The School of Medicine will receive support for cardiac research, a neuroscience lectureship, and a global health fellowship; and a Yale College scholarship will honor a medical school faculty member, thanks to a large gift to Yale University by self-described “serial entrepreneur” Michael Singer, M.D. ’02, Ph.D. ’00, and his wife Baharak Asefzadeh, O.D., M.S. The gift is in thanks to Yale for the role it played in shaping Singer’s success.
Singer’s professional life is centered in Boston, where he has lived since he began a residency in ophthalmology at Harvard. He has founded a series of health-related companies there and also teaches at Harvard Medical School. Topokine, which produces a topical treatment that acts on fat cells to contour the face, was one of Singer’s privately held companies. In 2015, Singer and Asefzadeh donated to Yale Topokine shares then valued at over $1 million. This past spring, the multinational pharmaceutical company Allergan purchased Topokine, providing Yale with immediate cash and rights to future milestone payments.
Yale University is “kind of where I grew up,” says Singer, who also attended Yale as an undergraduate, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1995. “Everything positive that has happened to me since depended on my arriving at Yale back in 1991.” Singer credits Yale with fostering his creativity and encouraging him to pursue a wide array of ideas and habits of thinking that led him to become the entrepreneur he is today.
Faculty, and fellow students alike, made a big impression on Singer. “The most important part of the Yale experience is the people you meet,” he says. Accordingly, each facet of the gift will recognize individuals who made Singer’s time at Yale the formative experience it was.
As an undergraduate work-study student and then as a Ph.D. candidate, Singer studied the olfactory system in the lab of Gordon M. Shepherd, M.D., D.Phil., professor of neuroscience. Shepherd was more than a scientific mentor. “We also formed a very nice personal bond,” Shepherd recalls, noting that Singer was often a guest at his home. “My wife [Grethe Shepherd] enjoyed having him; she always enjoys having students come out, as they do from time to time.” The Shepherds were a “home-away-from-home” for him and for many Yale students, Singer says. In honor of the Shepherds, part of the gift will endow an undergraduate scholarship, the Gordon and Grethe Shepherd Scholarship Fund.
Also in honor of Singer’s mentor, the donation will endow a School of Medicine lectureship in integrative neuroscience, which Singer describes as “the hallmark of [Shepherd’s] long and distinguished career as a neuroscientist.” That field, Shepherd says, is concerned with synthesizing different kinds of data that scientists gather about the nervous system into a greater understanding of the system as a whole. The Department of Neuroscience, headed by Pietro De Camilli, M.D., the John Klingenstein Professor of Neuroscience and professor of cell biology, will administer the lectureship.
Singer’s gift also memorializes a classmate and friend, Joshua “Josh” Gibson, M.D. ’01, who died in 2005 due to an unrecognized heart condition. The Joshua C. Gibson, M.D., Memorial Fund for Heart Research will sponsor work in the laboratory of Daniel L. Jacoby, M.D. ’00, another contemporary and director of the Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiomyopathy and General Heart Failure programs. Singer and Gibson shared an interest in travel and global health, and during medical school both traveled to less-developed countries to do health research through Yale’s Downs Fellowship program. Another portion of the gift, also in Gibson’s name, will endow what Singer thinks of as a “reverse Downs fellowship” to sponsor scholars from less-developed countries to visit Yale School of Medicine.
Singer’s next venture is Cartesian Therapeutics, a company developing novel cancer therapies, and philanthropy is an ongoing priority. “I would like to begin a movement to encourage more entrepreneurs and early-stage investors to donate their privately held stock to support charity and institutes of higher learning,” he says.
“[Singer] was thrilled and excited by every opportunity that was presented to him here,” says Charles A. Greer, Ph.D., professor of neurosurgery and of neuroscience, and director of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Graduate Program. Greer, who will co-administer the Shepherd lectures, says the donations reflect Singer’s character. “You know, sometimes people can become rather indifferent about opportunities being presented,” says Greer. “As they have a series of successes, they come to think that they maybe deserve them in some way. Michael never exhibited that trait. Michael always treated any success, any gesture or effort that was extended on his part with the greatest of gratitude and continues to do so.”