Raffles Museum Of Biodiversity Research Open House

I have always wanted to find an opportunity for my family to visit the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. When I chanced upon this Open House, there was no hesitation in registering for this rare learning opportunity! It’s a chance for me to learn and for my daughters, A and M, to get enthusiastic about the nature and biodiversity that co-exist in our concrete jungle.

We attended the “Animal Teeth Forensics” workshop and were amazed at the amount of information that can be gathered, just from teeth and skull structure.

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All belonging to carnivores: false gharial, crocodile and the tiger. Notice that the false gharial has a more pointed skull structure than the crocodile but both have monodont teeth. The tiger impresses us with its majestic canines which are used for tearing its prey. The immense jaws of the tiger tells us what a powerful predator it once had been.

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The false gharial

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The huge skull structure and the endless sharp, inward pointing monodont teeth belonging to the shark make it undoubtedly the king of the sea.

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The tiger, on the other hand, has a heterodont set of teeth structure. Being the king of the forest, even its premolars and molars are sharp, all built for the life of a predator!

Our next stop was the “All about Crabs” workshop, conducted by the ever passionate but knowledgable Miss Crabby!

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Miss Crabby took pain to introduce different species of crustacea to us – crab, lobster, prawn, crayfish. Just name it, she probably had introduced the specie to us.

I am most amazed by the coconut crab.

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It is able to wonder from ground to roof with ease. Look at the giant pincers. Imagine how it feels like to get pinched by one of these. There are people who
keep it as a pet!

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Finally, the children were given a crab specimen to observe, draw and name. Cool!

This is definitely a wonderful museum visit and it makes us all look forward to the opening of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in 2014! It’s high time we pay attention to educating our young the biodiversity that’s left amidst our environment. That’s the least we can do in our bid to preserve, study and protect what we have been blessed with. Thanks for this wonderful learning experience!

The science of “Ban Mian”

I was slurping my favorite hot “ban mian” in in my favorite coffee shop last night and found myself sweating, with mucus flowing down my nose as if I was having a cold. That’s my usual reaction whenever I slurp up my favorite “ban mian”. It feels kinda troublesome having to wipe away my sweat and mucus regularly, but the great taste and smell certainly make me feel good after eating it again and again!

“Why do you always end up like that, mom? Why does your ‘ban mian’ seem to be hot forever” My two daughters, A and M, chuckled and asked me this question. “Wow! Do I look so uncool?” I wondered to myself. Our conversations revolve around “ban mian” subsequently. I showed them the layer of oil on the “ban mian” soup and asked them to think about the role of the layer of oil in keeping the soup hot  for a long time. Yup, too much oil is not healthy, but it makes my soup hot and yummy! Eventually, A, the older one, was seen explaining the concept of “heat transfer” to her younger sister. “Oh, I see!” mumbled M, who examined her bowl of healthy chicken macaroni soup and seemed to nod in agreement. I supposed she had understood her sister’s point.

I have chosen to illustrate this point pictorially.
The receptors (Source: Britannica Online) in my olfactory system (Source: HowStuffWorks) trigger a chemical response that causes my sweat and mucus to flow involuntarily whenever I smell and taste “ban mian”. These are difficult scientific words that will require skills and perhaps, some trial and error to explain them well in simpler terms. A and M have seen my teaching materials for my workshop and seem to relate to the funny examples I intend to use in my workshop. This conversation leads me to think of the need to use simpler ways to explain technical terms to my young audience in my workshop. That’s the challenge of science communication.
James White from MIT has chosen to relate the idea of heat transfer by using his video found in the MIT-K12 video repository.
Whether it’s using “ban mian” as an illustration or using a video, there are both great ways of communicating science to students of various ages.

About Food Allergies…

When my elder daughter, A, was a toddler, I often thought she was a “difficult” child. Her face would regularly flare up with angry rashes and her mucus would flow like a free-flowing tap in the mornings. Moisturizing her sensitive skin with hypoallergenic moisturizer was a daily affair. We also thought that she was a fussy eater because she would vomit whenever she ate something “not right”. Soon, I began to suspect that A might have some kind of food allergy. A food allergy  (Source: NHS, UK) occurs when our immune system mistakenly treats harmless proteins in certain foods as “enemies” and it releases “soldiers” to combat the influx of the “enemies”. Typically, a type of antibody, immunoglobulin E (Ig E) mistakes a certain protein in food as a foreign body. It releases histamine to counteract the foreign body. 

One day, while at work, I received a call from my mother. My kind parents have been my daughter’s caregivers while I work during the day. She mentioned that A’s face had become swollen and she had been coughing violently after eating something. When I rushed back, I saw a poor little girl with face, eyes and lips swollen beyond recognition. She was mysteriously wheezing profusely. From the pediatrician’s clinic where she was given steroid inhaler to dilate her respiratory tract (Source: Wexner Medical Center) rapidly, we were advised to rush her to the hospital where she was monitored closely. That’s when we realised the severity of her allergy. Yet, we still couldn’t pin point what food could have caused her allergy.

