Credit: Lawrence Teo

Would you dedicate your life to conserving the planet and the creatures that inhabit this planet? In this five-part series from our June 2022 print story ‘Call Of The Wild”, we spotlight five inspiring women who are championing wildlife conservation efforts in Singapore.

Dr Nalini Puniamoorthy, 38, Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, NUS, and Founder of The Reproductive Evolution Lab

Prof Nalini Puniamoorthy, an evolutionary biologist who specialises in sexual selection and speciation, founded a “sex lab” at the National University of Singapore (NUS) when she returned to Singapore in 2017. “I’m especially interested in the sexual selection and reproduction of insects, so I wanted to set up a lab at NUS called the ‘sex lab’, but you can’t really get away with that,” she chuckles. And so she named it the Reproductive Evolution Lab.

She currently leads the research on the reproductive trait evolution of insects that are ecologically relevant to Singapore, such as black soldier flies, dung beetles and mosquitoes. Prior to her return, Prof Nalini had spent 10 years pursuing her graduate research in Europe and her postdoctoral research in North America, where she worked with people from different disciplines involving sexual selection, molecular evolution, speciation and ecological adaptation.

Black soldier flies in adult and larvae stages. Image Credit: Lawrence Teo

“I decided to apply and use my knowledge to ask questions that are relevant here. And so, to convince NUS of the potential of my research, I highlighted that there is so much diversity in Singapore. Like anywhere else in the world, our sustenance is dependent on insects. If you think about disease factors, insects play a big role in that, and managing them sustainably is important. We can also use insects for our own problems, such as [managing] food waste,” she says. While Prof Nalini had always been fascinated by animals and insects from a young age, it was only during Year 2 when a module on evolution inspired the university scholar and NUS Life Sciences student to pursue biology as a career path.

Since then, she has gone on to lead international collaborative programmes, such as a newly launched three-year project on developing a blueprint to integrate food waste management and sustainable food production using the black soldier fly. Her research has resulted in public initiatives to convert food waste into nutrients using this insect.

Prof Nalini also believes that academic mentorship is vital in science, and encourages her students to actively pursue their research interests. Ensuring that her students have access to equal opportunities – no matter their background – is what drives her as an educator. Most of the publications from her lab are published in internationally peer-reviewed scientific journals, and they often feature her undergraduate and graduate students as lead authors.

Prof Nalini with research assistants Tyrone Tan and Nicole Lee. Image Credit: Lawrence Teo

Currently, there are 15 people on her team, including research assistants, research fellows, graduate students and undergraduates. “There are some people who say that if you work hard, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, or whether you are a minority or not. But I think anyone who says that may actually have a form of privilege, because equality and equity are not the same thing. Equity means opportunities to chances, and that is not the same for those in the major fields of research. She says: “As minorities and females, we have to do much more to be heard and seen. And as a female leader, I feel I can help facilitate that in my own little group.”