I am currently sitting in the library at 5.45pm, unfortunately a tad too early for my intended printing adventures. I arrived in the library shortly after 10.30pm last night and even then, I had to wait for a couple more hours before the library was empty enough to mess around with the printers and pull the paper trays in and out to the annoyance of everyone seated near the huge laser printers. I have read thestudentroom enough these days to know that our dissertation is nothing more than a piece of assignment that we look back on one year into the future and feel embarrassed about, but to me the dissertation brought together all I have learnt in these three years about independent learning. The entire piece of assignment originated from our own research interests, and the directions towards which our research methods flowed were all decisions that we had the autonomy to make. After more than a year from my initial intentions to work on this topic, I am finally printing my dissertation. Similar to how I would always remember H1 Project Work to be a part of my life, I think the dissertation journey would be immensely rewarding to look back on.
How I chose my topic
After having obtained 54/55 for my Methods in Physical Geography course last year, I started getting afraid about my initial decisions to do Physical Geography. I do not aspire to be the top of my course, but 54/55 is clearly a shitty mark. Singaporean scholar? No way. I started beating myself up over my academic choices. Do I actually understand the point of fieldwork? Did I even learn anything on the trip to Mallorca? Am I bad at analysing field samples? Why did I choose the more Science-y track when I am not gifted in this at all? These questions made me fear the choice of my dissertation topic, because I feared putting so much effort into something that would not reap rewards (i.e. higher than the 68s and 69s that I have been getting…). We were encouraged to attend a dissertation workshop, which of course I did attend, and where most of the seniors cited how important it was to “enjoy what you were doing” and “choose a topic that interests you”. Ben Page once gave me some advice on choosing a topic, that it was important to think about what made you special, and areas in which you would have an advantage in. I started having a lot of ideas for a Human Geography topic mostly arising from my personal interests in Korea and China, but those were not helping because I was no longer on the Human Geography track. I still had absolutely no idea what I could do pertaining to Physical Geography, especially since I thought that originality counted for a lot. I thought about doing something related to hydrology because that was one of the most interesting (and practicable) field areas today, but it was so over-done, there were students working on that same topic every year in a different locality with a different software and different climate change projections. I also could not imagine having to sit down in front of the computer even as a form of ‘fieldwork’, because data collection involved getting figures on precipitation inputs and evapotranspiration for example. It was honestly difficult as well, and I was not confident of coming up with outputs that could parallel the amazing work by seniors who got published. I was thinking of doing on something on ecology too, but I was not well-acquainted with native and invasive species in Singapore.
Approximately 2-3 weeks before the deadline of the dissertation outline form, I chanced upon a Mothership article on Facebook, and this caught my interest. I had honestly not known of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio river restoration programme prior to this, and river restoration was something that I was quite drawn to, because I had learnt it since JC. The initial misleading article published by Today also showed the inadequacy in geographical knowledge by many Singaporeans because we were living in an urban heartland, as it had noted that the floodwaters “swelled the banks”. River-floodplain systems perform this very purpose, to hold floodwaters rather than the artificial quick channelisation of stormwaters downstream to an area where it is designated for flood control, and I found this interesting. I consulted some papers and decided on looking at water chemistry and ecological impacts, and for this field area I consulted my Ecology professor Dr. Jan A. He suggested the use of bioindicators such as dragonflies and mayflies to look at ecological conditions, on top of collecting water chemistry parameters. I was initially apprehensive because of the fact that I was afraid of insects, but I approached that research topic keenly because it sounded plausible, and I liked how the fieldwork could be completely conducted by myself.
