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A polymath’s perpetual adventures

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2017 - Spring


Michael Singer, Ph.D. ’00, M.D. ’02, is a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has co-founded not one but several health- and medicine-related companies. Accordingly, his claim to fame is not a single accomplishment, but rather the diversity of his skills and interests. At both Yale College and the School of Medicine, he excelled in neuroscience, medicine, and art history; developed a love for travel; and studied multiple languages. Former professors laud his intellect and accomplishments. But on top of all that, they mention something else. “He’s also such a nice guy,” said Singer’s mentor, Gordon M. Shepherd, M.D., D.Phil., professor of neuroscience, “When you combine that with his unbounded curiosity and abilities, I think it made for a wonderful basis for doing what he’s done.”

Singer grew up in DuBois, a resource-poor town in western Pennsylvania. Childhood asthma motivated him to pursue medicine, and he applied to Yale College because it was ranked first in U.S. News & World Report, a decision he describes as being “right for the wrong reasons.”

At Yale College, Singer needed a work-study job, and during his sophomore year spotted two postings related to biology on the post office bulletin board: one to wash glassware and do cell-culture work, one to work in Shepherd’s lab doing computer modeling of how odor molecules interact with neuronal receptors. He jotted down the first number and went back to his room to call, only to find the post had been filled. “So there I was: It was pouring rain outside, and I decided that I should go back to the post office.” He called Shepherd’s lab, got the job, worked there as an undergraduate, then did his Ph.D. there, writing a thesis whose title was “almost exactly the job description that I had found in the post office.”

Shepherd became more than a scientific mentor. He also “got me exposed to the rest of the world,” Singer said, facilitating trips to work with collaborators in Germany, Brazil, and Israel.

Though his studies focused on science and medicine, science was by no means all Singer did. During his senior year, he studied Mayan art with Mary Miller, M.A. ’78, Ph.D. ’81, Sterling Professor of History of Art, and senior director of the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. “The course involved Mary taking us around and looking at these pots in the museum,” Singer recalls. “What a great way to spend your time in a course at Yale.” Miller encouraged Singer to pursue art history, Shepherd remembered. “It was fun to think that I was competing with the art world for Mike’s abilities,” he said.

During Singer’s M.D./Ph.D. program—which he completed in just seven years—he continued to branch out, studying Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, archeology, and parasitology. He went to Pakistan on a Downs Fellowship, where he studied the epidemiology of childhood injuries. In preparation for that trip, he studied yet another language, Urdu.

During his medicine internship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a patient with severe asthma attacks told Singer that his inhaler, which he had been overusing, was empty. If physicians knew when a patient’s inhaler was being heavily used and when that patient was having breathing problems, Singer theorized, perhaps they could predict and avert asthma attacks. Singer’s first invention was a “smart” inhaler that uses cellular technology to tell a physician how much the inhaler is being used. During Singer’s residency in the Harvard ophthalmology program he met his wife, Baharak Asefzadeh, O.D., M.S.

He went on to launch HealthHonors Corporation, which creates behavioral economics software to encourage people to make healthful choices. He sold that company to Healthways in 2009. Later, he founded Topokine Therapeutics, which developed topical treatments to reduce fat in undereye bags. Topokine was sold to Allergan in 2016. His next endeavor is Cartesian Therapeutics, which develops cancer therapies.

His Yale education, Singer said, encouraged the interests that have led to business success (not to mention personal enjoyment). “The faculty don’t want you to focus too much on any one thing,” he said. “I think that attitude is what puts you in a position to explore new opportunities as an adult. I haven’t had a career to speak of, really; I just keep on moving from one interesting adventure to the next.”

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