Meet the Scientist: Dr. Lim Boo Liat

Photo by Merdeka Award.
Photo by Merdeka Award.

interviewed by Dr. Lee Hooi Ling

Dr. Lim Boo Liat is renowned in the zoology arena in Malaysia. He is currently an Honorary Advisor on Zoology for the Department of Wildlife and National Park (DWNP). He obtained his Ph.D (Zoology) from Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1977.

Since 1953 to date, he has authored 302 scientific papers on small animals, reptile and amphibian ecology, rodent control and bio-medical studies (zoonotic diseases) associated with terrestrial vertebrates and helminth parasitology in many national and international journals. In fact, a number of animals were named after him with the latest addition in 2012, Kalophrynus limbooliati, a frog species from Johor, Malaysia [1].

In 2013, he was one of the Merdeka Award recipients for his contribution to the environment especially in the conservation of Malaysia biodiversity through scientific studies.

This is a two-part interview where Dr. Lim walked us through his journey of becoming an established zoologist in Malaysia. In the first part of this interview, we get to know Dr. Lim’s humble beginning as a Lab Assistant at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) post World World II (WWII) in 1947 to eventually being offered a Master of Science (MSc.) degree without having a formal Bachelor (BSc.) degree.

Q1. Can you share with us what it was like growing up in Malaysia before the World War II (WWII)?
Before WWII, the south of Klang where I grew up was a large kampung. Rubber and coconut were the main products. Cultivated farmlands, such as rice, vegetables, pineapples and fruit orchards were scattered all over, in urban and suburban areas. Basically Klang was an agricultural state with its forest still pristine.

After my Form 2, I decided to terminate my studies as my parents were struggling to support my two sisters, a brother and myself in schooling. As such, I stayed away from class for two weeks to help out in a small plot of farm. At the end of the second week on a Saturday morning, three teachers (Mathematics – Mr. S. Sabapathy, English- Mr. N. Francis, Art – Mr. Wong Ah Fatt) came to my house and told my parents that they expected me to be at school the following morning at 8 am.

At the appointed time, I was in school and Mr. Francis took me to the Headmaster’s office. Standing in front of the giant Irish man and quivering,
I expected an addressing from him. Instead, I was shocked when he told me that those three teachers had paid for my school fees for the whole year, and the school would provide me all the textbooks including exercise books.

Just before I opened my shivering mouth, he ordered me back to class with a stack of new books the first time throughout my school years with everything new. Before that I had to salvage second hand books all the time.

Such was the time before WWII in Klang, where the environment centered on a caring society that integrated all the ethnic groups as a community. The teacher’s devotion and commitment towards their students were such that once the child was handed to the school by the parents, the teacher took over the responsibility of parenting the child.

Dr. Lim Boo Liat at the Scrub-Typhus Unit laboratory, Institute for  Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur 66 years ago (1948).
Dr. Lim Boo Liat at the Scrub-Typhus Unit laboratory, Institute fo Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur 66 years ago (1948).

Q2. How did you get interested in zoology?
It started when I was in Klang High School, in Klang, Selangor. The school had a small plot of land where the gardener of the school kept a nursery of flowery plants and ferns, as well as rows of vegetables. Birds, insects, and occasionally, rats and snakes frequented the garden. I was fascinated by such varied fauna that I visited the gardener on a regular basis to observe the animal life in the garden.

Then, a friend and I started a small outlet on Carey Island to produce salt and soap from mid 1944 to the unconditional surrender of the Japanese Occupation in September 1945. Beside our own workers, we also employed a group of Orang Asli to help run the operation. I got along very well with them. They taught me the identification of rats, civets, wild cats, macaques and leaf-monkeys,snakes, frogs and tortoises.

In 1947, under the British Administration period, I joined the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) as a temporary laboratory assistant in the Scrub Typhus Research Unit. I was assigned to the team of Prof. J. L. Harrison, a zoologist specialised in mammals. The unit was specialised in Scrub Typhus diseases, of which the paratenic hosts are vertebrates such as volant and non-volant mammals, birds, reptiles as well as amphibians. Because of my local knowledge on some of these vertebrate animals, he put me in charge of the animal collecting section. During this period, Prof. Harrison took me under his wing and taught me the taxonomy of mammals. My career progressed in leaps and bounds since then.

Taking a break under a tree at Lakum Forest Reserve, Pahang.
Taking a break under a tree at Lakum Forest Reserve, Pahang.

Q3. You were offered to pursue a MSc. at the University of Aberdeen despite not having a BSc. Can you tell us more about this opportunity?

My research experience, publications, and participation in various international conferences played a major role in being offered an opportunity to pursue a MSc. despite the lack of a formal BSc. From 1955 through 1969, I managed to publish 80 scientific papers on vertebrate animals (volant and non-volant mammals, reptiles and amphibians, endo-ectoparasites of vertebrate animal species in relation to medical and public health importance). In 1965, I was asked to head the newly created Medical Ecology division.

In 1969, Professor Wynne-Edwards, Chairman of the Faculty of Science and Professor George Dunnet, Head of Zoology Department of the University of Aberdeen, as well as Professor Charles Elton, Head of the Animal Population Bureau, University of Oxford paved the way for me to apply to the University of  Aberdeen to pursue a MSc. without a formal education. They also secured a Medical Research Council Fellowship to sponsor me for two years in Scotland. In 1972, I completed the MSc. programme. Two months after my return to the IMR in 1972, I was promoted as a zoologist and continued heading the Medical Ecology Division.

Field expedition with the Department of Wildlife and National Park  (DWNP) in Krau Wildlfe Reserve, Pahang.
Field expedition with the Department of Wildlife and National Park (DWNP) in Krau Wildlfe Reserve, Pahang.

Q4. What  are the career prospects of becoming zoologists in Malaysia?
In Malaysia, “zoologist” is misinterpreted by the public including even some academicians as a person dealing with the classification of animals. A zoologist has multidisciplinary ‘functions’ – not only as a taxonomist, but the zoologist must also deal with the behaviour, physiology and distribution of animals. He or she is also a good field person and understands the inter-relationship of the species diversity in the forest ecosystem and host-parasite in relation to diseases.

This takes years of hard work, not only in field study but also experimental observation in laboratory condition. With the advancement of biological technological knowledge, a zoologist with an exposure in molecular techniques such as  DNA sequencing technology will have more job opportunities than a field zoologist.

The career prospect for a zoologist per se is rather limited in Malaysia. Other than universities, one can find opportunities in a few non-governmental organizations that are involved in conservation of our natural heritage, DWNP and consulting firms dealing in environmental impact assessment.

To upgrade the status of zoologist on par with other disciplines, the Education Ministry can play an important role by instituting a policy whereby zoologists are required in all schools to teach natural history classes.

In the conservation of our natural heritage, nothing is more effective than to nurture such knowledge to children at very early ages in schools. If this is realized, it is anticipated that 20 years from now, one can expect that the conservation of our natural heritage in Malaysia will be very well-secured with the mass support of the younger generation. This in turn will encourage more students to study zoology with greater job opportunities.

In the next issue, Dr. Lim will share his experiences in working for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Indonesia and his life after retirement 27 years ago, in 1987.

[1] Matsui, M., Nishikawa, K., Belabut, D. M., Norhayati, A. & Yong, H. S. (2012). A new species of Kalophrynus (Amphibia, Anura, Microhylidae) from Southern Peninsular Malaysia. Zootaxa, 3155: 38-46.

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