Profile: Navin Verma: Keeping good company

By Nicole Lim, Science Writer, Communications & Outreach

Despite having had to forge his own path, Navin Verma is anything but a lone-ranging scientist.

“I always try to collaborate and learn from others,” said the LKCMedicine Assistant Professor of Immunology & Cell Biology. From India to Ireland and, in 2013, to Singapore, Asst Prof Verma gathered new friends, sought fresh mentors and took in collaborators from many places, including at the bus stop.

Waiting for the bus, Asst Prof Verma, then a PhD student in Dublin, noticed another man waiting for the same bus every day. One day, Asst Prof Verma said hello. Over the following days, he continued to make small talk each time they met at the bus stop. Eventually, the ice broke. 

“It turned out he [the stranger] was a chemist at the National University of Ireland,” recalled his wife, Dr Rakhi Verma. “They even ended up working together on a few interesting projects.” 

It is little surprise that the immunology expert is now involved in several collaborative projects ranging from the immunology of cancer to infection and wound healing. To each project, he brings his expertise in T-cell biology and inflammation, two parts of the human body’s inherent defensive toolkit that protect all its systems. 

Now, he’s about to embark on a study looking at the interplay between peripheral T cells and other systems, including the brain. 

From Delhi to Dublin 
Asst Prof Verma grew up in Bihar state in eastern India. The province lies along India’s border with Nepal and the Himalayan mountains. Just as tectonic forces continue to push the mountains into the sky, Asst Prof Verma’s career, too, is taking him to higher places, where each plateau offers new possibilities. Without a role model, Asst Prof Verma enjoys the freedom to seize opportunities that may seem out of the box to others. 

“There was no one who could tell me what was good for me,” said Asst Prof Verma, who is the second oldest of four children. His generation was the first in his family that enjoyed a university education. 

“After completing our undergraduate studies, most of my friends looked for a job. But somehow, my gut feeling said I should not look for a job, I should study more. So, I didn’t even apply for a job,” said Asst Prof Verma.

Instead, he earned himself a coveted government scholarship to study for a Master’s in Biotechnology at Assam Agricultural University. With his qualification in hand, Asst Prof Verma spent a spell at the prestigious National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research or NIPER. 

“Working in this place gave me more lab exposure and confidence,” said Asst Prof Verma, who was investigating insulin resistance in skeletal muscle at NIPER.

While he was content working as a staff scientist, Asst Prof Verma wanted to dig deeper into the mechanisms that help protect the body from inflammation, infection and diseases like cancer. 

“What helps our body protect itself? That’s what I wanted to find out,” said Asst Prof Verma. He realised that to pursue this question, he’d need to do what no one in his family had done before: embark on a PhD. 

“I didn’t even think of doing a PhD or going abroad when I was studying at college,” he recalled. He’d go on to do both, moving to Dublin to earn his PhD from Trinity College.

“That was quite a new experience,” said Asst Prof Verma, who at that time was expecting his first child with his wife. “It was the first time I took a flight. I flew from Delhi to Dublin.” 

During his time in Dublin, he quickly became an integral member of the team, recalled Professor Dermot Kelleher, who co-supervised the young PhD student.

“He was very good fun in the lab and introduced many of his colleagues to good Indian food,” said Prof Kelleher, who is former Dean of LKCMedicine and now Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia.

But Asst Prof Verma’s legacy goes beyond providing a culturally enriching experience. Prof Kelleher remembers Asst Prof Verma for his ability to think of new ways to answer questions and work across disciplines.

“He was quick to develop an understanding of new technologies and had a very open mind regarding the intersection of different technologies. This interdisciplinary approach has carried forward into his approach at NTU where he has worked effectively across disciplines,” said Prof Kelleher.

His wife agrees. She says that their stint in Dublin transformed Asst Prof Verma into the scientist he is today.  

“He learnt how to see connections between disciplines,” she said.

Asst Prof Verma with his family (from left): Utkarsh, Rachit and wife, Rakhi, at ORTO (Photo courtesy of Navin Verma)

Bridging boxes
This cross-disciplinary vision is how Asst Prof Verma has attracted more than 50 students to his lab over the last five years, says LKCMedicine research fellow Dr Fazil Turabe who has worked in Asst Prof Verma’s lab since 2014. From polytechnic to graduate and foreign exchange students, many left not just with a satisfying research experience but accolades from universities and conferences for best poster or presentation. Some of his students have since gone on to pursue further education in Singapore and abroad.

Taking pains to allow students to pursue a project they are passionate about, Asst Prof Verma looks for the common ground between his expertise and students’ interest. With his wide-reaching network of contacts and collaborators, Asst Prof Verma tries to offer diverse opportunities that are a win-win for everyone.

He takes the same approach with his team. In addition to working on assigned projects, Dr Fazil has had the freedom to develop ideas that combine Asst Prof Verma’s T-cell expertise with his own interest in skin biology, a symbiotic relationship that has benefitted both.

Asst Prof Verma's team gathers for a farewell lunch to mark the end of German exchange student Stephen Blüthgen's stay. (Photo courtesy of Navin Verma)

Having known and worked with Asst Prof Verma since he was a PhD student, Prof Kelleher says he still sees the same excellent scientist.

“He hasn’t changed a lot since his PhD days, but I would say that he has developed a great ability to mentor young people,” said Prof Kelleher.

He is naturally patient and helpful, said Dr Verma of her husband. “He also has a desire to pass on good knowledge.” These qualities combine to make him a good mentor and a hands-on father to his two boys, now nine and 13.

“He is very patient and listens to help you build on your idea, which is a form of appreciation,” said Dr Fazil, who added that this can be a great confidence boost especially in group discussions where younger students may feel hesitant to voice their opinions. 

As well as a sought-after mentor, Asst Prof Verma is among a group of scientists who are shaping LKCMedicine’s MBBS programme. He is involved in translating his expertise into relevant content for the immunology block.

“Whatever disease you study, there is an immune component. Immunology is core and each student should know it,” said Asst Prof Verma, who wants to ensure that the material offers meaningful takeaways for aspiring doctors. 

While familiar with Problem-Based Learning from his time in Dublin, he is now taken by the interactivity offered by LKCMedicine’s Team-Based Learning (TBL) approach. In fact, he has adapted this pedagogy to other courses he teaches, such as for his graduate-level bio-entrepreneurship course and other modules at the School of Chemical & Biomedical Engineering (SCBE) and School of Social Sciences – even if he has to make do with regular classrooms.

He does all this to enhance students’ learning. Using a modified TBL approach, he believes, “makes students remember better, and they understand more.”