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