Feature Story
A natural at sharing enthusiasm for the environment
Published on 31 Mar 2021

When Dr Sam Lau was at secondary school, he and his friends would go hiking and camping, enjoying the countryside’s scenery and peace. “That helped me connect with nature and see its mysteries and powers. Nature gave me calm, relaxation, and vitality. I wanted to learn more,” he recalled.

That early love of nature, and an inspirational teacher who stimulated his interest in science, prompted him to turn his weekend pastime into a career. Lau studied applied biology at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), where he is now a principal lecturer, discovering early the importance of sharing what he learned with the public.

His enthusiasm for outreach work had its roots in a Department of Biology student exhibition where he presented and explained science to the public. Now, as well as writing for academic journals, he contributes to newspapers, magazines, and online media on science, conservation, and sustainability.

He has brought Hong Kong’s wetlands, his area of specialist research, to a wide audience through RTHK TV nature programmes, including Hong Kong GeoExplorer and Hong Kong Geographic. “It is very enjoyable to share my field experience and the wonders of the nature with others,” he said.

Lau particularly enjoys sharing this with the young and, following the introduction of Nature and Living to Hong Kong’s kindergarten curriculum in 2017, has supervised early childhood education students’ projects at HKBU.

“Round the world, nature-based education has been gaining momentum. Amidst the ever-increasing environmental degradation, sustainability is a key concern, so nature-based education in the early years is very important for shaping later environmental attitudes, knowledge, and actions.”

Lau has visited the Hong Kong countryside with his son and daughter, who are now at high school, since they were babies. He advocates teaching even the very young about the joys, beauty, and importance of the environment. Recently, to ensure that message gets to Hong Kong’s students, especially the youngest, he and his colleagues have been awarded almost HK$1.5 million funding to develop kindergarten teaching and learning materials. This will include storybooks incorporating local animals and plants.

“It is very rare in Hong Kong to find storybooks with this local content, so I think it will be great. We can bring local biodiversity into the classroom.”

When Lau graduated from HKBU, he was keen to extend his research. Seeking an environment-related speciality, he realised that while wetlands had been widely researched overseas, there was little such research in Hong Kong.

Discovering that Professor Chu Lee Man at Chinese University of Hong Kong was interested in the field, he enrolled there for his MPhil and began researching Mai Po marshes, visiting them most days. He speaks glowingly of this time, explaining how he bought a bicycle to navigate the large area, of watching birds and wildlife, and immersing himself in nature.

It became a rich field of study on which he has published and presented extensively, for example in 1999 in the journal Water Research on pollutant mobility[3], and in 2000 in Hydrobiologia on the self-purification potential of wetlands[4].

However, after his master’s degree, he found himself at a crossroads. Accepted for PhD study at the University of Cambridge, the young man from a Hong Kong housing estate could not afford it, instead securing a job with Hong Kong’s largest environmental consultancy. But being awarded a 1997 Croucher Scholarship made Cambridge possible. There he studied British wetlands, in particular problems such as algal blooms caused by too many nutrients in the water and natural means of control and management.

In 2001, after his PhD and a postdoctoral year on a Croucher Fellowship, he began seeking consultancy roles. “I was thinking, it’s time for me to put my learning into application to solve real-world problems.”

A UK company was seeking someone to oversee the largest wetland creation project in Hong Kong (now Hong Kong Wetland Park), in Tin Shui Wai, from a construction site to a habitat suitable for wildlife. The initial plan was to compensate for wetland loss, not for a public park, he said. But the Hong Kong Tourism Board decided conservation, education, and tourism could combine in what became an enormous multidisciplinary project and is now a world-class facility.

By project completion in 2005, Lau realised there was a huge gap between academia and industry in environmental conservation and decided to bring his real-world experience to academia. Re-joining his alma mater, he developed an associate degree programme in environmental conservation, incorporating student internships and tapping his network to arrange them.

Now at the university’s Multidisciplinary Research Centre, Lau has multiple areas of research interest, including environmental sustainability, health and environment, as well as wetland conservation, management, and education. A recent focus is waste management, and whether biochar from plant waste could remove pollutants and the mechanisms[5]. Biochar is produced at very high temperatures, like charcoal, but is very porous, with tiny holes which trap contaminants.

As a lecturer, Lau carries his enthusiasm into the classroom, using the shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic to engage students from home despite the difficulties. “In recent years, I’ve been experimenting with innovative learning and teaching strategies,” he said. Sharing them is “fun and exciting”.

He has published and presented at conferences and exhibitions on this, including the challenges of engaging a techno-savvy generation with short attention spans[6], field-based inquiry learning in geography[7], and active learning strategies in science education[8].

Lau was also one of 12 scientists selected to participate in Croucher Science Week in 2018 and 2019, to inspire primary and secondary school students and make them aware they could be scientists too.

Whether alone, to enjoy peace and calm, or with a class of eager students, Lau still loves getting into the Hong Kong countryside on which he has built a successful career. “I can do what I love, and I love what I do. I am a happy guy.”

Dr Sam Lau is a principal lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), based in the Multidisciplinary Research Centre of the School of Continuing Education. He joined the university in 2005, after overseeing the creation of Hong Kong Wetland Park. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science from HKBU, MPhil from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Lau was awarded a Croucher Scholarship in 1997 and a Croucher Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2000, both undertaken at the University of Cambridge.

Extended reading:

  1. Dr Lau’s personal page in Croucher Foundation: https://scholars.croucher.org.hk/scholars/sam-lau
  2. Dr Lau’s personal page in Hong Kong Baptist University: https://www.cie.hkbu.edu.hk/main/tc/about_us/our_staff/samlau
  3. The scientific article Dr Lau published in Water Research in 1999: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0043135498002863
  4. The scientific article Dr Lau published in Hydrobiologia in 2000: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1004058523243
  5. The scientific article Dr Lau published in Bioresource Technology Reports in 2019: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2589014X19302130?via%3Dihub
  6. The abstract of presentation Dr Lau gave in Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) 2014 Conference in 2014: http://conference.herdsa.org.au/2014/p314.php
  7. The introduction of presentation Dr Lau gave in Learning & Teaching Expo 2019 in 2019: https://lte2019.sched.com/event/VYMe/
  8. The introduction of presentation Dr Lau gave in Learning & Teaching Expo 2018 in 2018: https://learningandteachingexpo2018.sched.com/event/I8RK/