A Day of Marine Biology and Motherhood with Dr Neo Mei Lin

On top of being a mother of two girls, marine biologist, Dr Neo Mei Lin, can also count the title of mother of giant clams under her belt.

When she first started studying the giant clam in 2006, Mei Lin had few peers. In 2011, she spearheaded the first restocking and conservation programme for giant clams in Singapore, and has since led another in 2018. Mei Lin is also an active advocate for marine and coastal conservation in Singapore, making scientific knowledge accessible through avenues such as her website and community platform, Celebrating Singapore Shores.

Currently on maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Mei Lin takes us through a day of work and childcare in February 2022. She muses on her identity as a mother and scientist, gearing up to return to intensive fieldwork, and nourishing her spirit through her love for both science and family.

Hi Mei Lin, how are you doing today?

"As a working mum of two, each day tends to feel routine. After a while, it’s almost like my mind runs on autopilot. I remember always feeling anxious with my first child, wondering if she was drinking enough, sleeping enough, hitting her milestones, and so on. I was always frenzied and feeling inadequate as a new mother. I struggled with reconciling my identities as a mother and scientist. Mum guilt was at its peak. Although I still have that guilt today, it has lessened because I am more willing to accept help.”

First Thing

Mei Lin's day typically starts with baby Maya as her morning alarm.

"My 4-month-old baby, Maya, signals the start of my day, and we interact for 15 minutes before I bring her to her day cot. Around the same time, my 3-year-old, Ada, awakes and heads into the living room to drink milk and watch cartoons. Once they settle down, I wash up and change before I prepare for Maya’s bath, milk feed and nap. My helper then takes over while I get Ada ready for school.

Work Day

Mei Lin is also known as 'Giant Clam Girl' for her deep interest in the subject, and her contributions to research and conservation of these humble but important creatures.

Part of Mei Lin's desk work involves comparing specimens against her existing research or notes. Fun fact: Clams grow outwards, and you tell their age by counting the number of rings or ridges on their shell — just like tree rings!

A collection of commissioned artwork depicting marine life adorns the walls of Mei Lin's home office.

“After dropping Ada off at childcare, I feel a sense of relief as my schedule becomes more flexible. On days that I work, I start to mentally plan the day’s tasks. I either work from home or head into office to check on my research projects.

It is mentally and physically exhausting to always be on top of things, especially as a project leader. Even though I’m on maternity leave, I still think about work all the time! I worry about meeting timelines and deliverables, as well as project finances. I also feel a lot of guilt for not being as hands-on in my projects, since my role as a leader has become more supervisory.

When I have moments of anxiety and self-doubt, I seek a listening ear from my close friends, colleagues, and husband. They understand my daily grind as a mother and scientist, and their opinions matter a lot to me. I also write about science for my website, and designate time for activities like massages, shopping, and walks to clear my headspace and reorientate my feelings.”

Midday Break

“Throughout the day, I take short breaks to interact and care for Maya, attempt an exercise routine, or head out to run errands or grab a snack. One of my short-term goals is to build up my fitness again. As a marine biologist, I used to spend a lot of time outdoors doing fieldwork and scuba diving, which require the stamina to engage in consecutive days of work at odd hours. After two births, I have not been able to focus on my physical well-being and I hope to change that this year.”

Back to Work

A look into one way Mei Lin and her team collect samples along the beach. Image c/o Mei Lin.

A young clam spotted on the beach — this one still has some way to go before reaching its maximum length of 40cm. Image c/o Mei Lin.

The first fieldwork survey since Maya's birth, in the rain no less! Image c/o Mei Lin.

“I remember a typical day of fieldwork last year while being 5 months pregnant. I woke up at 5am to chase the low tides off Changi Beach. In the field, we usually spend about 3-4 hours conducting surveys and collecting samples. After the surveys, I rushed home to send Ada to childcare, resting for 2-3 hours before resuming desk work after fieldwork.

Now, I mostly work from home, and the line between work and home is greatly blurred. Conservation work also extends past working hours — I put in a lot of time to prepare outreach and educational activities that are not within my job scope.

When my children are home, childcare comes first and that leaves me with very little time to work. These days, with a live-in helper, I can run errands or head into work for half a day. Being able to do some of the work I used to do during ‘normal’ days helps bring about a sense of normalcy amid COVID.”

Winding Down

After work, Mei Lin looks out for a message from her husband letting her know that he and Ada are arriving back from her school.

“Around 6pm, I head downstairs to greet my husband and toddler, and we walk home together. My evening starts making sure Ada eats properly, or soothing Maya before her milk feed and nap. I find time in between to have dinner with my husband, and read books or news on my phone.

To wind down, I shower before putting Ada to bed. We watch YouTube videos, read storybooks, and have small chats. My ‘duties’ as a mum take a pause around 11pm, where I spend an hour or so planning work for the next day, or watching a drama episode with my husband.

Generally, I’m disciplined about checking my daily plans off one by one. This isn’t always easy to maintain, especially with children in the mix, but in a good way! As much as they disrupt my sense of tranquillity, they bring a new form of joy and bliss, taking me out of work and into their world of curiosity.

What drives me daily is the wholesome feeling I get as a family unit. I have love from my children and husband, as well as from my job that I feel passionately about, giving me a sense of purpose as both a mother and career woman.”

Mei Lin wears the French Linen Easy Tank Top and French Linen Off-Duty Shorts in Seafoam Green, and the Bamboo Sateen Hang Loose Button Top in Seaglass Blue.

Thank you, Mei Lin, for sharing your day with us! ‘How are you doing today’ is a series that follows a day in the life of someone we admire, exploring the nuances of mental health and emotional wellbeing — including how we work, how we play, and our relationships with the people around us. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Running errands, heading to the mall, or walking around the estate with Maya and Ada help Mei Lin break up her day while working from home.

Mei Lin and Maya reading in big sister Ada's bed.

Featured on Mei Lin

Bamboo Sateen Hang Loose Button Top

French Linen Easy Tank Top

French Linen Off-Duty Shorts