Ah Tshen

September 01, 2015


Yu He talked about her interesting friend that I might like to meet. He is a passionate scientist. If being a scientist sounds cool enough, what do you think about vertebrate paleontologist?

Ver-te-brate pa-leon-to-lo-gist. Try reading it in three seconds, it's quite unlikely you've heard the term before.

We met on a Friday noon at a cafe in University of Malaya. Caught in research work, I was late. Yu He had to catch a plane to China that evening to attend a geology conference. Time was limited, four of us gathered for the first time, but we immediately clicked.

Vertebrate palentologist is a rare species. 
How rare? Less than 10 of them in Malaysia. 

What does vertebrate paleontology mean?
It is a study for fossils of animals with backbone, like monkeys, elephants, tigers, lions, fish... which are formed millions of years ago. Some of the animals have already gone extinct. 

That's an odd.. job title and scope. Usually what do you do?
I go to excavation sites in the forest, we call it Fieldwork. We collect interesting fossils. My job is to study the fossils, analyze and understand their behavior and process of evolution.

So... basically you find big bones in a site and determine what animal is that?
Yes........ but contrary to what usually people believe, finding large bones is not an ideal case, because bones generally look identical across all species. It's hard to identify what animal that is. Actually, finding teeth is more helpful in identifying the animals. We can immediately tell if that's an elephant or a lion. Teeth are coated by enamel, which is resistant to decay over time.

"I consider it lucky to have found vertebrate fossils within such a short time of visit...@ Lenggong Valley (Perak)... I guess it's from a medium to large size mammal. Too fragmented for positive identification." - Photo by Ah Tshen

How do you evaluate the age of a fossil?
There is a systematic and confirming way to determine the age of fossils. Carbon-14 is one of them, and there are many other radiometric datings, like Potassium-Argon dating, Uranium series dating...
Each method is with its time limits, like C-14 is 35,000 years. Which means that anything older than 35,000 years this method won't give any meaningful result. And one will need to look for alternative with older time limits.
A paleontologist must study fossils and specimens constantly to be able to identify a fossil by sight. Paleontology is a mix of different field... it involves knowledge of biology, anatomy, and geology.

So you look at a fossil, and imagine what happens millions of years ago?
Yeah, I will try to picture what happens to this piece of fossil when it first formed and how it ended up here. There are many fish fossils found in the forests now, that means this area used to be under the sea millions of years ago. For example, Batu Caves used to be under the sea! The earth crust moves all the time, landscape changes and distribution of living things changes as well. It's interesting to see how it happens.

EVE'S NOTE: 35,000 years is too young?! Yeah apparently it's a baby compared to the millions of years he is talking about. Yu He and Ah Tshen discussed about the history of life on earth. I was a bit confused about the timeline, it's hard for me to imagine how long a million or a billion years is. Yu He and Ah Tshen continued to talk about their discoveries in the forest. Their job has opened their eyes to the nature and the environment. 

Their minds are not limited by what they see now, but have penetrated the frame of time and space.  

Just to give you an idea. If we compress the last 4,500,000,000 years of earth's history into 1 day, we human appear on the last two minutes... Jaw-dropped... Image from here

How did the love begin?
Since I was young, watching documentaries has been my favourite. So naturally when I graduated in high school, which was in 1996, I was determined to study Biology. My cousin was working in a consultant company for environment and wildlife. He brought me to fieldwork. That's how my interest was nurtured.
I had a passion for dinosaurs. A few years ago I went to China to join an expedition on dinosaur fossils.  Upon returning to Malaysia, there's no dinosaur fossils found yet. I switched focus to other vertebrate instead.
I worked as a consultant for environment and wildlife for 4-5 years. And then I started doing research till now. 

Since your profession is so rare and your colleague is scarce, how do you handle loneliness and doubts?
I will contact experts overseas. There are less than 10 vertebrate paleontologists in the country... whereas there are more invertebrate paleontologists, around 50-60 of them. They study insects, algae, plants etc., their field is more related to industry especially in oil and gas companies.

What's your current and future plan?
Nowadays I am going to fieldwork and conducting research. As this work is still very premature in the country, I feel a sense of responsibility to educate and pass on the knowledge. 

Ah Tshen is actively involved in many nature-related societies, in aspects of conservation, wildlife, nature. He gives talks and currently works in Museum Zoology, University of Malaya.

His upcoming activity - People's Merdeka Exhibition on 5-6th September in KL. Info here.

Since your job is so bizarre... what do your family and friends think about you...?
My family is giving me unconditional support. Sometimes when I have a gathering with my schoolmates, I can feel the difference between me and them. They come with their spouses and children. When I explain my job, they will ask questions like, "What do you see in the jungle? Did you see tigers?" They are interested and curious. I think each of us has a child in our heart, we are naturally drawn to nature, to anything that is fun.  

How do you feel about the difference? Do you feel ousted?
Erm... no. It depends on what you want in life. Some of them are making big money. I'm happy with my own life. I have a carefree life. I am not jealous of their lives, but I am sure they are envious of mine. I am able to do what I like. 

A million thanks to Ah Tshen, Yiing Yee and Yu He.  It doesn't happen everyday that you meet someone so positive and so focused. We talked about a couple of other things, such as our lives as researchers, money and expectations. 

Ah Tshen is 36 years old but he looks years younger. People who live with passion, stay curious and exercise do appear youthful. 

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