“Young kids are not constrained by any of the baggage that we load them with later on in their life. A child is born with a clean slate and wants to write on it,” said Singh, an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University at Buffalo.
“One thing I can say without hesitation is when you give a presentation to a first grader, or second grader, the questions these students ask are more meaningful than questions we often get from our undergraduate or even graduate students. The reason is clear. These are people who are really curious. They come at it from different directions and they ask very meaningful questions.
“There are many studies that show that children at a younger age have much higher potential of becoming great scientists, but as they age and as they go through the education system, they become less and less likely to have even the potential of becoming good scientists because they're not encouraged to think.”
Whether dealing with undergraduate students, gradeschoolers or even his own children, Singh habitually puts his focus on developing good critical thinking skills. Sharp thinking, a perpetually inquiring mind and an excitement for pursuing new leads no matter where they lead is essential to developing good students in general, but particularly good scientists.
“This is a way of approaching things,” he said. “Real education is beyond knowledge. The ability to take all that you have learned from various aspects of your life—your personal life, your social life, your scientific life, your interaction with your teachers—you take all of that and weave out of it something which didn’t exist earlier. That’s what real education is.”
An accomplished researcher and teacher, Singh has mentored nearly 100 undergraduate students and more than 20 high school students in his lab since joining UB in 1989. He also partnered with Joseph Gardella of the chemistry department on a National Science Foundation-funded program enhancing science and math programs at the K-12 level.
Singh’s research on the regulation of ion channels has multidisciplinary roots, utilizing aspects of physics, chemistry, pharmacology, genetics, molecular biology and more. And it may have a wide variety of applications. Singh has long been looking at the role of ion channels in neurodegenerative diseases similar to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, but the work continues to branch out to other areas as the research dictates. Specifically, he is exploring the effects of drugs on cardiac arrhythmias and, separately, attempting to develop a treatment for a rare, fatal neurodegenerative disorder that strikes very young children. He did not set out to work on either project. The research led in that direction and Singh had both the flexibility and dexterity to follow.
“You have to look for new patterns,” Singh said. “In genetics, people say you value your exceptions. When you find something that doesn’t make sense, you should pay particular attention to it, rather than ignoring it. And needless to say, that’s true not only of genetics, but anything you do in research in any area.”
Singh’s own education was an exercise in flexibility. Born and raised in India, he completed his B.S. and M.S. in physics from Punjab University and earned a doctorate in molecular biology from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. He did his post-doc work in Germany, then briefly returned to India before coming to the U.S. in 1985. He was at the University of Iowa when he learned of exciting work being done in neuroscience at UB and decided he wanted to be a part of it.
“I think I really liked research quite a lot from the very beginning. In fact, from a very early stage, I was more interested in things where you think about things rather than memorize them.”
Singh’s interest in creating strong opportunities for burgeoning young scientists began with his own son, Amandeep. The eldest of his three children, Amandeep began coming to his father’s lab while still in elementary school. He began engaging in very simple experiments but quickly moved on to more complicated work. He went on to compete in academic contests at the state and national level and now works as a fellow at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“That’s when I thought that this was really what we should be doing. Not just with our own sons and daughters, but for everybody,” Singh said. “There’s a huge gap between our potential and what we actually achieve, particularly in science and technology related areas. And I think it’s really important that we pay attention to it.”
Singh’s mentoring goes on, both formally with undergraduates and informally with select high school students. And it follows the same template he established with his son years ago.
“They need to be taken through the mentoring process with love and understanding of their issues from their point of view,” he said. “You need a lot of patience. You have to understand the mind of each student and engage the student in those terms.”
Last updated: May 23, 2013 3:32 am EST