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Interview with Dr. Baljit Singh

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

📷 University of Saskatchewan

Journalist: Raj Chakkal

Interviewer: Welcome to SciSection my name is Raj and I am a journalist for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3 FM radio station. We are here today with Dr. Baljit Singh, thanks for taking the time to meet with me Dr.Singh.

Dr. Singh: Raj, thank you very much for this opportunity and I'm very pleased to be speaking with you, thank you very much.

Interviewer: To begin so we know that you're the Dean at veterinary school in Calgary.

Dr. Singh: Yes I am. I was appointed as the Dean in 2016 so this is my 5th year in this role.

Interviewer: Okay and what sparked your interest in veterinary science?

Dr. Singh: I grew up in Punjab India in a village and you know in a very typical agricultural family and education is one of the ways families grow and progress. So, I was thinking about going to the medical school in Punjab in India. Typically medical school seems like the first priority for most of the kids who may be doing well in their academics. Veterinary school was my number two in the priority list. I could not make it into medical school but going to veterinary school also represented a major step up for me within my family because my mother really did not have any opportunity to go to school and my father was a high school teacher. So, going to a professional medical science program whether veterinary or a human was a major accomplishment. I was very happy to be in a veterinary program.

Interviewer: That's great, and so coming from India to Canada to continue your education. What were some of the highlights and maybe some obstacles that you faced when you first arrived?

Dr. Singh: Coming to the University of Guelph and getting admitted into a graduate program was an absolutely amazing opportunity. I was on a travel tourist visa to Canada at that point, and it was just a sheer coincidence that I ended up meeting with professor Onkar Atwal who was at Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). He offered me an admission into his research program so I stayed. I'm not sure whether you can imagine Guelph 30 years ago, it had a population less than 100,000 and the city had not crept that much towards the 401. It was called “sleepy cowtown” and because of the basic foundation of agriculture and veterinary programs at the University of Guelph, for me it was like being a kid in a candy store. It was before cell phones, the Internet, and everything. Coming to be in Canada at a University pursuing a graduate degree was the highlight for me. Through that excitement I don't recall many challenges. I became involved with the student government, I was elected as vice president of graduate student association, I served on the senate, I participated in community events such as the annual speed river cleanup which had takes place in May or June, and I became very much part of the student fabric at the University of Guelph. Those friendships and relationships that we see resulted in teaching awards. As a graduate student I'm sure there must be my name still in the central student association office as the excellence in teaching award winner in 93 I believe. I did community work and it just was fantastic. I faced some challenges like english being my third language, I had to learn to write well, speak well, and also learn about the social customs in Guelph or in Canada as those can be daunting challenges for anybody as you travel from one place to another. The friendships I made at Guelph were just amazing and I had a great time and great mentors like former president of the University of Guelph, Dr. Alastair Summerlee, became one of the closest mentors and friends who showed me the way within the academic system in Canada. I attribute a great deal of my success to him.

Interviewer: That's great and just a little follow up you said English is your third language?

Dr. Singh: Right because in India, Punjabi was my first language. Then, in India due to the system Hindi becomes your second language. So, I began to study in the English medium only after high school, so my undergraduate veterinary program of course we used English textbooks but when you are talking to your professors most of the time you will speak in Punjabi. So, after coming to Canada I got a major opportunity to brush up on that and really grow my abilities to communicate well in this language.

Interviewer: It’s amazing that you can speak three languages! Now, every student faces different challenges, they have their own obstacles and how they gain experience. You gained a lot of experience from Punjab and then coming to Canada. So what would your advice be for students that want to pursue some graduate school studies whether it be veterinary school, medical, dental or anything?

Dr. Singh: Education is one vehicle that makes us better citizens, and it allows us to better our lives. We do that through our ability to think through complex topics and give an answer. Also our ability to deal with conflicts in a peaceful and rational matter, those are the tools that education gives us. A degree is just part of the process that we get. Another major benefit of being a student is that you are forgiven for all the mistakes that you make because you are young people that are learning. I believe that I will not be forgiven for something now as a dean, but as a student in the same scenario I could be forgiven. I think taking full advantage of exploring friendships or relationships, new ideas, new sciences, going to seminars, going to concerts, being part of community groups and participating in a variety of things really exposing ourselves to as many different ways of thinking and learning as possible. It would be my advice and a suggestion for anyone to throw yourself headlong into the experience of humanity, when we are students whether undergraduate or graduate. That is the one thing which I believe in and enjoy.

