In medical-science circles, Meharvan (Sonny) Singh is best known for his research on the role of hormones in the aging brain.
That is one reason the University of North Texas Health Science Center has chosen him as dean of one of its five units, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Another reason is that he was already in the job, having served as interim dean since January. He succeeded Jamboor K. Vishwanatha, who stepped down after six years as dean. Before that, from 2011 until last year, Mr. Singh was chair of the school’s department of pharmacology and neuroscience.
"I was not looking for the position," says Mr. Singh, 46, who was born in Malaysia but has lived in the United States since he was 4. "Perhaps in the back of my mind, yeah, I thought, ‘Maybe in five, seven, 10 years,’ but the opportunity presented itself far sooner than I’d imagined."
With a doctorate in neuropharmacology and neuroendocrinology from the University of Florida, he has most notably demonstrated how the hormones lowered by menopause can influence the course of Alzheimer’s disease, and that they are not well controlled with a "one treatment suits all" approach.
"We are learning about such basic questions as how hormones affect brain function so we can develop therapies and best practices to provide more recommendations and options to various cohorts of women," Mr. Singh says. "Alzheimer’s disease has been a tough nut to crack, but there has been good progress."
For example, biomarkers have been identified that permit earlier diagnosis, a key advance because often, by the time the disease is diagnosed, "probably as much as 20 to 25 years of pathology has gone on."
Of course, faculty members in the school have their own research agendas at a time when, he says, "more than ever it’s just so darned difficult to get a federally funded program of research going." He considers his key role to be acting as "an enabler"—to "leverage more benefit from whatever resources we have" in the hopes of providing researchers with the means to persist.
In doing that, he says, he will depend on two pleasures of working at the Health Science Center, a 2,100-student graduate university. The first: He has found his colleagues to be "very smart people who are not only so good at their craft but also so willing to collaborate." That gives him confidence that he will be able to count on civility even while, he says, "my colleagues don’t have to worry about offending me by offering their candid perspectives."
The second: Senior administrators are thoroughly versed in how research is done, so "for the first several minutes of a conversation, I’m not explaining what it’s like to be in the trenches."
Mr. Singh, who was also interim director of the Institute for Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Research at North Texas before taking the interim-dean post, says he will try to continue his own research. "I’m fortunate to have a couple of seasoned people in the laboratory who are quite independent, and I’ve made a conscious effort to carve out time with them," he says. "I don’t feel at this moment of time that I’m ready to relinquish that part of my passion."