In another episode, she took a tiny bite from my peanut waffles and 10 minutes later, she vomited quite violently. That’s when I began to suspect that she had peanut allergy. After reading up more about peanut allergy, a condition most of us would associate as an “ang mo” affliction, I decided to send A for a skin prick test (Source: Medline Plus) for confirmation. A small amount of purified allergen was pricked on the skin surface to check for an immuno-response.We were ever so thankful to Dr Liew Woei Kang who took care of A and helped confirm that she had peanut allergy and the worrisome allergic attacks were called anaphylaxsis (Source: PubMed Health). We were extremely thankful that we got medical help in time. I read with interest a recent discovery on a test to improve peanut allergy diagnosis. (Source: ScienceDaily). This involves a 2-step screening process which helps to reduce the need of the oral food challenge (Source: Medline Plus) which requires intensive close monitoring in the hospitals. This improvement in technology will go a long way in  relieving the resource constraints faced by hospitals.

We had to be extremely careful of what A put into her mouth. We taught her how to read food labels. Learning along with her, we found out that peanut oil is also known as arachis oil (source: Merriam-Webster). Having an allergic child has taught us to be more considerate to the needs of others, not just during meal times. My colleagues and I once planned a science experiment which involved an investigation to determine the energy content of different types of food/oil for our students. Peanut oil was one of them. Immediately, I opposed to the idea of using peanut oil. We just got to be very careful with possible food allergies. An example of such a science activity “How much energy is there?” can be found from Nuffield Foundation and I notice the amount of care taken by Nuffield Foundation in protecting allergic children.

As a mother of an allergic child, I feel that the level of awareness towards food allergies in Singapore is still low, despite the concerted effort put in by health agencies to create such an awareness. Read more about media coverage “Food that can kill a child” on food allergies in Mind Your Body, the Straits Times. Be thankful that we get to eat whatever we enjoy because there are others who are not blessed to do likewise.

While I enjoy my meal at my favorite coffee shop, I wonder when will it be possible for my 13-year-old A to savor our local fare without fear of another allergic attack?

Nature Versus Nurture: Excellence in sports

Watching my younger daughter, M, train in gymnastics makes me think really hard about the important role of science in deciding the right sport for children. Children naturally love all kinds of sports that allow them to use up the excess energy in them. Besides, they get to meet and train/play with their teammates. I see the joy in these young girls when they train, despite the pain they get when they stretch their already “stretched” muscles and strengthen their little “six packs’. However, the built of their body plays a part in their pursuit of excellence in certain sports.


M is tall for her age and I notice she needs to put in more effort than her peers in maintaining her balance. Her center of gravity (Source: Britannica Online) is higher than her peers and she has to maintain a good balance to prevent herself from toppling over whenever she straddles, flips or does her handstand. The center of gravity is a point where the total weight of the body is thought to be concentrated. Take a look at the following image. It is clear that adults have higher centers of gravity than children because they are taller. That explains why children are more stable than adults and are able to tumble and flip easily while maintaining their balance, as compared to us.
Let me try to illustrate this point with the following diagram.
The stability of the same rectangle is dependent on how it is placed on a slope. When the center of gravity is higher, the rectangle topples down the slope more easily.
M straddling across the beam. She needs a lot of practice in order not to topple over.

M doing a handstand on a beam. Her higher center of gravity causes her to overturn frequently.

Nastia Liukin, won a Gold medal in the individual all-around in the summer Olympics in Beijing. She was the tallest among the top six AA female qualifiers. This achievement could not have been possible without much hardwork, resilience and self-belief, perhaps needed more than the other gymnasts?

The group of top six AA female qualifiers face the judges before the competition.

 M may not have continued with gymnastics now. We are, however, grateful that M’s journey in learning gymnastics has taught her self-discipline and resilience – values that will serve her well in the future.
On this note, I wish Lim Heem Wei, also affectionately known as Wei Wei Jie Jie to M and her friends, all the best in the coming Summer Olympics in London!
(Source: The Straits Times, 18/4/2012)

Lim Heem Wei training hard on the beam

Coffee Shop Science!

Coffee shops in Singapore are very much a part of my life. I grew up in a neighbourhood surrounded by several coffee shops. Till today, the life abuzz coffee shops still adds colour to my otherwise quiet neighbourhood.

Coffee shops are melting pots for people from all walks of life in Singapore. Nowadays, coffee shops that are opened 24/7 have become a common sight. In the mornings, grandmas and grandpas can be seen sipping their kopi while enjoying their kaya toasts and half-boiled eggs that are every ready to tempt the local taste buds. Occasionally, there will be executives who are dressed to the nines with long sleeves and ties. Ever busy and fighting for time, they seem to swallow their fried bee hoon in large chunks while keeping their eyes glued to their ipads. Sometimes, they swallow so fast that I wonder if they can hear their stomachs calling out for the red light! Soon, hunger pangs bring in the lunch time and dinner time crowd. Everyone makes a beeline for their favourite stalls, be it the cha kway tiao stall or the zi cha stall. Believe it or not, there is almost always a long queue at a chicken rice stall in a coffee shop in Bishan! Don’t forget the supper crowd! Uncles chill out with their pals over their favourite beer and rojak and oyster omelette. Their conversations are peppered with stories ranging from the world economy to local politics. What a sight within a day!

As for me, I love to let my thoughts about school, teaching, parenting wonder while sipping my kopi si and munching my nonya kueh at coffee shops. They are places for exchange of ideas, from our daily struggles to our latest read from science blogs.

Coffee and half-boiled eggs - Singapore Favorite Breakfast