Professor Balbir Singh is the founding Director of the Malaria Research Centre (MRC), at the Universitiy Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). Professor Singh’s interest in Tropical Medicine was sparked when he conducted part of his University of Liverpool BSc honours project at the LSTM in 1979. He then enrolled on the MSc course in Applied Parasitology and Medical Entomology at LSTM and was inspired by his Immunology lecturer, Dr Owen Goldring, to become a researcher.
Professor Balbir Singh
After working on immunological aspects of ankylosing spondylitis for his PhD at the University of Liverpool he returned to LSTM in 1984 as a Postdoctoral Senior Research Assistant to study sequestration in falciparum malaria under Professor Marcel Hommel at the newly-established Wolfson Unit of Tropical Immunology.
He became hooked on malaria after realising how prevalent and deadly it was following short working stints at the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, Thailand and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi. He went on to receive a Beit Medical Fellowship in 1988 to work on molecular aspects of malaria under Professor Julian Crampton at the Wolfson Unit of Molecular Genetics, LSTM. While at the LSTM he met Janet Cox, who was doing her PhD with Prof Hommel, and they were married in 1987. They went to Malaysia in 1992 to take up lectureships at Universiti Sains Malaysia and moved to UNIMAS in Malaysian Borneo in 1999 to kick start lab-based research at the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences.
Prof Singh has been using molecular tools to study malaria for almost three decades. Research at the MRC, UNIMAS focuses on the epidemiology, pathogenesis, evolution and population genetics of malaria parasites. His research team made a landmark discovery in 2004 that Plasmodium knowlesi, a monkey malaria parasite, was causing malaria in humans. They subsequently made several other key discoveries which have highlighted knowlesi malaria as a life-threatening zoonotic disease that is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia.
Professor Singh received the Merdeka Award (an award that aims to recognise and reward Malaysians and non-Malaysians who have made outstanding contribution to the people of Malaysia in their respective fields) in 2017 in the Health, Science & Technology category in recognition for his outstanding contribution to the discovery and pioneering work on a new cause of human malaria, Plasmodium knowlesi. He served as the local secretary for Malaysia for the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1994-2007), as a commissioner for The Lancet Commission on Malaria Eradication and twice as an advisor on zoonotic malaria to the World Health Organisation.
- What made you choose to come to LSTM?
I conducted part of my undergraduate research project on leishmaniasis at LSTM and was interested in obtaining a higher degree in Tropical Medicine before returning to Malaysia. I was familiar with Liverpool and was impressed with the international reputation of LSTM.
- How do you think your time here shaped your future work?
I met world renowned scientists at LSTM and worked under Prof Marcel Hommel and Prof Julian Crampton who instilled the importance of conducting quality research. I was trained in molecular techniques at LSTM and used these tools to study the epidemiology of malaria upon my return to Malaysia.
- How would you sum up your experience of LSTM?
LSTM was a vibrant melting pot where I enjoyed my interactions with academic and laboratory staff, and fellow postgraduates. I made many friends from all over the world and am still in touch with them today.
- What piece of advice would you give to current and future students studying at LSTM?
The best way to learn is by asking questions, so do not hesitate in doing so, no matter how silly you think they are! Get to know your fellow students who will be from all corners of the world and you will realise how similar we all are.
- In the last 125 years, what do you think has been LSTM’s greatest achievement?
It is the excellent training that LSTM staff have provided students, doctors, healthcare workers and scientists from all over the world. Upon leaving LSTM, these alumni have not only made significant scientific contributions to Tropical Medicine and Health but have gone on to mentor more scientists and healthcare workers.