December 13, 2011, by lgzsm

Suzanne McGowan talks about her ‘Flying Doctor’ visit to Malaysia

It’s the end of November and the plan is to go over to our campus in Malaysia for two weeks.  The School of Geography started a Masters course in Environmental Monitoring and Management here last year and we are aiming to replicate the modules that we do in the UK at the Malaysian campus.  I have come to help out with the Foundations in Environmental Management module.

Visiting staff stay in Kuala Lumpur, but the campus is a good 40 minute taxi drive away, close to the small town of Semenyih. The first challenge was trying not to get stuck in the traffic.  If you time it wrong, the journey can take up to 2 hours. Fortunately the cab driver was skilled at choosing the best route through a seemingly impenetrable tangle of highway, and also very kindly supplied me with home-made Vede- small Indian snacks similar to a bhajis.

The University of Nottingham campus in Malaysia (UNMC) was built only 6 years ago on an old oil palm plantation. It is quite a surreal experience being surrounded by University of Nottingham logos and palm trees, but the campus itself is a beautiful place to work with a number of lakes, trees and covered walkways.  The lakes would prove very important to the trip…..

My teaching consists of a half-day field course, with two follow-up lab sessions on lake ecosystems.  When I run this module in Nottingham we visit Attenborough Nature Reserve; in Malaysia we visit three contrasting lake sites on the campus to demonstrate aquatic monitoring techniques.  Not surprisingly, the lakes in Malaysia are very different to those in the UK- they are a very comfortable 26°C year round, and are usually quite turbid with suspended sediment because of the heavy rains that occur daily here.

Apart from delivering the teaching, the reason I am over here is to provide some expertise on the aquatic side of things.  So I have been liaising with the technical staff here to help in ordering appropriate equipment and providing training in water chemistry analysis.  Fortunately, Stephanie Evers, an aquatic ecologist was very recently hired in the School of Biosciences and so local capabilities in this area are expanding; Stephanie shadowed me for the field and lab work.  She was getting to grips with her first few weeks living in Malaysia and it was interesting hearing about her experiences. Stephanie is also probably one of the few people who enjoy good chat about algal biofilms, so it was great to meet her and talk diatoms over a mango juice.

There was time to explore a bit during the weekend.  Nick Wallerstein was accompanying me on the trip, prior to attending a conference (Rivers 2011) in Penang and also delivered a seminar at UNMC on river geomorphology.  We hired a car to drive to Penang, taking in a visit to the Forestry Research Institute of Malaysia on the way, with a treetop walk through the jungle. The drive to Penang takes about 4 hours on the highway, (and about two hours sitting in traffic and getting lost around KL), but Penang is definitely worth it.  Shame there was only time for a quick look around before the long drive back to KL.

Being in Malaysia gave me a chance to catch up with the latest happenings in the School of Geography.   There are now four members of staff; Mike Steven (on secondment from the UK), Tuong Thuy Vu, Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz and a new appointment Lawal Billa who is an expert in the use of GIS to investigate natural hazards.  It was interesting to hear about the research that is starting up there and think about how this fits into the School’s Geosciences theme.  There was a very memorable seminar from one of Ahimsa’s students on fruit dispersal by elephants with some stunning photos of wildlife from the Malaysian jungle. On my last day we were able to get out for a mini Geography Xmas meal at the nearby village of Broga.

I was amazed at just how enthusiastically the Malay embrace Christmas.  The shopping Malls are loaded with a blinding array of Christmas decorations and muzak Carols are piped out everywhere.  Mike seemed to enjoy it though!

The last few days in Malaysia were a bit of a surprise as I found out that some colleagues from Glasgow and Stirling Universities were in KL at a Peatlands Conference.  We met up for dinner, giving me a chance to meet environmental scientists from other Malaysian Universities.  One last chance to try out the delicious, varied and surprisingly veggie food before the long trip back through to arrive at the subterranean horror of Birmingham New Street station.

Suzanne McGowan

9 December 2011


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