Recipient / Profile

Professor Dr Balbir Singh Mohan Singh

For outstanding contribution to the discovery and pioneering work on a new cause of human malaria, Plasmodium knowlesi. The discovery of this potentially fatal zoonotic disease has changed the understanding of malaria and the way infections are treated in the country and globally
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Life
 
Professor Balbir Singh was born in Segamat, Johor on 30th March 1955 and is the middle child of five children. His father Mohan Singh, who was a headmaster, and his mother, Harjit Kaur, who was a housewife, emphasized the importance of education but gave their children the freedom to choose their career paths. He excelled at his studies and at sport while at school, representing Johore State Schools at both hockey and cricket. He had ambitions of becoming a doctor at a very young age as he wanted to heal the sick and help the less fortunate.
 
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At age 18, Professor Balbir left for England for his A levels but he did not secure the required grades for foreign students to get into Medical Schools in the UK and decided to study Biochemistry at Liverpool University instead. While pursuing his BSc, his honours project was partly conducted at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) where his interactions with PhD students got him interested in research. 
 
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After obtaining a BSc (Hons) in Biochemistry, Professor Balbir decided to continue his studies at LSTM by enrolling in the MSc course in Parasitology and Medical Entomology in 1979. He was further inspired by many world-renowned scientists who conducted research and taught there. One of them was Dr Owen Goldring, an Immunologist, whose unique teaching style inspired Professor Balbir to pursue a PhD project in Immunology. He obtained a University of Liverpool postgraduate scholarship to study the role of certain bacteria in ankylosing spondylitis, at the Department of Medicine. Under the tutorship of Professor John Woodrow and Dr Jerry Milton, Professor Balbir completed his higher studies with a PhD in Immunology/Microbiology. He continued with his sporting activities in the UK where he was the captain of the Liverpool University first XI hockey team and the LSTM cricket team.
 
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 Family photo, 1970
 
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1 year old
Work

Professor Balbir’s research on malaria started at the LSTM where he worked as a Postdoctoral Senior Research Assistant under Professor Marcel Hommel in the Wolfson Immunology Unit. During his postdoctoral stint, he spent 4 weeks in Malawi, Africa, on a Wellcome Trust-funded study on malaria in children. Having previously only worked at the lab bench, he had an eye-opening experience after seeing severely ill malaria patients for the first time.

Professor Balbir was then awarded the prestigious Beit Medical Fellowship in 1988 to work on molecular and biological aspects of malaria under Professor Julian Crampton in the Wolfson Medical Genetics Unit at the LSTM. Molecular Parasitology was still in its infancy at the time. It was a steep learning curve for Professor Balbir, but he enjoyed working in a vibrant lab with four other postdocs and eight PhD students. 

While he was abroad for 18 years, Professor Balbir longed to return to Malaysia; so when Professor Dato’ Mohd. Roslani Abdul Majid, the Dean of the School of Medical Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) offered him and his wife, Janet Cox-Singh, also a malaria researcher, lectureships at USM in 1992, they accepted the opportunity. Their research at USM continued with field trips to Kuala Krai and Gua Musang in Kelantan, and with their two daughters to Tawau in Sabah where they utilized molecular tools to study the epidemiology and drug resistance in malaria. However, the decline of malaria cases in Kelantan and the opportunity to kick-start lab-based research at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) prompted Professor Balbir and his wife to move to Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). Professor Dato’ Ir Zawawi Ismail and Professor Jane Cardosa had recognized the potential of the dynamic husband-and-wife team and were instrumental in helping them move from USM to UNIMAS in 1999.

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University hockey team, 1980
 
At the time, UNIMAS had no departments, and Professor Balbir was made an Associate Professor and the Head of the Biomedical and Laboratory Sciences Core Group, which in effect comprised all the pre-Clinical Departments. The following year, he was promoted to Professor and in 2016, Professor Balbir was made the founding director of the Malaria Research Centre (MRC); one of the first two Centres of Research Excellence established by UNIMAS in recognition of the work that had been undertaken on knowlesi malaria. 

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In the lab for final year project at University of Liverpool in 1979

The Professor’s stint at UNIMAS was the most productive with his discovery that the monkey malaria parasite, Plasmodium knowlesi, was causing malaria in humans. They showed that P. knowlesi was a potentially fatal malaria that was being misdiagnosed as the benign P. malariae. This was followed by other pioneering work on the molecular epidemiology, population genetics and clinical aspects of knowlesi malaria, thereby placing the MRC on the world map for malaria research. The research was funded by competitive grants totaling MYR 6.8 million from local and international funding agencies such as the Welcome Trust. It was conducted by an enthusiastic group of lab-based scientists, field workers and clinicians in collaboration with colleagues from UK, Australia and USA. It lead to publications in leading journals including The Lancet, Clinical Infectious Diseases, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and PLoS Pathogens
 
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Professor Balbir’s work has been cited 3,347 times and he has an h-index of 28. The knowlesi malaria research at UNIMAS received extensive international press attention from BBC, Bloomberg and Reuters. It was even featured in a television documentary entitled “Monkey Malaria” and aired by Australian Broadcasting Corp in 2009 as well as on Al-Jazeera television in conjunction with World Malaria Day in 2014. 
 
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Due to his research, Professor Balbir has been invited to give keynote addresses and talks at numerous conferences in Europe, USA, and Australasia, has been an advisor on two occasions to the World Health Organization (WHO), was one of the recipients of the Top Research Scientists Malaysia Award from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in 2012, and was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia in 2015.
 
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Betong Mozzies

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Golfing buddies at Kuching
 
Personal Philosophy: “Nothing will ever be achieved if you wait to overcome every obstacle before you start. At times it is best to bite the bullet and start”.

Message to Young Malaysians: “Be focused, set high standards and go for quality rather than quantity. Have a good work ethic and don't be discouraged by setbacks.”
 

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