Interviewer: Yeah for sure as a student and I can definitely agree that the more you go out and put yourself out, life becomes much more fun and you see if you actually enjoy going into that field or not. Now with the recent covid outbreak going on, everything's changed so much and there's so many questions that come into the media about animal meat consumption. Many people believe that covid came from an animal or anything like that and so people are beginning to contemplate whether they should stop eating meat in order to be less susceptible to diseases and outbreaks like these. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Singh: The first and foremost thought is that this debate around covid, where it comes from, what type of disease it causes, whether we should eat meat or not. This again simply is the desire of the society to ask for more science, more science based policy, more science based debate and discussion to make a consensus or a decision whether at the individual level or at the level of a group. So, when we ask a question of this nature all you’re saying is do we have the scientific evidence to make the decision one way or the other. For the second question, I’m a vegetarian and I lead a faculty in a province which has 1/3 of the beef cows in all of Canada. So I believe in individual freedom and individual choice in as to what people like to do with their decisions as long as their decision does not harm the community at a broader level. We are in this thrall of synthetic meat but if you really think about the way we produce synthetic meat there are so many questions to which we don't even have answers yet. What does it mean to grow something in a petri dish? When we consume it where does it go in the body? Does it have a negative effect on the intestine of the stomach? Can it produce cancer in the body? We don't know these things so we need to do a lot more research on synthetic meat. I think we know a lot more about animal meat, it is both good and bad and people still have a lot more science to make a decision on whether they would like to consume beef, pork, chicken, eggs or even all the milk which we derive from animals. I wrote an Op-Ed last year because I believe we are getting very polarized in these discussions. We need to be science driven when we talk about these issues so that we do not become antagonistic to each other, we do not become angry at each other. So that we can have a thoughtful scientific discussion on this topic. Again it's an individual choice and there's quite a bit of science, we need more science and that will continue to come out of the science programs at Canadian and other universities in the world.

Interviewer: Do you think this also applies to things like milk alternatives? So now we spoke about meat but like in terms of milk, you know there's cow milk but then people can be lactose intolerant and then they go for alternatives. Whether it be almond milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, or anything else. Do you think there's a fairly good amount of research there or do you think that is still underway before we can make a conclusion. As some people may believe that the protein might not be as good in those alternative milks or because some nutrients aren't naturally produced, there are just additives so what do you think about that?

Dr. Singh: My thoughts are the moment we say alternative it means that we are trying to find something to replace a product or something we use based on a variety of considerations. They could be philosophical, medical, scientific and so forth and no single food product is complete and we always need to have a balance whether we drink almond milk or soy milk or the natural milk from cows. These alternatives which are again if you take something from a natural plant base that is one thing, if you're synthesizing milk in a test tube that again is going to call for a lot more questions and regulations. Studies on animal models and their long term studies on humans are one of the challenges. Anything that we consume as human beings, it takes a long time to gather data hundreds of thousands of people will have to consume it over a number of years before we begin to see some positive or negative health effects. So, I think these questions always require a great degree of patience which we sometimes do not demonstrate. Another piece is the unintended consequences when we began to mix gas with ethanol to make it better or reduce the consumption of the gas. Large agricultural lands in Brazil and other places began to grow corn from which ethanol is produced. What did that do to the other crops that people were producing because ethanol or the corn became a cash crop. That led to the displacement of cereals or other crops with people growing for their food. So I think these are all connected systems not only within a country but globally. As now we saw the spread of covid from China to other places and how it led to the shutdown of the global economic system again we need to be thinking working as groups. You as a biomedical student sitting next to a policy, social science. graduate student, would create a better essay written at the end of the day then if you were to do purely based on your biomedical science textbook. So that piece of collaboration with a younger generation like yours is much more nimble, compared to people like me, because we grew in a free cell phone Internet error in some ways. So I have great hope from the students such as yourself and I see nothing but positive things happening in the next decades as this new generation takes over from people who are currently doing science and teaching policy.

Interviewer: For sure that's great and so lastly to end on we know that your son Pahul is into playing the tabla which is a pair of Indian hand drums. Are there any instruments or hidden talents that you may have that we may not know of?

Dr. Singh: I really don't have any special talents. I call myself an extraordinarily ordinary individual. I have been able to do things in my life because I am always in a group, I work in a collaborative way and I like to work with lots of very bright and creative people. My son is in grade 11, he's very mathematical, he loves physics and chemistry and math, and it all comes from my wife. All these things that happen in our life they happened because of family and your partners and your children. When I was thinking about taking the job in Calgary it's again because my family has to move so the biggest positive thing in the last 20 years in my life has been my wife and then my son who was born in 2004. Now as we are moving to the University of Saskatchewan because I got a job there as vice president of research, it again is with the support of my wife and my son. So, my son is very talented I think, so is my wife, and she taught him the tabla and harmonium and singing and also some basic religious and philosophical values about life, about community, hopefulness, honesty, and so all the credit goes to her because she has many special talents. I don't have much so I am just happy to be hanging around with very bright creative graduate students, undergraduate students, and my colleagues.

Interviewer: No that's great! I'm pretty sure your son still gets a lot of inspiration from you and congratulations on your new post by the way!

Dr. Singh: Thank you very much Raj.

Interviewer: And so alright guys that's it for this week of SciSection make sure to check out our podcast available on our global platforms for latest interviews and thank you for taking some time out Dr. Singh for joining us.

Dr. Singh: Raj, thank you very much! A hello to everybody at Guelph and all the Gryphons and I hope you will stay in touch. I would be very interested in seeing how your career shapes out and the contributions you make to people around you thank you very much.

Interviewer: Thank you.


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