How I Found Nature, Or How Nature Found Me

NParks Scholar Darren Choo could have a second career as a writer if he wanted to; as he introduces a sliver of twist and gentle mystery at the start of his story, leaving his audience to wonder how a self-confessed bookworm found his calling in nature and the great outdoors; eventually choosing an unexpected career path lined with green possibilities.

Having graduated from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) with Honours, Darren is currently a manager with the National Parks Board (NParks) Parks Planning division.

Furnishing his narratives with tales of small mammal trapping, bee hotel installations, and organising tree-planting events, he shares memorable encounters during his higher education days and more about his current role in transforming Singapore into a City in Nature, promising a fun and inspiring read ahead.

The story of how I came knocking on NParks’ door. Nature was not always something that I enjoyed. I was a bookworm to the core, often curled up indoors reading, delving into interstellar worlds and subterranean cities in the heads of protagonists conjured up by writers. Only when I was working a deskbound job in the Army did I realise what I was missing. Talk about self-discovery through a mandatory rite of passage!

Blessed with abundant sunshine and sometimes more-than-abundant rain, Singapore is a haven for tropical biodiversity that is so easily accessible for everyone to explore. I recall my first steps in the hot and thick inland forest, staring up at the unbroken canopy and complaining about how humid it was. But undoubtedly, those first steps were the dawn of something special for me.

I began taking walks and then longer hikes around MacRitchie Reservoir and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Gradually, I progressed to organising my own adventures, learning to scuba dive, and doing multi-day hikes overseas. In the end, I could not see myself confined to an office behind a desk. I decided to apply for scholarships in the environmental sector and found myself knocking on NParks’ door.

Memorable encounters in my higher education journey. One of my most unforgettable experiences when studying Environmental Science in Australia was when we did small mammal trapping on the outskirts of Murramarang National Park. We went out on alternate days to set up an assortment of cage traps, small box traps, camera traps and pitfall traps along transects to assess biodiversity across different microclimates. I remember going to bed each night feeling extremely tired yet excited for the next day. When morning came around, we would rush out to check the traps, taking measurements and humanely releasing trapped animals ranging from bush rats to antechinuses and frogs. Learning how to handle wild animals was remarkably memorable. I also found it rewarding to collect and collate baseline data that would ultimately help guide a conservation plan for the area. This experience left a lasting impression on me, especially in learning to appreciate the hard work and rigour required for scientific studies.

Another significant episode was when I participated in a coral reef field school on the Great Barrier Reef, taking me to One Tree Island. The island is a research station about 75 km offshore, and despite being so far from civilisation, we encountered pieces of plastic and bleached corals on our study and mapping trips across the reef. It was sobering to see humankind’s impacts on the natural world. The experience made me pause and reflect on my own actions as I committed to reducing my own carbon footprint and consumption of resources.

Scholarship Guide How I Found Nature, Or How Nature Found Me NPark Scholar Darren Choo
Darren Choo

Today, I’m proud to be a part of the NParks team. My first posting was in the Conservation Division, where I managed the park amenities, infrastructure, and biodiversity within the Labrador Nature Reserve. Whilst the job entailed routine maintenance and inspection of horticulture and arboriculture work, I was required to be reflexive in dealing with feedback and arising issues.

As part of a team, I helped install bee hotels and plant native shrubs and trees within the reserve and mangrove species in the Berlayer Creek area. I enjoyed my time there immensely, especially with the daily uplifting interactions with visitors providing me with opportunities to educate the public and encourage stewardship of nature.

Currently, I am a manager in the Parks Planning Division, where I secure land for park development. As part of NPark’s vision to transform Singapore into a City in Nature, we aim for every household to be within a 10-minute walk to a park by 2030. I am also involved in processing land use cases from other agencies to safeguard existing and proposed park land. This work is meaningful as it has a direct impact on the living standards of Singaporeans.

I am a part of the OneMillionTrees engagement secretariat, which organises tree-plantings and other engagement sessions to involve a broad spectrum of the community in this initiative. The OneMillionTrees movement aims to plant more than a million more trees across the island by 2030, one of the key strategies of the City in Nature vision.

A final word of advice for those who are exploring scholarship options. Undertaking a scholarship is a big decision. Do your research to ensure that your passion aligns with the work done by the organisation. There are various ways to do it, such as by reading up about the organisation, talking to people within the organisation, and even doing internships with the organisation. By doing so, you can ensure that the work you do when you return from your studies will be meaningful for you.

You must also take time to consider your desired course of study and whether the modules you take can apply to your future jobs. Whilst modules teaching technical skills are crucial, learning about complex problems and stakeholder engagement will be highly applicable.

NParks Undergraduate Scholarship
From: Bachelor of Science (Advanced) with Honours, The Australian National University
Now: Manager, Park Planning