Spotlight on Natural Sciences and Social Sciences Alumni: Prabhjot Singh

Prabhjot Singh
Age: 29
Education (UR and additional): B.S. in Developmental Biology and B.A. in History, University of Rochester, 2003; M.D, Weill Cornell Medical college; Ph.D., Rockefeller University; Post-doctoral Fellow, Columbia University; Internal Medicine Resident, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
Current city/state of residence: East Harlem, NYC
Job Title: Assistant Professor
Employer: Columbia University
Family: Married, baby on the way
Community activities: Manhattan Sikh Association, City Health Works! (social enterprise in East Harlem)

Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

Someone who I really admired went there for college, and I thought the campus was pretty during my visit.  Pretty simple, I suppose.

When and how did you choose your major?

I ended up getting a B.S. in Development Biology and a B.A. in History.  I declared the biology major earlier and was later drawn to history by dynamic teachers (i.e. Ted Brown, Stuart Weaver).  In retrospect, I realized I was drawn to both majors because I was studying development (biological, social/national) from different perspectives.

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I co-founded the Journal for Undergraduate Research (JUR), which was a great way to be a bit entrepreneurial within an institution.  We learned about budgeting, securing space, contracting with publishers and issues related to quality and distribution.

What did you do immediately after graduation? How did you decide to take that path?

I started an MD/PhD program at Cornell and Rockefeller (PhD in neural and genetic systems) in Manhattan. I did a few things along the way that broke up the steady march of postgraduate work (i.e. co-founded a student run clinic for the uninsured, took a leave of absence for a post-doc in economic development, worked on two start ups that both failed).

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I’m an Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, while also doing a half-time residency in internal medicine over four years.  Related to both, I’m a core member of the Earth Institute, which works on societal issues like poverty, well-being, and sustainable development.  I gravitate to social environments where people are serious about making a difference.

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

To put it in simple terms, writing and analytical skills remain important, even when I help an NGO or advise a start up.  In organic chemistry, I learned how to visualize interactions.  In a history course on India, I learned that my writing needed a lot of work.  You get a solid starter kit when you graduate from UR; then, you have to build on it.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

In two ways: recognizing that one’s life work isn’t just a career, but the contribution we make to community, and that a warm and stable personal life is a critical anchor to make that possible.  Every cultural tradition has suggestions for this, and I draw some basic tips from the Sikh tradition, which suggests that a high spirit of “Chardi Kala” is a matter of discipline and practice.  So, I try!

What advice do you have for current students?

Take every opportunity to learn skills – don’t let your college education be a content learning exercise.  Encourage your classmates who are trying to build something new or improve something that is well established.  Find the communities outside of UR who share your interests and bring them to UR.  College is a platform, and UR is amongst the best.