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‘I think they were expecting a neo-colonial approach to science’

4 June 2021

A new training program utilising cutting-edge equipment for molecular analysis is seeing Fijian and Indonesian RISE scientists lead the way in their countries in uncovering links between environments and human health.

‘We’re so happy to be working with the TaqMan Array Card (TAC) method, as we can detect a diverse range of faecal pathogens and environmental contamination. This type of technology really is the way forward,’ laboratory technician Revoni Vamosi says.

Vamosi and a group of RISE Fiji scientists have begun training in the latest techniques to analyse samples of soil, water, animal faeces and human stools. Initial analysis will focus on one year’s worth of samples that have been collected from the research program’s 12 informal settlements in the capital, Suva.

It is a critical part of RISE’s locally-anchored model, where, rather than shipping all samples out Fiji and Indonesia to be analysed in Australia or the UK, RISE has gone down the path of importing state-of-the-art equipment, and building the human and institutional capacity of Fijian and Indonesian colleagues in new tools and software.

Ensuring gender balance is also critical, with half the scientists trained being female in both Fiji and Indonesia.

For Vamosi, the training benefits not just himself, but the whole Fiji team. ‘It’s very fulfilling for our community fieldworkers to work with the residents of these settlements and collect samples, and then for the scientists in the team to be the ones to analyse them in our lab here – we get exposure to the whole process, from collection, to processing and analysis,’ he says.

Based at Fiji National University, Revoni Vamosi (left) and Vinaina Waqa, Phlebotomist (right),
will be amongthe first in Fiji - and the Pacific - trained to use TAC machines.

Microbiology scientist Dr Rebekah Henry is leading the training program remotely from Melbourne, with oversight from Associate Professor David McCarthy, also based at Monash University. Dr Henry feels that having RISE scientists in Fiji and Indonesia that have a better understanding of pathogens in their environment can lead to countries having better disease management responses.

‘These will be the very first TAC machines that Indonesia and Fiji have ever had,’ Dr Henry points out. ‘Having people trained to use these machines – machines that detect a more diverse range of pathogens and environmental contamination, and at a lower cost – can enable countries to respond more rapidly, rather than waiting for results to make their way back to the country’.

While the data is thrilling, for Dr Henry the training process is what really lights her up. ‘I think they were expecting a neo-colonial approach to science,’ she laughs, ‘and I think there was a bit of relief that RISE is not just in it to take samples – we want to build capacity, especially because we have these amazing teams in Fiji and Indonesia who have a real interest and buy-in to this work’.

Makassar, Indonesia, before COVID times: Dr Rebekah Henry has long been an advocate for
involving the Indonesia and Fiji
RISE teams and communities in the science process.

Like his Fiji counterparts, A Zulkifli AS is training to analyse samples that his colleagues have collected from 12 informal settlements in Makassar, Indonesia. For Pak Zul, being able to effectively communicate about diseases in informal settlements is just as important as the results themselves.

‘For me, I’ve really enjoyed learning how to convert large, complex datasets into visual tools like graphs and scatterplots’, Pak Zul explains.

‘Technical tables with lots of numbers about the data we have collected can be difficult for people to understand – like policymakers or government representatives.

‘Charts and graphics with different colours are a much more effective way to communicate findings about contaminated environments – and if it’s easier to understand, it’s easier to support better disease management’.

Dr Henry watches in the background: at Hasanuddin University, Pak Zul (right) and Maghfira Saifuddaolah,
RISE’s Batua Project Laboratory and Field Monitoring Lead (left), train in DNA extraction of water samples.

Key to this process has been the work by Dr Rachael Lappan to optimise TAC array protocols for environmental samples. These initial processes, conducted on samples from both Fiji and Indonesia, were undertaken at Monash University. This ensured that before rolling out procedures into both Fiji and Indonesia, standard operating procedures and analysis protocols could be developed and optimised, giving teams the best opportunity to train and undertake these procedures virtually.

Both Vamosi and Pak Zul agree that together, the equipment, software and training, will all boost Fiji and Indonesia’s research capabilities in the long-term. ‘Being upskilled, we can go on to share this knowledge with researchers from other universities and health representatives here,’ Vamosi points out.

Dr Henry agrees that the training is a legacy piece that goes beyond RISE. ‘Our Fiji and Indonesia teams have put in the hard work to collect samples in their settlements, so they should be the ones empowered to go to other researchers and their regulators armed with the best information possible on the diseases they’re seeing,’ she says.

‘Will it make a difference beyond RISE? 100 per cent’.