You’ve probably seen her photo on social media: a whippet-like girl, up to her knees in water, laughing as she releases lovingly hatched and guarded rare turtles into the wild. Turtles aren’t exactly cuddly but, thanks to Chen Pelf Nyok, these animals are getting their share of the limelight.
Surprisingly though, her love for these animals developed partly due to pure chance. “When I was offered a place in the marine biology degree programme in Terengganu, I was horrified,” Chen laughs. “I wasn’t a fan of the sea at all!”
Thankfully she is an adventurous girl, always interested in widening her horizons, and she decided to give it a go. Today she is the co-founder of Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia (TCS), a nonprofit and non-government organisation.
Science geek from young
Chen, 36, was born in Kuantan, Pahang. After schooling in Ipoh for a few years, Chen and her mum moved to Melaka, after her parents divorced.
“I always loved English as well as Maths, Biology and Physics,” Chen shares. “I was a science geek – until Chemistry came along. I could see how to apply everything else in real life, but not Chemistry.”
If science is the examination of the laws that govern our physical world, literature can be said to delve into the world of imagination. For Chen, down-time meant a good book.
“Half my bed used to be taken up by books,” she confesses. “I had them under the pillow and stacked under the sheets. In those days we didn’t have the Net, so I was in and out of the library every week.
“Biographies and autobiographies are my favourite but I love books that run around science plots, too. I loved Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton but I also liked thrillers by John Grisham and Ken Follett.”
Fuelled by her imagination, teenage Chen had different ideas about what she wanted from her future.
“I had this dream of going off to war-torn countries and being a reporter,” she smiles. “But by the time it came to choosing courses, I decided to go for food science. Being offered a place in Terengganu was a shock but, as I couldn’t afford private schooling, I wanted to give it a shot and see what would happen.”
Inspired and in nature’s classroom
Today, Chen has some resounding academic achievements to her name. She is Dr Chen Pelf Nyok, with a PhD in Zoology from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, as well as a Master’s degree in Biodiversity and Conservation, and a Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from Universiti Malaysia Terengganu.
She credits her enthusiasm being kindled to her teachers, one in particular. “Dr Siti Aishah Abdullah is a botanist, and she ran a programme called marine botany, the study of ocean plants,” Chen says.
“First, Dr Siti was like our mother away from home and, second, she had a really different approach to teaching. Other lecturers wanted to up our grades but she took us on field trips and made it all come alive. She went into the water with us, and showed us her world.”
It’s been over a decade but even remembering those times bring the enthusiasm powered by these classes.
“The field trips were amazing,” Chen enthuses. “We went to the islands and the coast to study crabs and barnacles, and to mangroves and rocky shores. It was all very new to us because back in those days we didn’t have the Net. It was like going into a National Geographic programme. Nature was our classroom. It fascinated me.”
At the end of the first semester, when the students were asked if they wanted to continue or switch, Chen had no hesitation. “I was hooked!”
After coming second in her class, Chen was undecided what to do. She decided not to rush her career choices and to spend some time on campus. At this point, she met her other mentor.
“A friend of mine was working with freshwater turtles, doing hands-on work at the hatchery. I got to know the work and then I went to see his supervisor, Dr Chan Eng Heng. I told her, ‘I don’t know why but I want to do this.’ She hired me as research assistant.”
When Chen reported this development to her family, her mum wasn’t surprised at all. “She expected it to happen,” Chen giggles. “Apparently, when I was little, I always made a beeline for the turtle ponds in the temples. Even better, my mum had been clipping and collecting turtle articles in the press in case I would be interested one day. Can you imagine? I didn’t know about it!”
Dr Chan is another of Malaysia’s lauded academics, a former professor at Universiti Malaysia Tereng-ganu as well as a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Global 500 laureate winner in 2001 and 2006, for her turtle conservation work. After winning the second time, she was listed in the UNEP’s Who’s Who of Women and the Environment.
Chen developed her Masters thesis under Dr Chan’s supervision, working out precisely how much freshwater turtles eat and how many like to live together comfortably.
“If you overfeed them, the food disintegrates and muddies the tank,” Chen explains. “When we worked out exactly what was what, we cut waste and water quality was easier to maintain, too.”
In 2009, Chen had just graduated with her Masters, and Dr Chan was retiring. As there was someone to take over the sea turtle project but not the freshwater turtles, the two women decided to undertake another adventure: To trial an NGO.
“We thought we’d start out with a two-year project, setting up a conservation centre, as we needed to learn the ropes,” Chen remembers. “We did it with the help of a research grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.”
It worked, and two years later, in October 2011, the Turtle Conservation Society of Malaysia was founded. The Society runs different projects every year, and each is a milestone for science as well as conservation.
“Our ultimate goal is to work our way out of the project,” Chen explains. “For any conservation programme to succeed, you have to work with the people who are there, so that when you leave, they do it all by themselves. It has to come from the people.”