I submitted my dissertation outline form, with the title “Assessing the ecological impacts of river restoration: case study of Kallang River in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park (Singapore)”, and requested for Jan as my dissertation supervisor. I intended to conduct dragonfly surveys in both an unrestored and a restored section of the Kallang River, as well as a natural area to see how similar or different dragonfly populations are in these 3 areas. I got lucky, and I got my first choice supervisor! The subsequent submission of the dissertation proposal had me emailing a lot of people to make fieldwork a little easier for me when I eventually went home to conduct fieldwork, such as representatives from PUB and NParks, and professional odonatologists in Singapore. The UCL Geography department also allowed me to bring the fieldwork equipment home together with Fumi, and for that I was very very thankful. Most people were very helpful in this entire process, although it was quite a hassle to apply for research permits because of the bureaucracy within the statutory boards. I remember Jan mentioned during one of the meetings that he was very shocked that Singapore was so strict on their research permits, and I was too, especially how I would perceive for the application process to be earlier for a local. I had to submit proposals after proposals, risk assessments after risk assessments, and I also had to mail the original signed documents to the office. I guess it may be a good thing, that it only goes to show how well-managed and maintained our nature reserves are? Also because I was not too familiar with the ecology language, I got 68 (omfg again?) for my dissertation proposal. But I was thankful for corrections and mistakes made earlier in the dissertation proposal, because it helped me narrow my field research a lot more.
Fieldwork in Singapore
I forgot how immensely exhausting fieldwork was, especially in the hot sunny Singapore where we had to cope with sweltering under the hot sun. OBike was a saviour during this period, because I could cycle for free up and down the length of the Kallang River to do fieldwork on both the unrestored and restored section. For a few consecutive days, I took the hour-long ride to Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park to collect water samples, and carry out my dragonfly surveys alone. In the nature reserves (and Coney Island), there were also a lot of mosquito bites to deal with while hunting for those elusive dragonflies, and these made me extremely irritable during the whole fieldwork process. Furthermore, although dragonfly abundance counts were high in the parks, they were shockingly lacking within the nature reserves, and these were research findings that definitely could not contribute to my analyses. HT was in Life Sciences back when he was in NUS, and he too agreed that these findings were not going to be helpful to my dissertation. I started fearing for the choice of my dissertation topic again, because the data I would be able to collect would not be enough. I tried heading to different parts of the nature reserve, but I never managed to find a water body that was teeming with dragonflies as I would have expected in nature reserves. With insufficient data from insufficient homework done prior to the fieldwork process, I decided that there was nothing I could do to make the dragonflies appear miraculously, and I would head back to UK to seek for more advice. Moreover, I overestimated my ability to conduct fieldwork in Singapore because I was held back from my desire to obtain COC by the end of my second VA. Since I struggled to get my COC throughout July and August as frequently documented, I extended my VA slightly and that meant even less time for my fieldwork when I was already running out of time. It also meant that I could not submit my dissertation progress report on time. I was not able to conduct the monthly visits to the parks as agreed in the contract with my dissertation supervisor, and that meant I could not do checks on the vegetation growth and monthly species surveys to see if anything changed. I was left with a short 2 weeks for fieldwork, and during then I was also rushing my Master’s application for the Schwarzman programme (which I got bitterly rejected from late last year).
During this period, I would like to thank Yujie who helped me calibrate my pH meter, Aloysius who lent me his camera, and Bowei for coming along for one of my field surveys. I would most importantly like to thank HT who ferried me from venue to venue, who drove me to Temasek Club on very smelly sunny days with tons of mosquito bites to take a comforting cold shower, and most of all, for having had similar research interests back when he was at school. He seemed to be more interested than I was at times, excitedly videoing spiders spinning their preys when we were at an area for a dragonfly lookout.
Booting down to 1.0 unit and back to 1.5 unit
I headed back to UK and rushed to submit my dissertation progress report that was already handed in late relative to the rest of the cohort. I was very lost at this point in time with the direction of my dissertation, because I clearly knew that my data was insufficient especially with regard to the protected areas, yet I did not know what to do. In my first meeting with my supervisor after summer, he recommended that I drop to the 1.0 unit dissertation because he was worried that my data would disallow me from reaching a depth of analysis to reach the word count of 12,000 words, and I have to admit, I was very very very upset. To provide some context, all students are registered under the 1.5 unit dissertation (a weighting of 3 out of 8 modules), and are expected to tailor their research plans for that. Usually, only students who have extenuating circumstances are allowed to drop to the 1.0 unit dissertation, because it may have been challenging to conduct fieldwork during summer for some people. I now belonged to that category, maybe because of my summer commitments, but mostly because of having done insufficient homework on the difficulty of conducting species surveys in Singapore. I knew that my data was lacking, I knew that he meant well for me, and I knew that this was a good move for my grades, but I could not help but feel extremely beaten and upset. True enough, all that effort beforehand had culminated in a regret for my dissertation topic, because the fieldwork was unpractical. I started wondering why I did not embark on other topics, the topics that I initially shunned because the data collection process only involves sitting in front of the computer, because fieldwork clearly proved too difficult for me.
