Feature Article: The right path - Dr. Bhagirath Singh

By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

The small, circular carving of an Inukshuk, signifying the right path, sits amongst the neatly piled scientific journals on the long meeting room table. The walls are lined with diplomas, certificates of appreciation, awards, honours, and images of several pioneers of medical research. It’s a fitting environment for one of Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s newest Professor Emeriti – Dr. Bhagirath Singh.

On June 2, Singh will be honoured by family, friends and colleagues at a Departmental Symposium and Gala Dinner. It will be a celebration of his 24-year career at Western University and an opportunity to recognize a scientific leader of international renown.

It was 1992 when Singh arrived on the scene at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry as Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Science was flourishing in Canada, and he was enthusiastic about the possibilities he saw to grow the Department, set up his own research and create a new path for a nationally recognized scientific program.

“When I came to London there was a need to build the program,” Singh said. “We started recruiting and began to develop a bit of a niche for our department.” For Singh, getting started was the easy part; he was new to the environment and had the advantage of seeing things in a different light.  

“You can build programs fairly easily, but it takes a lot of time, sacrifice and effort to sustain what you have built,” he said. He also had to manage the challenge of changing the status quo, while mentoring new faculty and building a rapport with his senior colleagues. “I think I got lucky,” he said with a chuckle. “We recruited some of the best people, and having them around helped to keep everyone motivated and engaged.”

Singh also set up his lab in conjunction with Robarts Research Institute focusing on type 1 diabetes research and how the immune system is regulated by antigens and how diabetes is driven by the immune system. He also was actively involved in the recruitment of many Robarts’ scientists including its former Scientific Director, Dr. Mark Poznansky.

As the new century dawned, Singh took on another challenge, becoming the inaugural Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Infection and Immunity. In this role, he was charged with nurturing science across Canada. “Playing a role in developing the vision of health research through the CIHR was one of the most exciting things I have done,” he said. “It brought my experience into the bigger and broader Canadian milieu, and provided me with access to international opportunities.”

Singh’s nine-year term as Scientific Director was challenging, as it was the time the world became familiar with SARS, West Nile virus, mad cow disease and H1N1. And because of Singh’s role, the national planning for SARS research took place at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “The work we did gave me access to the whole Canadian scene, and I had the chance to see where our strengths and weaknesses were, and how we could build a national program.”

Reflecting on his career, Singh is proud of his achievements. He is quick to acknowledge his many mentors, and the dozens of trainees who he feels have taught him as much as he has taught them. He’s also grateful to the technical and administrative teams who he believes really run the show. “I appreciate all that I have gotten from all of them – their support, understanding and assistance to get through the difficult times; they have all contributed to who I am.”

Now Singh is looking at a new path to follow – one that will break from the past and move to the future, as he continues to forge new links and builds on his many years of learning.

“Health care is constantly evolving and the translational gap between science and healthcare can be bridged,” he said, “and we need to develop the right path and policies at the public health level - maybe this is something that I can help do.”