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Science stands on the shoulders of giants (and family, friends, colleagues)

This is a story about my journey into science, but also an ode to all the people along the way who helped me, especially my parents. I was born and raised in the US, in a suburb of California. Some of my earliest memories were being in the yard flipping over rocks to see what was underneath. I was fascinated by everything I found, especially by what I now know is the California slender salamander (Batrachoseps attenuatus). In primary school we were asked to draw what we wanted to be in the future. I combined my two dreams—a person who was half baseball player, half scientist. Even more funny was the explanation I gave my parents of why I wanted to be a scientist. “I want to be a scientist because I like doing experiments and hate writing”. I am proud that I achieved my goal, but embarrassed how wrong I was about what a scientist does because one of the most important skills of a scientist is writing well.

University is when everything began to fall into place. My hard work in high school paid off and I was accepted to the University of California Berkeley. Not only is Berkeley famous for its quality education, but only 15 minutes away from home. Most of my Asian-American classmates were given stress by their parents to pursue prestigious, well-paying careers, such medicine, law, and business. Although my immigrant parents had to stop studying in primary school, they never pushed me. I was lucky to have parents that told me to pursue whatever subject I was interested in.

From left to right: Author's parents . Fifth grade drawing of future job. The author holding a Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus).

I sat down with the book of courses my university offered and circled all the classes I wanted to take and all were about biology and animals. The most influential course was “Natural History of the Vertebrates”. We learned about different animal groups, practiced identifying species using specimens, and went on weekly fieldtrips nearby campus (regardless of weather). While I was taking the class, I approached my TA, Jim Parham (then a Ph.D. student) and told him I wanted to study turtles. Why turtles? Because since I was young, I was always intrigued by these strange creatures that carried their protection on their back (shell). After our conversation, Jim gave me a project to work on. My job was sorting out the geographic distribution of the Chinese box turtle (Cuora flavomarginata). This meant I needed to review the existing literature, organize data from museum specimens, and write a scientific paper explaining it all. When I finished, Jim told me that this was a test to see if research was a suitable career for me, and I passed with flying colors. This work became my first scientific publication!

From left to right: The author (middle) with Jeff Boore (left, Ph.D advisor) and Jim Parham (right) at the Great Wall. Turtles in Chinese market. The author checking turtle specimens

I graduated university and studied to get my Master’s (Loma Linda University) and Ph.D (UC Berkeley), focusing on Asian turtle research. I chose Asian turtles as my research focus because there was a need for this work, and it combined my personal interests in turtles and my Asian heritage. It was a bumpy journey, such as having all my lab experiments failing for days and weeks, but I got through with the support of my family, friends, and classmates. The difficult times, instead of discouraging me, verified this is what I wanted to do. Despite daily setbacks, I woke up the next day curious and motivated to find the answer. I learned that in this job, one needs to be unafraid to make mistakes and not let setbacks discourage you. As researchers answering new questions, we are bound to encounter difficulties. If not, the questions would already be answered!

Museum of Vertebrate Zoology group photo for the 100th anniversary, 2008

When I accepted the professor position at Lingnan University, I knew there was no science major, but I saw this as a challenge. Most of my friends are not scientists, so I understood the fear and hate of complex vocabulary, graphs, and numbers. My goal was to give students my childhood experience of exploring and asking “why?”. Copying my favorite university class, I along with Dr. Xoni Ma (founder and education director of the Outdoor Wildlife Learning Hong Kong [OWLHK]), developed “The Natural History of Hong Kong” class at Lingnan. We wanted students to know that Hong Kong isn’t just skyscrapers and shopping malls, and selfishly I wanted to learn about the plants and animals of Hong Kong. Logistically it’s not easy bringing 20–30 students on a fieldtrip using public transportation, but worth it to see the growth in students, from running away from a butterfly to proudly digging up and holding a fiddler crab. I still can’t believe that as a professor I get paid to be outdoors, hike, and catch animals!

From left to right: The author doing fieldwork in Hong Kong. Field trip for the Natural History class (CLD9018 group photo). Fieldwork in China.

Since arriving in Hong Kong, I have felt a shift in public thinking towards sustainability and conservation. I am impressed by seeing these changes driven by the younger generations, working in or starting their own NGOs and environmentally focused groups. Some examples including members of Lingnan’s Science Unit are OWLHK focusing on environmental education, and Wildlife Avengers providing online content about local wildlife. This is one of the reasons my collaborators and I wanted to start the Lingnan Natural History Collection. Personally, the collection is one of the ways I try to pay homage to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, the place that took the time to train this young, naïve student into a scientist. For Hong Kong, the specimens in the collection keep a record of its natural environment, as well as provide a valuable resource for researchers, teachers, and students. I will incorporate the specimens into my lessons, and expect this resource can be used by local primary and secondary schools. It is inspiring to see the Hong Kong general public more concerned about the natural environment, and I hope that my research on local wildlife and the natural history collection can add momentum towards the cause.

From left to right: The author doing fieldwork in Korea. Author's family photo. The author bicycling from SF to LA!

To learn more about Dr. Jonathan FONG's research visit:

Personal Website:

Lingnan University Impact with Care Video Series - Prof Jonathan Fong

About the author: Jonathan Fong is an assistant professor of the Science Unit at Lingnan University. He is interested in evolutionary biology, conservation, and herpetology (study of amphibians and reptiles). In his free time, he likes to play sports, cook, and travel. Some of my accomplishments have been to complete a marathon and an ultra-trail run (66km), and ride a bicycle from SF to LA, but I am most proud of becoming a dad!

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Jann Vendetti
Jann Vendetti
15 giu 2022

Congrats, Jon!

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