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Graduate program turns dreams into reality

Barne Willie is a Graduate Scientific Officer at the Institute’s HIV/STI Laboratory in Goroka. This Laboratory conducts cross-cutting research into HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. Barne completed his Masters in Biology in May, this year, from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) in Ohio, US and has returned to IMR to work.
His study was supported by the Forgarty International Grant, through the Centre for Global Infectious Disease Research Training Program at CWRU, Cleveland, Ohio, USA in collaboration with PNGIMR.
In this article, Barne shares his experiences about his two-year training.


Barne Willie

Training

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Dickson Kuvi
Training Coordinator

The trip of a lifetime

It was late August of 2011, when I left PNG to live and study in the US for two years. Being a first-timer to the States, I didn’t really know what to expect, except from the stories that I was told.
It was a really long flight out of Port Moresby. From Port Moresby, I transited day in Brisbane and then took an early flight the next day to Auckland, NZ, then to Las Angeles and finally to Cleveland, Ohio. It took me almost three days to finally reach my destination – Case Western Reserve University.
As I stepped out of the terminal at Cleveland, it was a whole new world to me. There were many people, cars and tall buildings. It was all pavements and the whole place was generally clean. Although I arrived late in the afternoon, I felt like I was in a mad rush hour. There were many people and cars just rushing here and there and there was no free space, like in PNG, where you can move around freely.
It was quiet hard settling down, as in the first month I tried to adapt to life in the States while also looking for an apartment. I was taken care of by the Jaspers Family for the first month. I finally found an apartment near the University. Finding that apartment meant so much to me as I felt settled down. The area does not have many buildings and there was a lot of free space. Thereafter, I got used to ‘the rush hour” lifestyle of work and the crowded tall buildings.


The challenges as a student

By the end of September, I was enrolled and settled into the Masters in Biology Program at the University. It was an intense two-year program and was both challenging and interesting.
It was challenging because of the workload, especially when preparing for presentations and exams. Personally, it was the oral presentations and journal club discussions when I am to lead that I found most challenging.
I had to prepare myself thoroughly before those presentations – knowing that the audience are mostly experts in their own fields. These are students who have double degrees, PhD, Medical Doctorate Degrees and Masters and that meant that there will be a lot of questions. It puts so much stress on me to make sure I am satisfied with my preparation before the presentation and discussion. Just to make sure that am quite prepared and I do not embarrass myself.
There was also so much to learn in terms of article readings, normally ranging from three to four articles per class.
I was never used to such a very hectic study life. There were many highs and lows during my two-year study. But whenever there’s a low, I also refer back to these two sayings by Dr William Pomat and George Koki, both of whom are staff of IMR and great mentors and friends.
Before I left for the States, Dr Pomat told me that ‘You either swim or drown – there are always challenges but keep working hard’. George said ‘you can get all the encouragements and advices in the world but it’s only you that will make it happen. People will be there for you to give you support but you have to put the effort to achieve the goals.”
Those statements always motivated me to bounce back from my lows and continue to work towards completing my Masters program.


Barne (centre) and his two supervisors - Prof. Daniel Tisch (left) and Prof. Peter Zimmerman (right) during his graduation.

Studying protein receptors in human cells

My two-year program involve, lectures, tutorials, more reading and writing, presentations, exams and also the lengthy hours of laboratory work collecting and analysing samples for my Master’s Research Project.
The title of my Research project was ‘The Association of Toll-like Receptor Polymorphisms with Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in North Americans’.
Or simply, it was a study to identify mutations in protein receptors that are found on human cells of the North American study population.
These protein receptors recognise and remove micro-organisms that cause diseases’ in humans. So when there is a mutation in the protein receptor, it causes the receptor to change its shape. When this happens, it will no longer recognise these diseases causing micro-organisms – for this case the HIV virus. So those individuals with these mutations can become either susceptible or resistant to infections.
I chose that as my Master’s project because it was in line with my research interest and also because that project had just actually began when I joined Dr Peter Zimmerman’s laboratory. So I was so fortunate to work on the project right from the start – it was a bonus for me.
The samples were collected and provided through the Centre for AIDS Research at the University Hospital, CWRU and Red Cross, Maryland.
This project was of great significance not only to my Masters but also to me as a Scientific Researcher in HIV.
This is the second study to be done in the US and was the first to actually identify that mutations in Toll-like receptor 1 and 6 were associated with HIV Infection. We were also able to evidently show that the association was race specific.

 

Project’s relevance to PNG

This study is of great importance as now that we know the above information, we can do genetic profiling of individuals in certain areas, regions, or ethnicity to understand to some extent whether they are predisposed or protective to certain infections.
This can help direct treatment interventions and care for those individuals and population.
Apart from humans, we can use the methods in this study to do genetic profiling of pathogens, to identify the circulating strains and this can also help direct treatments.
This study is applicable to Papua New Guinea and it is my goal, now that I’m equipped with much needed knowledge and skills, I would like to conduct such studies at the HIV/STI lab too.
In particular, my medium-term aim is to introduce genetic analysis and genetic profiling assays to do human and pathogen genetic profiling and pathogen detection.
In the long run, this could lead to setting up and establishing in-house research, surveillance and point-of-care (POC) genetic analysis tools in parallel with other POC kits which can be affordable and robust.

The fun part of studying in US

Now looking back on those two-years, I am grateful for the experience and those challenges. They not only helped me excel in my profession but also gave me an opportunity to attain new ideas, skills and information.
We have many good studies at the IMR but one thing lacking on our part as young national scientists is the ability to produce publications and I’m keen on promoting that too.
I have fond memories of my time in the States. One particular experience which to this day puzzles me was once when I was kicked out of a shop to which I have no clue what I had done. When I stood questioning the manager, he said he was going to call the police on me. So I walked out the shop. It’s not funny but it was an exciting experience for me.


My mentors and friends

There are many people that have been great mentors and friends to me and many I am grateful to for their support throughout the two-years of my study which I would like to acknowledge.
Dr Peter Zimmerman (PhD)-advisor, Dr Daniel Tisch (PhD) and Dr James Kazura, Dr Rajeev Melhotra (immediate supervisor and mentor), Grace Svilar and the support staff for the Fogarty Program, Centre for Global Health and Diseases at the School of Medicine, CWRU; Dr Peter Siba and our Training Coordinators at IMR, Dickson Kuvi and John Yogiyo;, Noemi Hall and Dr Catherine Stein at the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department, CWRU; friends, staff and colleagues in Dr Peter Zimmerman and Dr Aaron Weinberg(CWRU Dental School) Laboratory , Dr Claire Ryan, my parents and the rest of my family and not forgetting the Jaspers Family (USA).
The current graduate programs that we have at the Institute are gems and for me, I totally appreciate it as without this program, I don’t think I would have come this far in my career. It is a great stepping stone for me – from Honours to now Masters.

There is nothing that cannot be done

For those thinking of advancing their studies, from my experience, there is nothing that cannot be done. You can do it regardless of where in the world you are and the challenges thrown at you.
Determination and hard work will pay off and once you have that ‘Paper’ all those stressful days and sleepless nights that you had will be history. You will look back, and with a smile of achievement thanked the good God that you have been through it - just like I did.
But it is important not to forget that success is the end result of both positive and negative (in a positive way) inputs from people around you. If you knew me, I would like to thank you for being a part of it.

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The Steiner Cooperative House Members of 2012-2013, CWRU group photo.

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