Pioneer in the study of marine insects

Dr Lanna Cheng, who started the field of marine entomology, on a sea expedition in 2010.
Dr Lanna Cheng, who started the field of marine entomology, on a sea expedition in 2010.PHOTO: COURTESY OF LANNA CHENG

I Remember: Winning the Commonwealth Scholarship to study at Oxford

Dr Lanna Cheng wrote about water bugs for her honours project at the then University of Singapore in the 1960s, delving into ponds and reservoirs here.

From that, she moved on to start a new field - marine entomology - and went on sea expeditions to study the only insect known to survive in the ocean, called Halobates.

Dr Cheng, now 74, said she had the Commonwealth Scholarship to thank. In September 1965, she was named one of five recipients of the scholarship. "I would never have been able to go abroad or have the opportunity to develop my interest in marine entomology, or broaden my outlook in science and life in general otherwise," she said.

She studied insect ecology at Oxford University. She met Dr Ralph Lewin, a professor of marine microbiology at an international conference in 1968 and they married a year later. She joined him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at the University of California, San Diego, and started working on marine insects.

"It was a neglected field and I was able to go to sea on research vessels to study Halobates, the only insects known to live on the open oceans, miles away from land," Dr Cheng, now an emeritus researcher at the SIO, told The Sunday Times via e-mail. "It was not possible to study their special adaptations or how they live unless one could go to sea. I was in a unique position to carry out the studies."

She later edited the book Marine Insects, which remains the only scientific guide on the topic since its publication in 1976.

Dr Cheng also wrote a book on Chinese cooking made easy. It was her way of giving back after she won an international fellowship from the American Association of University Women. It was published by the local association, with proceeds going to fellowships.

"The recipes were based on what I remembered from my mother's dishes at home and simplified when I lived as a student in digs in Oxford," she said.

None took more than 20 minutes to cook, hence they were "made easy", she added.

Dr Cheng enjoys travelling and listening to classical music, and also plays the recorder with an amateur quartet. Her husband died in 2008. They had no children.

A regular visitor to Singapore, she was here recently to launch a new guidebook on water bugs in the region, and remains involved with research on marine biodiversity and conservation at the National University of Singapore.

Looking back on her career, she said: "It was a wonderful thing to be able to start a new field - marine entomology - and be able to discover things nobody else had done before, for example, how the only known ocean insects were able to cope with storms and waves and survive in the open sea."

Ho Ai Li

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 06, 2015, with the headline 'Pioneer in the study of marine insects I Remember: Winning the Commonwealth Scholarship to study at Oxford'. Print Edition | Subscribe