PROFESSOR AND CHAIR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF PHARMACOLOGY
& NEUROSCIENCE, UNT HEALTH SCIENCE CENTER, TEXAS,
AND THE INTERIM DIRECTOR FOR THE INSTITUTE FOR AGING &
ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE RESEARCH.
Professor Meharvan Singh – fondly known as “Sonny” – is a Texas-based neuroscientist with family roots in Kuala Lumpur. He studies how hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) affect brain functions, and how these hormones, or the lack of them, influence brain aging as well as the vulnerability of the brain to neurodegenerative conditions (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease) and certain brain cancers (e.g. glioblastoma). After being invited to serve the SciMy Advisory Board, Sonny recently shared his thoughts on science (and life!) in our inaugural live web interview session on March 2, 2013. Interview by Dr. Valerie Soo.
Q1. How did you become a neuroscientist?
I have lots of people who inspired me, and lots of circumstances that have contributed to my professional direction. I had the benefit of having parents who valued education – my father was an academician at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) for many years, although in a very different field. Throughout my primary and secondary education, I was always drawn to biological sciences, more so than other subjects. When I was in college (University of Florida), I found myself taking more courses, and that reaffirmed my interest in the sciences.Probably what really sort of pushed me into the direction of neuroscience was when I learned about a particular program called Pharmacodynamics (that combined both pharmacology and neuroscience) at the University of Florida. The faculty were doing work related to brain aging and potentially neurodegenerative disease, and I got hooked. While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to explore the neurosciences more, and to this day, remains my principle area of study. In particular, I developed what is now a long-standing interest in understanding how the brain ages and the factors that render individuals at greater risk for neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. The field fascinates me, and it continues to fascinate me.
Q2. What are the challenges you’ve faced as a Malaysian scientist working abroad?
I can honestly say that I’ve been fortunate to not really experience very much of that at all. However, there are some practical things that I think as a person from Malaysia may experience – some of it is very personal, because you find yourself separated from your family and their support. You’re literally halfway around the world from your family and sometimes that can be a source of stress, I suppose. The other practical element is related to visas, and what you are and aren’t eligible to apply for as an international student or an international fellow – those things are the challenges but they are not unique to being a Malaysian, necessarily. And I must admit, when I was going through college and graduate school, this was all well before the so-called 9/11, and the issues weren’t nearly as complex as they are today. I have been fortunate, I guess, I’ve benefited from what I think the US is very good at, i.e., rewarding hard work and the merit-based system.
Q3. Since you have been in the US for almost 33 years, what are the aspects that you think the Malaysian scientific arena could learn from those in the US?
As a community, and maybe as a nation, what we can learn from the US is the need for a critical level of investment into the sciences. The US, I believe, is still number one in the total dollars invested in research. It’s quite significant – the budget is over 450 billion dollars in total and that represents close to 3% of the country’s GDP. Countries like Malaysia are in upswing because they are recognising the importance of being a player in the global scientific community, and it’s ramping up. I can sit here and very nonchalantly tell you that we need to increase investment, but I know it’s a very complex issue. People in power have to juggle lots of different priorities, but I think investment into the sciences is something that we can certainly learn from what the US has done, and how that has translated into good discoveries and support for the scientific community.
Q4. Scientific Malaysian has been working extensively on Project Collab, a platform to foster research collaborations between scientists in Malaysia and abroad. What do you think about this project?
In a couple of times that I had the chance to talk to Malaysians about science in Malaysia, I applaud the increased spirit and drive to promote collaboration. The world has gotten smaller and virtual tools like Google Hangout allow scientists to meet up and collaborate easily – they simply don’t have to be face-toface with one another. Before the invention of virtual tools, unless you were face-to-face, it was really difficult to communicate ideas. Malaysian science can capitalise on these virtual meetings to foster collaborations. I think collaborations will be a tremendous asset in one’s research.I think Project Collab is an excellent initiative, particularly since technology has helped us be in contact a lot easier than it used to. You start out exploring areas of mutual interests through Project Collab. People go, “Hey, you know, these folks have the expertise, and maybe I can tap into their knowledge, resources and so on”. I would, however, say that the momentum must continue. One of the ways I think you can continue (with Project Collab) and yield a lot of positive effects from it is to have more sponsored international meetings that give both scientists abroad and Malaysia the opportunity to come face-to-face, and initiate an international project. After all, a lot of the health issues that scientists abroad are trying to tackle in biomedical science are the same issues that we have to deal with in Malaysia.
Q5. What career path would you choose if you weren’t a scientist?
If I had the opportunity to do this over, I would certainly consider clinical medicine, and being a physician – which quite frankly, I did, many years ago but eventually I found myself gravitating more towards biomedical research. I also see myself being a teacher – whether it’s at the high-school level or college level, I enjoy teaching and I continue to enjoy teaching.I see teaching particularly rewarding when you see the proverbial light bulb going off in the student after you’ve helped them understand a concept, philosophy etc. Or you know, I would also consider being a professional golfer, maybe that would be nice!
Q6. How do you manage your work-life balance?
It is tough, and I think we have to be always conscious of the need to establish a good worklife balance. One of the things I tell my graduate students is to actually consider the work-life balance as they consider their career trajectory. I am a believer in the phrase, “I want science to be a very important part of my life, but I don’t want it to BE my life”. So, make a conscious effort to maintain a good work-life balance.
For example, at the dinner table, maybe it’s not really a good idea to check your email. We have to create some boundaries between work and home, and purposely carve out time doing things that we love – whether it’s a hobby or spending time with family – any of these things can be meaningful to achieve a work-life balance.
Q7. What are your advices to aspiring scientists?
Go into the field with the highest level of commitment and seriousness. I would also encourage them to self-motivate and recognise how one’s contributions fit into the broader picture, for example, how the research one conducts in the lab may enhance the health of the global community. Whether you’re on the front line (as a physician, a nurse, etc.), or behind the scenes (doing some very innovative research), always be passionate about what you do. It’s important for us scientists to be able to communicate to the community who don’t understand research why what we do is important. And we shouldn’t forget that it is truly our privilege, not our
prerogative to do research in a particular area. In these days, this privilege is endowed by people’s perception of a need to do research in that area. So, be engaged with the people we intend to help or serve, always be professional and be a hard worker.
For more information about Prof. Meharvan Singh, please visit the following links:
VIDEO OF INTERVIEW
The interview video can be viewed at: http://youtu.be/Y9lsDpgsdKI