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Terra incognita.

One can hardly imagine a more exotic place to do a doctorate. Serej Ley spent four years in Papua New Guinea studying tuberculosis and experienced things that most of us only know from books or films. The foreign culture was fascinating but this did not make her life any easier. The Biozentrum alumna is currently doing postdoctoral research at the Stellenbosch University in Cape Town.

For years you have been working on the international stage. Which has been your most exciting project so far?

This was my PhD project in Papua New Guinea, not only from a scientific point of view but also from the cultural aspects. The country is very exotic and the cultural differences had quite an impact on my work. It was very exciting and varied but also quite demanding. 

What was the project about?

I carried out a molecular-epidemiological study to investigate which tuberculosis causing bacterial strains were circulating in Papua New Guinea and what antibiotic resistance they carried. My project comprised a mixture of fieldwork and lab work. This involved examining sputum samples from patients who came for routine check-ups to the hospitals. But we also visited villages to actively look for tuberculosis patients. At that time, I was based at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research, in Goroka, where I had my own small research team. My supervisor Prof. Hans-Peter Beck was, however, in Switzerland at the Swiss TPH. So, I had to work very independently and organize everything myself.

And what did you do when you went to the villages?

Together with a health official and the respective community representative, we questioned the locals about chronic productive cough, a sign of tuberculosis. If someone experienced these symptoms, we examined sputum samples from the affected person in the lab for tuberculosis and then, if required, referred them to the nearest health center.

Papua New Guinea is a completely different world. What is life like there? 

You can’t compare it to life in Switzerland. While carrying out fieldwork, we lived with the locals in their villages. They live in simple wooden houses and straw covered huts. There is neither electricity nor running water. The people cook over a fire, wash themselves in the river and use a simple pit latrine as a toilet. The whole day they work in their gardens and so provide for themselves. The health centers are equipped with a power generator, but are for many a day’s walk away. To get there, people sometimes have to walk along non-existent roads and through rivers. For some people it is therefore very difficult to get to the centers, especially when they are sick.

As strangers, how were you received by the villagers?

As a guest, the village community looks after you. They cooked for us and the people treated us with much consideration and respect. So we were often offered the only chair or the best bed. But Papua New Guinea is a land of contrasts. On the one side, the people are unbelievably friendly and fascinating, but they still continue to have their cruel traditions and rituals. For instance, there is still an old belief in sorcery, for which people are even tortured and killed. These contrasts are very strenuous to deal with mentally.

Were you ever confronted with superstitions?

Yes. We also collected blood samples for our study. One day when we entered a village, the locals hid from us. It turned out that they were afraid that we would inject evil spirits into them. Such cultural misunderstandings can make work complicated.

Did you have any experience, which left a particularly deep impression on you?

Despite all the cordiality, Papua New Guinea is, in some parts, a very unsafe country. While I was there, something very sad happened. I still find it difficult to talk about it. At the time, a whole research group from the institute simply disappeared. This included friends and work colleagues of mine. We still don’t know what happened to them but we assume that they were abducted and murdered.

That was a most shocking experience. What happened to you and how did you deal with it?

I was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. The first impulse was to leave the country, but by no means do you want to leave your friends behind. You want to help but feel so helpless. There is much grief and anger and then you get bombarded with media reports about the incident. It is a weird emotional roller coaster ride. I was panicking about my loved ones but felt bad that I first thought about myself and those close to me. On the other hand, this incident brought us all much closer together. And despite this negative experience, I also experienced many wonderful things in those years.

Back to your project. Is lab work the same irrespective of where you are?

No, there are huge differences. Papua New Guinea is logistically very difficult. For example, it is quite difficult to maintain the cold chain over the great distances. For enzymes it is crucial that they remain continually cooled. The delivery of primers and other lab materials can take up to six months. So you keep checking what and how much you need to order over and over again. I learnt to plan extremely far ahead. I believe that all those, who have ever worked in Papua New Guinea, would agree that you simultaneously have to be a researcher, logistics manger, travel agent, finance consultant and psychologist.

How did it come about that you worked in Papua New Guinea? After all you did your Masters at the Biozentrum.

At the time I worked in Prof. Urs Meyer’s lab in Pharmacology. I had the good fortune to work with micro-arrays at the Biozentrum when the Swiss TPH was looking for someone with such experience. And so I started there as a research assistant and worked in the field of drug resistance in malaria parasites. When my partner was then offered a postdoc position in Papua New Guinea, we decided to go there together. There, I developed my tuberculosis project. The basic topic of my work at the Biozentrum – genetic variations and their influence on the effect of drugs – has followed me over all these years, only the perspective and the organisms have changed.

You have worked with various pathogens in diverse countries. Are you tempted by new challenges?

For me, variety is quite appealing. I like to read up extensively on a new topic. But the experience gained by working with one pathogen can mostly be applied to other pathogens, too. There are always some parallels and the concepts often remain the same. In my present postdoc position at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, I am continuing with research on the tuberculosis bacteria, this time however, with a focus on bioinformatics. This field is completely new to me. As a non-computer scientist it is a real challenge. But I love challenges.

Did your experiences abroad also change you personally?

I learnt much about myself, for instance not to take everything I have for granted. And it also had a great impact on me to be in the position of an outsider. I am glad that I had this experience. It taught me to approach and listen to people in a different way and when I don’t understand another person’s reaction, then not to judge too quickly but rather to think about why they are reacting in a particular way. I can now well imagine how it must be for others when they come as foreigners to Switzerland.

Curriculum

Serej Ley studied at the Biozentrum and completed her Masters in 2004 in Prof. em. Urs A. Meyer’s group. After two years as head of the Microarray Facility at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH), she moved to the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research in Goroka, where she carried out the fieldwork and lab work for her PhD project. In 2014, she received her PhD at the Swiss TPH. After working at the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, in Bern, as well as at the Swiss TPH, she is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, in South Africa.