Upinder Singh, MD, FIDSA, lived on three different continents by the age of 13, soaking in the varying social fabrics and priorities of each culture. As she got older, she realized her unique background could bring a new perspective to global health, and the broad impact she felt she could make by pairing that experience with the field of infectious diseases excited her.
Dr. Singh’s passions led her to her current career as the chief of Stanford University’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine. Passionate about mentoring, she also serves as Associate Chair for Faculty Development in the Department of Medicine.
In recognition of her accomplishments in ID and her dedication to making a global impact, the IDSA Foundation is proud to honor Dr. Singh as a 2021 Women of ID honoree. We sat down with Dr. Singh to learn more about her journey in infectious diseases, the mentors and women who inspired her along the way and what she hopes to see for the future of the field.
What made you decide to pursue a career in infectious diseases?
I think we are almost always a product of part nature and part nurture. When it comes to nature, I was born in India and grew up around the world, so I knew I wanted to work on something that had a global impact. I also knew early on – even in medical school – that investigation and research were going to be an important part of what I wanted to do. I enjoy it and find it to be just as fulfilling as clinical care. The field of infectious diseases is intellectually interesting, has a global impact, and I knew I could combine it well with a research career because I had also seen others do it.
Regarding nurture, where I trained at the University of Virginia, there was a strong team of infectious diseases physicians and physician-scientists. They were role models on the clinical wards, they seemed to know the answers to everything, and they were fantastic with patients. The division was really successful and was working on some interesting things. I trained when HIV was prevalent, and the scientific community had just come up with the breakthrough drug AZT (Zidovudine). One thing that excites me about infectious diseases is that you don’t know what’s around the corner. Even though I never did HIV research, seeing that there were new frontiers opening, and that there was so much we didn’t know, was exciting. And now of course, we are living through a global pandemic, the magnitude of which, few could have predicted a few years ago.
The combination of these factors led me to pursue a career in ID. The field’s variety of opportunity matched a nice mix of my interests.
Did you have any mentors who helped you achieve your goals?
When I was at the University of Virginia, I met Gerry Mandell, MD, who was a founding editor of the main textbook at the time, “Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases.” Brian Wispelwey, MD, MS; Michael Scheld, MD, FIDSA; Gerald Donowitz, MD; and William Petri, MD, PhD, were also there. They were all senior clinicians and clinician-investigators, and they had such a breadth of knowledge. There were also great researchers and colleagues who were patient with me as I learned the basics of molecular biology; these included Barbara Mann, PhD; Girija Ramakrishnan, PhD, MSc; and Carol Gilchrist, PhD. Once I moved to Stanford for a second postdoctoral position, I had a fabulous mentor John Boothroyd, PhD, from whom I learned both science and the importance of collegiality and community.
There are also many women in ID who have inspired me. I’ve had fantastic mentors located across the country. Lucy Tompkins, MD, PhD, FIDSA, has been recognized as a Woman of ID, and she has been a fantastic colleague, mentor and friend over the last 23 years. Julie Parsonnet, MD, FIDSA, is here at Stanford, as well as Michele Barry, MD, FACP, and Yvonne Maldonado, MD. The most recent Women of ID honoree, Liise-Anne Pirofski, MD, FACP, FIDSA, has also been a fantastic colleague and mentor. There are a lot of people I look up to who are role models as women in ID and who are doing the things I’d like to do, including mentoring, investigation, clinical care and developing policy. It takes a village, and you never stop needing that mentorship.
Leadership in infectious diseases is also changing to be more inclusive. There are women like Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, FIDSA, who are now leaders in the field. There are women leaders in IDSA, too, like Cindy Sears, MD, FIDSA. The talent was always there, and it’s nice to see it bubble to the top.
Why is it important to invest in the next generation of ID professionals?
The last 18 months have taught us why we need to invest in the ID workforce. We saw a new virus emerge, and it put the world on hold. Not only have we gotten through the first 18 months, but we’ve also made some immense scientific miracles, including progress on the COVID-19 vaccine and some therapeutics. But now we have to deal with “long COVID” and variants.
It’s clear that we need clinicians who can handle new things they’ve never seen before. We need physician-scientists who can understand the science and ongoing challenges that arise and pull from their experience in virology and immunology to answer some of these questions. We also need people who are experienced in epidemiology and public health.
Why is it important to have a diverse ID workforce?
A diverse workforce is more fun, more interesting, more intellectually stimulating and makes you think outside the box. There’s a lot of data that says if you have a diverse workforce, you’re going to think more creatively. I think the other thing about diversity that we’ve learned in our field is that diseases like COVID-19 and HIV impact different people in different ways. You need to have those experiences to be able to understand where somebody is coming from and to answer their questions. Patients generally respond more openly if the person who is talking to them can speak authentically about his or her own life, concerns and experiences.
What advice would you give young women or people from underrepresented populations who are considering a career in ID?
Do what you’re passionate about. In areas like policy and public health, you can improve, advocate for and change the lives of so many people. It’s wonderful to take care of one patient at a time, but there’s a broader swath of impact we can have that I think is important. From a global health perspective to incredible health care disparities, I think anyone who’s interested in making an impact can do just that in the field of ID in so many ways. People from all backgrounds can get incredible joy and pleasure from taking care of people who look like you, and those patients are going to respond to you differently and more authentically. You can have a tremendous impact.
What would you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of your career?
I love science, and I enjoy patient care, but mentoring has been the thing that is closest to my heart. Mentorship has been especially important in the last 18 months. The ability to live through a pandemic and learn from it, grow from it, think creatively and ask how you can contribute has been fulfilling. I wouldn’t wish for this to happen again, but the pandemic has brought a new aspect to my career because it pulled together science, implementation, creative thinking, mentoring, clinical care and teaching. That has been rewarding.
What do you hope to see for the future of the field of ID?
In the next 20 years, I’d like to see infectious diseases recognized as a sought-after career. I’d also like it to be recognized by peers, colleagues and society as a whole. Right now, I don’t think the value of the field is fully understood. I think it’s important for people to understand that ID, epidemiology and public health are linked, that we are all in it together, and that our public health policies are crucial to making a world that is safer for all of us.
About Dr. Singh
Upinder Singh, MD, FIDSA, is chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine at Stanford University, where she also serves as a professor of medicine and microbiology and immunology. A physician-scientist, she studies the molecular basis of the pathogenesis of the parasite Entamoeba histolytica, which is known to cause invasive colon and hepatic disease. She was the 2020 Featured Lecturer for the IDSA’s Joseph E. Smadel Lectureship.
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