Women in male-dominated professions often have to work twice as hard to attain equal standing. Soil researcher Dr Lulie Melling is one such feisty lady who is willing to wallow in peat swamps, all for the sake of science.
THE MATING CALL of frogs filled the darkened seminar room in Finland. The sound came from the laptop of a Malaysian soil scientist, there to introduce the wonders of tropical peat to her peers in Europe.
Just as Kuching-based Tropical Peat Research Laboratory director Dr Lulie Melling moved into another slide to show the brackish water at peat swamps, someone in the crowd joked that women scientists would most likely scream at the prospect of roughing it out in the deep swamp peats.
Unfazed, Lulie smiled and told the predominantly male audience: "In my hole, the men will scream first".
As proof, Lulie showed photos of herself in inky-black pits. She recalled shivering from the cold and putting up with the itch that comes from being submerged in the mildly acidic grime when collecting samples.
There were times when peat muck gripped her shoe soles so solidly that she had to be hoisted out by several people. She showed another photo of herself covered in a heavy layer of black silt up to her neck.
Lulie was in the Finnish city of Jyvaskyla five months ago, bidding to host the International Peat Congress in 2016 (IPC2016) in Kuching, Sarawak. Having won the bid, Lulie said Malaysia can now leverage on this opportunity to draw the international peat scientist community to Kuching to gain a better insight on tropical peat development and conservation.
In an interview with New Sunday Times, Lulie said her quest to study tropical peat started in 1995. She was puzzled by the sago trees' stunted growth in Mukah, Sarawak. At that time, nobody really knew or cared about what she was doing in the peat swamps. But all that changed when soil science became increasingly linked to the highly-politicised topic of climate change.
As the Internet became flooded with news reports and blog postings claiming that oil palm planting on tropical peat soil contributed to pollution and global warming, the search for credible soil studies also intensified.
Lulie pressed on with her research and in 2005, made an unusual discovery.
Her test results showed greenhouse gas emission from the peat soil planted with oil palm trees was less than that in untouched forest peatland. Her findings caught the attention of other researchers. Since then, citations of her research papers have gone up 10-fold in the last five years. Despite the international recognition, Lulie said there was still much to learn.
Apart from being technologically savvy, soil scientists needed to be physically fit to embark on remote excursions into mosquito-ridden swamps.
Lulie and her team often have to hike through slushy terrain to collect samples and data in the scorching sun and torrential rain.
With heavy scientific equipment in their knapsacks, they sometimes have to forgo tents and sleeping bags. As dusk sets in, they source wood scraps from their surroundings to build temporary shelters and toilets.
But Lulie and her team attest that what was most painful and frustrating was the time away from family and friends.
"Success in most professional careers requires long hours. Long gone are 9am to 5pm days. If you are not present at least 60 hours a week, then you are slacking," she said. She paused for a while to gaze at a photograph of her family on her office desk. "I'm very grateful my husband and son are very understanding."
A dedicated government officer, Lulie also organises soil science seminars for farmers throughout Southeast Asia. Her easygoing and jovial nature helps bridge the gap between scientists and rural folk.
Lulie first learnt that humour worked to her advantage when she organised a soil science seminar titled "Big hole, small hole & KY jelly" in 2007. It was a hit among local oil palm planters and even got the attention of more than a handful of chief executives of multi-billion dollar plantation companies from Singapore and Indonesia.
Scientists from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, Fiji, Iran, and the United Kingdom flew in to learn that when peat soil is compressed by heavy machinery, oil palm roots are able to take stronger hold of the soil and feed on water and nutrients more efficiently.
A British professor came away from the field trip surprised that soil scientists in Malaysia were just as conscientious as in Europe on the need for sustainable peat development.
Lulie's second seminar, in 2008, also sensationally titled "I'll show you how to use your holes" was even more popular. Close to 700 participants learnt how to manage the water table and nutrient supplements in a variety of tropical peat fields.
Just as she is well-liked by rural farmers, Lulie is increasingly seen a role model among secondary schoolgirls in Sarawak. Her advice to young women who want to pursue a career in science: "Don't be afraid to venture into uncharted territories. There's no point re-inventing the wheel.
"Having scientists who are willing to venture out of the status quo is what drives significant discoveries," she said.