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Serendipitous Discovery

Yeoh Yi Shuen, Class of 2015

Singapore's beguiling nature reserve reveals her hidden gem to Yeoh Yi Shuen

IMG_1725.JPGThe Discovery

In 2013, Yeoh Yi Shuen was invited by her research mentor to go on a field trip to the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to assist a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), the National Parks Board (NParks), the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre of the Netherlands in the study of sedges in Singapore. What might have been an otherwise a routine field trip turned out to be extraordinary as the team chanced upon a very special find.

While collecting native forest sedges, they came across a small flower that seemed to hail from the family Commelinaceae, but which they were otherwise unable to identify. The specimen was sent to the herbarium of the Singapore Botanic Garden’s (now Singapore’s first and only UNESCO World Heritage site) to confirm the identity of the plant. It turned out that the mystery blossom was in fact an orchid, from an entirely different family of plants. They had serendipitously rediscovered a species thought to be extinct in Singapore: Vrydagzynea lancifolia. The last time it had been spotted here was nearly 80 years ago!

No Walk in the Park

Orchid.pngThroughout the duration of the four-month project on the rediscovered orchid species, Yi Shuen had to work with various collaborators from NUS and NParks who played different roles. The researchers from NUS were responsible for trawling through scientific publications for information on the plant – such as when it was first scientifically described – and matching its description with the specimen they had, to ascertain its identity.

Their new discovery now supplemented these historical observations. Yi Shuen and the researchers then proceeded to append information obtained from their discovery — locality of collection, habitat, characteristics (leaf size and hairiness, flower colour, size measurements, and a whole host of other descriptors), rarity in Singapore and more – to the published literature available, adding to our scientific understanding and knowledge of the species.

Yi Shuen also attributes her skill as an amateur naturalist to the existence of the eco-gardens in school, which provided many opportunities for close observation of nature. Her Advanced Research Project mentor and a biology teacher at NUS High School, Mr Lee Siak Cheong, also accompanied her and her project mates to the forest for fieldwork. Despite the humidity, nasty spine-coated rattans, swampy terrain, and pesky mosquitoes they encountered on the forest trails, he remained positive and supportive. She attributes Mr Lee’s persistent concern and encouragement as a major source of motivation to complete her project.

Future Connections

Aspiring to be a botanist and conservationist, Yi Shuen looks forward to reading biology in the university. Even now, she spares no effort in honing her skills; her weekends are spent outdoors observing and photographing plants. Her eyes flash glints of light like Christmas ornaments as she recounts her many trips to the nature reserves in Singapore. 

Yi Shuen's passion may seem esoteric to some, but it encapsulates a spirit the world sorely demands – the urgent need for man to reconnect with nature.

Waterfall abseiling.jpgwaterfall 2.jpg

Yi Shuen is an outdoor enthusiast, and was the Vice Captain of Outdoor Activities Club (ODAC) while she was in NUS High School. Pictured here are shots of Yi Shuen enjoying the waterfalls and braving through a waterfall abseiling activity at Mount Ophir. This was during one of the ODAC trips conducted by the school.