“Call me sir one more time and I’ll throw you out of my lab! Just call me Sodhi.” With that one-liner (omitting the colourful expletives), the professor-student barrier was breached and Navjot became a friend. Why in the world did he accept a student working on snails into his bird lab? I never asked him and I’ll never know. But the door to his lab was the first door Navjot opened for me – and it proved to be the most important one to me.
Never before had I called a professor by his first and last names. I dispensed with the decorum and felt at ease in one of the coolest, brightest and vulgar labs in the history of the Department of Biological Sciences in NUS – one of his most important contributions to science together with his countless books and publications.
Over time, Navjot became a mentor and a pathfinder. He imbued a kind of publishing culture in the lab that was scary, and yet infectious. He led by example and his hunger for research rubbed off on most of his students. The first person to enter the lab and usually the first to leave – not because he was slack, but because he finished all the administrative crap he had to do and was more productive writing at home with his family. He didn’t have to tell us why we had to publish, but we knew it was for our own good.
Another way in which Navjot opened doors for us was through the innumerable distinguished scientists he invited to our lab, and some of them took back with them future PhD students from the lab. Collaborations were abuzz and many high-profile papers were borne from these multi-national partnerships – papers that would help his MSc students achieve his lab mantra – go west for your PhD and experience a different culture.
Most of his students were talented enough to shine overseas and this was his legacy. He tried to steer me in that direction. I let him down in that respect. In the end, I opted for an NGO adventure across the Straits of Johor. But he was still supportive of my decision amidst the usual Sodhi-esque jibes. But you know what? That was the greatest gift he gave some of his students – jibes that help grow the thickest skin possible and giving shit back when dished out. I wasn’t used to his cheeky remarks at first, but now, rejection and criticism rarely gets me down and I am a better-off scientist with that thick hide.
The last door Navjot opened for me was a trip to Germany to present on his behalf at a conference. It was there that I met my current PhD supervisor, Bill Laurance, whom he was great friends with. And with a glowing recommendation from Navjot, I secured a PhD scholarship with Bill and never looked back.
I never went birding with Navjot. I once told him: “I don’t trust data from birders!”, and went back to sorting my snail shells. But I’m slowly getting into birding. On the morning after he passed away, I went birding and it was apt that I saw a flock of great hornbills majestically flying free over the lake in my project site. And there were helmeted hornbills nearby laughing – their laugh will never be as infectious and unique as yours, Navjot. You were a great conservation scientist, a majestic person and now you are free. I wouldn’t be who I am today if you hadn’t opened so many doors for me. Thank you Navjot, my friend, mentor and pathfinder.
My sincerest condolences to Navjot’s family – Bubblie, Ada and Darwin.