Every year, The Singapore Women’s Weekly shines a spotlight on inspiring and influential women who are shaping our world. We call them the Great Women of Our Time. This year’s list for 2022 includes Dr Siti Maryam, Head of Projects, Climate Solutions & Ecology at environmental consulting firm DHI and a global expert on seagrass.

As a child, Dr Siti Maryam dreamt of following in her dad’s footsteps and becoming a journalist. “Actually I wanted to write books,” she says with a laugh. “I thought it meant sitting around in your pyjamas all day – and reading and writing were things I already really enjoyed.” Even as she grew older, and developed an interest in the natural world, she always thought that interest would be combined with writing, “I thought I could do something sexy, like write for National Geographic,” she said.

A career in science didn’t at first seem like an attainable goal. By her own admission, Dr. Siti was not the best student, and felt that in school, science wasn’t taught in a way that showed its real-world applications. It was only at university that she felt she became “quite a nerd”, and started getting more involved in applying science through research projects. This was also where her interest in seagrass started.

Not to be confused with seaweed, seagrass and seagrass meadows populate the world from the tropics to the Arctic Circle. There are approximately 65 species of seagrass around the world and more interestingly, this modest plant is the foundation for some of the most productive ecosystems in the world, creating a home for tiny animals to larger marine mammals and birds. Restoring seagrass meadows and ensuring their health can go a long way in balancing ecosystems and buffering the effects of climate change and global warming.

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During her university breaks, Dr. Siti would come back to Singapore and needed to find something to do. “All my friends were either studying or away, so to occupy my time, I reached out to a friend who suggested I volunteer my time to do intertidal surveys. One of the first places I surveyed was the beach at Labrador Park to determine the diversity of seagrass species there.” 

This led to more opportunities back in Australia, where she took a class on Marine Botany and volunteered to help her professor collect seagrass samples on her next trip back to Singapore. “When I brought them back, she asked if I was interested in helping with the lab work and data analysis, which was very interesting to me because I got to apply what I learned in the classroom.” The professor then encouraged her to present her findings at a conference for seagrass. “So I presented this scientific poster about seagrass, to some very senior, very prominent seagrass scientists, none of whom thought seagrass still existed in Singapore! The funny thing was that I didn’t realise this scientific poster was being judged for a competition – and I won!”

Dr Siti in a seagrass meadow

This experience affirmed for Dr. Siti that this area of science and biodiversity research was where she was meant to be. “I think that the process of scientific inquiry as an approach to problem solving isn’t always at the forefront of the science curriculum in Singapore, which is a real pity,” she says. “In school there always seems to be a right and wrong answer, when in reality, science is very much a process; you test your assumptions and eliminate possible options along the way until eventually you find the most likely answer that’s supported by your experiments. People tend to think ‘Oh, science will have the answer,’ but our knowledge and understanding is constantly evolving because science is all about testing and pushing boundaries to find the best possible answer, or explanation. I think learning this was when I first learned it was okay to fail.” 

After getting her PhD, Dr. Siti eventually moved from academia to consulting where she could translate academic work into real-world applications. “Currently I’m working on nature-based solutions, where I take science and package it into a solution that can be adopted by communities, governments and companies to better understand and manage their ecosystems and natural resources. It’s about empowering people to use science to make better and more sustainable, ecologically-friendly decisions for the natural environment around them.” 

Dr Siti doing fieldwork

And while these solutions can have large-scale impacts on the world around us, there is a more human element to her job that Dr. Siti feels ranks in her top achievement. “I’ve found that I enjoy being a mentor, especially to younger women,” she says. “It was never something I actively sought to do, but I think what I can be proud of is that I’ve supported and enabled other women to pursue their scientific and academic goals.”

For an industry that is traditionally male-dominated, Dr. Siti thinks it’s important to change the way work is seen as an all-encompassing passion. “Science is a demanding career, and you’re expected to be a scientist all the time,” she explains. “A lot of the more successful scientists pride themselves in not having work-life balance – and that can be very toxic if you have to juggle a career and family. But because men are generally not expected to be homemakers or to look after children it’s fine for them to be complete workaholics.”

“But for women, you’re expected to conform to this stereotype and also bear the majority of the housework and caregiving,” says Dr. Siti, “and I think that’s an expectation that needs reform.” Given these expectations, it’s natural for women to doubt themselves, something even Dr. Siti herself has experienced. “Sometimes I listen to a man, and they’re saying something that I know is untrue. But they say it with so much confidence that you’re like ‘Oh it must be true!’” she says with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, that comes from centuries of always being at the top. We are conditioned to think that it’s natural for men and for boys to lead and we connect leadership to stereotypically masculine behaviour . For women, it’s only quite recently that we’ve had more representation not just in leadership positions, but also male dominated professions. And I hope that for younger women and girls, this increased diversity and representation will be normalised. When you see people like yourself in positions of power, it’s much easier for you to conceive that this is normal and something that you too can achieve.”

As one of Southeast Asia’s prominent female marine biologists, Dr. Siti admits she feels a responsibility to not just “fight the patriarchy,” but to also create a safe environment for women to thrive in, especially considering the more traditional and conservative cultures of Asia that may not encourage mixing between men and women. “I want women to know that this [career choice] is something they can consider, from a young age. So my dream is to run a science camp that’s just for girls, and that’s also run by women scientists. Then they can see, first of all, that it’s possible, and that second of all, these women are all leaders in their field. So yes, that’s what I’d like to do, run a seagrass science camp for girls in Asia.”

But even such an altruistic idea has come up against objections. “People (including women) in academia have questioned me about not including boys,” Dr. Siti says. “But to me, this is more about creating a safe and inclusive environment for a group that is historically and culturally excluded from science. So I think it’s most important to create a safe space first, where young women can find their feet and their voice, and then definitely, expand this to eventually include young men. Because children learn from young, and when young men or boys see diversity in their leadership, then we normalise it for future generations.”

Photography: Kathy Lim
Videography: Stacey Rodrigues
Hair: Ash Loi
Makeup: Ginger Linette Leong
Location: Conrad Centennial Singapore