I decided to chin up and work hard anyway, and started to accept that I would have to be happy with a Second Upper Class degree because the dissertation was a great chance to boost my grades, and I had currently just aborted that opportunity. Until one day I happened to chance upon the ‘Dragonflies of Singapore’ Facebook group, and I realised how this presented a golden opportunity for data collection similar to what we have learnt about OpenSource information. I would later learn that the proper term for this is called ‘Citizen Science’, where voluntary information from enthusiasts are merged with knowledge from professionals and experts. I collated species sightings from the group, and ended up with a species list much longer than what I had initially gotten. It also presented an opportunity to collect data from many other parks and water bodies all across Singapore, and I realised this was something I could capitalise on. After a week of gathering data and information, I spoke to my supervisor, who was shocked at the unending list of species. One session later, I saw the potential of a more critical analysis to my data, and sheepishly asked for permission to do the 1.5 unit dissertation. I was putting way too much effort into something that was only worth the weight of two modules! He initially said that it might not be possible given how we were expected to confirm modules earlier this academic year, but advised me to speak to the departmental tutor. And so I did.
I think this whole process showed me how much you can ‘make things happen’ as long as you wish to, a phrase that was often used back when I was in MIDS Wing. The most ridiculous requests, like securing early, the cancellation of bunk checks, are truly all possible as long as you dare to seek and ask. I arranged a session with the departmental tutor, and ended up waiting outside his office in queue. Thank god he was an amazing guy, and all he said was ‘as long as you are willing, of course we are more than happy to support you, the dissertation is all about you!’, or something along the lines of that. I emailed Geog Office after that, and was quickly booted up to the 1.5 unit dissertation. Here, I would like to document the email exchanges between my professors and I.
The first email I sent to the departmental tutor to ask whether it was possible, but the email went ignored. Carl is an amazing professor and therefore I believe that he probably missed my email accidentally amidst the mass of emails that get to him everyday. He must have been very busy. I refused to abort my idea even though my dissertation supervisor said that it might not be possible at this (late) stage, especially as UCL responded to students’ feedback to release the examination timetables earlier which necessitated us to confirm our modules quite early in the academic year. I decided to drop in during his office hours then.
and these were all the e-mail exchanges that followed in chronological order. I was extremely surprised at the efficiency of the Geog Office this time, and was also extremely thankful for the prompt email responses by Jan even though he must receive many many many e-mails every single day.
All the work after that
Since November, and the approval of my upgrade to a 1.5 unit module, I have been doing work non-stop on my dissertation. In November and December I led a relatively disciplined lifestyle with regard to academic work: I would do work for my GEOG3057 blog every Monday, work for my GEOG3038 every Thursday, and dissertation on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Saturday I would work on my Master’s applications, although this fell short most of the time because I always felt a psychological need to ‘reward’ myself from all the earlier days of work. I enjoyed those days in the library because I never felt like I was dragging myself to do work – the March deadline meant that I was doing work at my own pace. I allowed myself to do things very very slowly as long as there were improvements and advancements day-to-day, and this allowed me to enjoy the dissertation process very much.
Here are some of the notable things that look extremely simple but required a lot of effort on my part:
1. Learning all the R Studio vegan, ape and betapair packages. I cannot believe I actually created a phylogenetic tree by myself. I remember telling Jan that I was intending to use the phylogenetic alpha-diversity indices, and how he said he was worried about that because I did not have taxonomic information. I told him I did, and I had already created a taxonomic tree in R. He was extremely surprised, in a good way, and I will remember this meeting to be one of great motivational boost to me.
2. Relearning MATLAB from my nightmare in Year 2 and producing all the box plots and bar graphs for my dissertation. For one simple-looking box plot, I had up to 100 commands, to specifically adjust the colours, width, borders, error bars, tick marks, axes labels, and subplot positioning.
