Published on 15 Sep 2023

Environmentalists walking the sustainability talk

Recognising World Environmental Health Day on 26 September, we talk to three award-winning NTU alumni who have started a non-profit organisation focussed on environmental sustainability.

By Nur Isyana Isaman

After graduating from NTU Singapore with a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences, Ng Lee Kiang (SBS/2013) worked at the S.E.A. Aquarium in Sentosa, Singapore, to develop educational programmes for student visitors during school excursions.

However, Lee Kiang noticed a knowledge gap among the students. “Many were unaware that Singapore has a vast biodiversity from small critters to even sharks. I realised a need to highlight the biodiversity in our own backyard,” she said.

This observation inspired the 33-year-old to start a private enrichment provider, Young Nautilus, in July 2015, focusing on providing Singapore students with nature-themed enrichment programmes. Young Nautilus introduces participants to the wonders of Singapore’s marine ecosystem and instils appreciation and responsibility to preserve its national treasures.

Lee Kiang said, “In 2022, we engaged over 10,000 students in 90 schools from preschool to tertiary levels, but the impact is intangible. It is like planting seeds where we have to wait for them to mature into strong trees. So, for now, as long as participants leave our learning journeys and coastal clean-ups captivated by the wonders of nature and are inspired to practise sustainable lifestyles, I think it is impactful.” 

Ng Lee Kiang co-founded Young Nautilus, an education enrichment provider focusing on nature-themed programmes. (Photo credit: Ng Lee Kiang)

Underwater wonders

The same passion to educate more people about Singapore’s underwater wonders drove marine biologist, Sam Shu Qin (SBS/2012), 34, to start Our Singapore Reefs. Since May 2017, her organisation has been organising dive clean-ups to restore coral reefs in Singapore waters. Her NTU senior, Dr Toh Tai Chong (SBS/2009), is her work partner. 

She explained, “A significant part of our work as marine biologists involves monitoring the health and growth of transplanted corals. When we find marine trash like plastic bags or fishing lines that smother, tangle or even kill corals, it is a huge waste of time and resources as they take very long time to grow. So, we gathered our diver friends to clean up coral reefs together. We started sharing photos of our dive clean-ups online, and eventually, more people showed interest in getting involved and doing their part.”

Shu Qin said they usually dive around southern Singapore's unattended and less crowded waters. Our Singapore Reefs has conducted 60 dive clean-ups with over 900 volunteer divers collecting 11,000 trash items weighing over 2,500kg.

After numerous encounters with vast amounts of trash in Singapore waters while working as a marine biologist, Sam Shu Qin (second from left) and Dr Toh Tai Chong (first from left) founded Our Singapore Reefs, which organises dive clean-ups. (Photo credit: Sam Shu Qin)

In recognition of their efforts, Lee Kiang and Shu Qin were recognised at the inaugural 10 for Zero Awards by the Singapore arm of the American non-profit environmental organisation Conservation International in May 2023. The awards honoured 10 youth champions aged under 35 who advocate for a future of zero waste and net zero carbon emissions.

Sharing the honour with both alumnae is 35-year-old Heng Li Seng (SPMS/2013), the founder of Green Nudge, who holds a Bachelor of Science in Mathematical Sciences. Li Seng worked at the Monetary Authority of Singapore for four years before starting Green Nudge in March 2018. His social enterprise focuses on employee engagement, sustainability training and corporate consultancy related to waste management. 

Heng Li Seng switched his career from public finance to corporate sustainability and set up Green Nudge to support companies and communities through engagements, training and consultancy for corporate waste management. (Photo credit: Heng Li Seng)

“I joined the public sector as a fresh graduate eager to learn but realised that starting my own initiative is the best way for me to learn more and at a faster pace. When I started the business, there were not many consultants looking at solutions for corporates to beef up their sustainability ecosystem, and that was our advantage,” he said.

Li Seng uses his prior expertise to leverage data and behavioural insights to change waste management practices. Over the years, Green Nudge has worked with over 10,000 people in 200 organisations, such as OCBC Bank and Uniqlo Singapore, offsetting 38,000kg of carbon emissions.

Pursuing their love for the environment

Li Seng and Lee Kiang lead their social enterprises full-time, while Shu Qin manages Our Singapore Reefs as a non-profit initiative on top of her daily job as a marine biologist at the Tropical Marine Science Institute.

Shu Qin was also named in the Tatler Gen.T List 2023. She said these awards validate the dedication of the entire marine community.

“It motivates us, especially me, to continue advocating the message of marine conservation. Through these awards, we get to reach out to different audiences. The Tatler recognition enabled me to meet other global and regional youth leaders and from there, we can spin off joint or new initiatives. Conservation International has plans to provide training and support to amplify my work, so I look forward to learning and meeting more like-minded people,” added Shu Qin.

Volunteers and members of Our Singapore Reefs after conducting a dive clean-up in Singapore’s Southern Islands. (Photo credit: Sam Shu Qin)

Lee Kiang agreed, “We get to network with other youth leaders, scientists, and researchers and learn more about their work. Besides opening up the possibility of collaborating with them to achieve the same goal, I will also be able to translate new knowledge from them into educational material for young students attending my courses.”

Li Seng works with a team of six at Green Nudge, and most of them are career switchers from various fields, including architecture and philosophy. But what binds them together is their shared passion to do good for the environment.

Li Seng with the team at Green Nudge. (Photo credit: Heng Li Seng)

A portal for green jobs

After he noted the lack of resources to recruit and apply for jobs that support the green economy, Li Seng worked with fellow NTU alumni Rusty Goh (MAE/2012) to build a green jobs portal named Green Collar Careers. The portal has featured over 4,500 job listings since it began in July 2020.

Li Seng’s love for the environment developed when he joined the NTU Outdoor Adventure Club, where he was part of the management committee and led others on nature trails. He also went on hiking trips during his undergraduate exchange programmes to Brisbane and Shanghai.

The NTU experience also deepened Shu Qin’s interest towards marine biodiversity. “In my third undergraduate year, I signed up and was selected for a paid internship in South Africa. I spent about one month in Mossel Bay, working with the team from Oceans Research Institute to study great white sharks. That really fuelled my interest to learn more about marine life and ignited the spark for me to become a marine biologist,” she shared.

Trash found underwater inspired Shu Qin to care for marine conservation in Singapore waters. (Photo credit: Sam Shu Qin)

Looking back on her academic journey, Lee Kiang mentioned her professor, Dr Shawn Lum, as one of her mentors who was “very inspirational and gave sound advice”.

Now, she gives back to her alma mater by hiring interns and freelancers from NTU, especially undergraduates from The Asian School of the Environment and School of Biological Sciences.

“I often advise them to, firstly, identify their interest; which aspect of the environment do you want to focus your efforts on? Secondly, speak to different mentors and listen to their experiences and perspectives because they can help you to better shape what you want to do. Lastly, you do not necessarily have to start something new; instead, look for existing organisations with similar goals and look into how you can form a synergy,” said Lee Kiang.

Lee Kiang conducts an intertidal walk for Young Nautilus’ learning journey participants. (Photo credit: Ng Lee Kiang)

Besides Lee Kiang, Li Seng, and Shu Qin, there are many other members of the OneNTU community who have been walking the sustainability talk. Watch the three-part CNA documentary series ‘Our World to Change’ to learn more about their efforts. 

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