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The Unlikely Entomologist

What do a medical discipline in colorectal surgery and stick insects — two fields that couldn’t be more far removed from each other — have in common? Probably only the person who is interested in them, Professor Francis Seow-Choen, Director of Seow-Choen Colorectal Centre, as we discovered.

The colorectal side of things

Trained in St Marks’ Hospital after obtaining his higher surgical qualifications in the National University of Singapore (NUS), Prof Seow-Choen returned to his home ground to help establish the first colorectal surgery department in Asia at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). He was Head and Senior Consultant at the department for nine years before moving on to private practice in 2004.

During that time, he helped propel Singapore up the ranks as a leading medical care provider in colorectal surgery. “I wanted to raise SGH to a more international standard and I was quite successful in doing that,” said Prof Seow.

Move to private practice

After achieving what he set out to do, the recipient of the Excellence for Singapore Award (2000) for his achievements in the field of Coloproctology thought it was time to move on to a new phase of life, so he left the public service.

Interestingly enough, Prof Seow said that this huge decision has not really affected his work much. He continues to lecture, attend conferences and demonstrate surgery all over the world, and sit on the editorial boards of many prestigious journals including Diseases of the Colon and Rectum (USA), Colorectal Disease (European) and British Journal of Surgery (UK), among others.

“It isn’t so much as having more control over my time, but more an expansion of what I want to do, which are research and teaching,” said Prof Seow.

His centre and practice

The founding and now-Honorary President of the Eurasian (European-Asian) Colorectal Technology Association, which aims to bring Asia and Europe closer together and learn from each other in matters relating to colorectal surgery, sees the entire spectrum of colorectal-related issues in his clinic, from less-common problems like bloatedness and gassiness, to serious ones like colorectal cancer.

Prof Seow, who finds satisfaction in a more personalised and wholesome approach that being in private practice provides, said: “Before treatment is administered, I need to understand who the patients are in order to give them applicable and practical treatments. Many patients don’t need surgery — they sometimes need only change their lifestyle, diet and/or environment to eliminate the need for surgery.”

His other love

Despite his numerous achievements and honours in the world of colorectal surgery, Prof Seow, who is also Chairman of the Guide Dogs Association of the Blind, manages to find time to pursue his other love — stick insects.

Dubbed Man’s Best Friend, it isn’t hard to imagine why one would like to work with dogs — but the twig-like exoskeletons? Interesting just doesn’t begin to describe it.

Born out of pure curiosity, Prof Seow’s love affair with the living twigs began in around 1990. He had been collecting stick insects and wanted to find out more about them.

“I approached an entomologist professor at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS (now known as the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum). It was then I realised that so little was known about these stick insects at that point in time,” said Prof Seow.

“There was nothing written about stick insects in Singapore, and not many people were doing research on them because they were not harmful insects,” continued Prof Seow, who then went on to undertake this arduous task.

Since then, he has documented at least 51 types of stick insects in Singapore, and his hard work on the species has translated into three published books on stick insects in Singapore and Malaysia. A fourth one on stick insects of Borneo is in the works right now. He is also credited as an Honorary Research Affiliate at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

“It’s funny how when you don’t know about something, you want to learn about it; and the more you learn, the more interested you become in the subject. And before you know it, you have become an expert in the subject,” said Prof Seow with a laugh.

Legends and lessons

Trekking through jungles (possibly Nat Geo Wildstyle) in search of more species of stick insects to document definitely proves Prof Seow’s passion for the subject. But this fact is plainly evident in the enthusiasm he displays when talking about how interesting the insects are.

Prof Seow, who once described the heaviest insect in the world that landed in the Guinness Book of World Records, said: “Stick insects are among the longest, largest and some of the most colourful insects in the world. And there are so many species of them that are yet to be discovered.”

“The varied habits which different species of stick insects display are also quite amazing. To name a few, some of them mate for life while others can have multiple partners in a night; some species only have female stick insects, which means the babies are essentially clones of the adult that birthed them. They are also extremely specific in their diet, so they can easily die out when their food source runs out. Perhaps one of the most important points of study is how certain species can regenerate limbs while they are younger (because they moult) but are unable to when they become adults.”

The avid naturalist clarifies his extremely diverse experience: “We work because we want to contribute to society, but we should also be interested in the world itself to contribute to it and the meaning of our own lives. When one learns from the natural environment, we are actually contributing to the future generation. To me, it’s just another piece in the puzzle of nature.”