3. Relearning CANOCO from Year 2 (not that much of a nightmare) and struggling to edit the diagrams each time. I had to move the labels one by one to ensure that they did not overlap each other and confuse. It was also a challenge to interpret the diagrams because there were much more elements compared to what I had learnt in the previous academic year, and I thank Anson for lending me his personal copy on a book for these statistical analyses.
4. Struggling to understand the taxonomic mathematical formulas published in papers. I have to thank Bowei for this, because the literal loss in contact with Maths meant that I no longer understood any mathematical notations, with one being double summation.
5. Spending days after days after days poring over the same Excel sheet with all the species data. Compilation of data was difficult because it was important to tailor them to the format required by the specific software required. At this stage I have forgotten quite a lot of the problems I met along the way, but it was most difficult feeding data into R Studio as the functions never seemed to work (Error: Error: Error: Error:). I also realised I messed up on one occasion when I indicated one location wrongly as an urban park instead of a nature park. I had to redo every single analysis, and I had to do this again when my professor advised me to re-order my sites for more order.
After all that analysis, came the writing. I had an entire month dedicated to writing, re-reading most of the papers I had once glanced over in my dissertation proposal. I think I felt happiest when I finished the final sub-section of my Discussion and the Conclusion section on the same day. By that stage, I thought I was more or less done with the ‘difficult’ parts, and now all that was left was proper referencing, formatting, and correction of the mistakes that I had inadvertently made in my unfiltered writing. I made it in time for my first draft, and by then, I knew that not many changes could be made anymore. I no longer had the time for an additional data analysis, I no longer had the freedom of time to re-order analyses and come up with any stray ideas.
The year has passed very fast with the frequent library visits, and today, I am here waiting to print out my dissertation. Because of the shift in focus, my dissertation topic has been changed to ‘Using Odonata to assess the impacts of river restoration in Singpaore’s Kallang River’. My research goals and objectives have deviated very much from the original submission of my proposal, but this was what we were told to be prepared for, and I am glad that my research has headed in this direction. I have put in a lot of effort in this compared to the rest of all my modules, and I do hope for a good outcome, especially after all the cumbersome administrative trouble that I had to go through, and that I had to make others go through. I know I will be upset eventually if I do not get a First Class mark for this assignment and thereafter this blog post will never come, therefore I would like to document the dissertation journey first. At this point, I think I enjoyed this whole process, and I cannot wait to submit it after the library clears out enough for me to print my dissertation in full tonight.
Here, I would like to express my gratitude most to Jan. He has been readily responding to my emails, even though at the start it might appear that I was an unmotivated individual who could not care less about carrying out academic work over summer. He has been keeping up with me more than I have kept up with him, constantly asking for weekly and at most fortnightly meetings to check on my progress, and I know I have to be very thankful for his approach because it has forced me to constantly make progress on my work before seeing him every week. Most of all, I am extremely appreciative of how he constantly reaffirms my intentions, and for constantly giving me that motivation boost that I was making good progress, because it motivated me to continue working harder. In the future, I think I will look back at my final year and remember the dissertation process as something that was extremely rewarding and enjoyable. I also count my blessings that I had the privilege to be stressed and worried over academic work, because that meant that I had no other pressing worries like financial inability, illness or serious personal issues. I would therefore hope for this blog post to serve as a memory to always look back and laugh on.
The dragonfly that gets featured on my dissertation title page, the Neurothemis fluctuans, the most common dragonfly in Singapore, and also the first dragonfly I sighted at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park on the first day of fieldwork. Taken with Aloysius’s camera.
And finally, it is in 🙂
I thought it was going to be crowded at the library for printing and Map Room for binding from Friday, which would not be ideal especially since I wanted to use my own 100gsm paper to enhance the appearance of coloured figures on my dissertation. I had to remove all the 80gsm paper from the 5 paper trays, load my own and in this process hold everyone up, and so I decided to act two days earlier. Even so I had to wait until late night (as seen) to make sure that no one accidentally printed on my paper. In the end Nick says I am the first one to submit… truly kiasu.
I know there are still a lot of mistakes and slight improvements to be made, as with any assignment, but this will be the cut off point for myself. Now to get over the coursework inertia to start on others…