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.
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
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.
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
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
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
Studying protein receptors in
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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