Countries: Australia

Willa Huston

Willa Huston
Molecular microbiologist

Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

What do you know about Chlamydia?

So, you think you know about Chlamydia? There is a lot of stigma surrounding Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and the secrecy around the subject often prevents people from getting tested and seeking help. But how much do we actually know about Chlamydia? And how can better education, more research, and a more equal society help us to tackle the infection?

Willa Hutson, a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology in Sydney, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her research on Chlamydia and its link to female infertility. As a researcher, Willa is preoccupied with discovering why some women become infertile while others don’t, as well as engaging with the reasons why more people in marginalised communities are affected by the infection, and the ways in which outreach work and equality can help prevent the spread.

For her, removing the stigma around STIs is a vital part of helping patients to seek and access treatment, which is why she focuses on both the scientific and social avenues that will help prevent infection. Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

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Willa: Hi, I am Willa Huston. I am a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia.

Nerina: What is your research focus?

Willa: My research is looking at chlamydia and other infectious diseases and how they lead to infertility in women. So we’re really interested in trying to understand what happens in those women that develop infertility and what we could be better to either prevents or treat the chlamydia at that time so they don’t go on to progress to developing infertility. So we look at treatment and better diagnosis.

Nerina: What is actually chlamydia?

Willa: Chlamydia is a unique, little bacterium. So it’s a microscopic organism and we all know about microbes now, they’re everywhere around us and we hear about them being part of our body. Chlamydia is a bit more special because chlamydia actually lives inside our own cells. So it’s a bacteria but it’s like a virus in that it takes over our own cells, and the only place that the chlamydia that infects human lives is in humans.

Nerina: If I look up what Wikipedia says for example, chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia and most people while infected have no symptoms. The infection can spread to the upper genital tract in women causing pelvic inflammatory disease which may result in future infertility or ectopic pregnancy.

Willa: This is our subculture facility here at UTS. This is where we grow chlamydia and it’s a fully contained room and we use human cells. Here is an incubator and I will show you some cells in flasks where we work on our chlamydia subculture experiments. In here you can see a whole lot of flasks growing chlamydia. At the moment the lab is pretty busy working on some new molecules that might be good new antibiotics against chlamydia and we’re working on some new models of human disease including some patient samples that we’re working on from women with different symptoms of the disease. So it’s an exciting time here in Australia for chlamydia research.

Nerina: Not everyone who is infected react in the same way and gets complications. Why?

Willa: It’s really interesting. So it’s transmitted sexually throughout the population. So lots of people know about it as a sexually transmitted infection and in fact our research is trying to understand how it is that in some women there’s very severe pathology that leads to infertility develops and so we look at those women. We look at the organism in lab models and we think that what happens is a combination of what’s happening in the woman’s body at the time she gets the infection and what are the stages of her cycle and the other organisms there. All of that comes together so that in some unlucky women they go on to develop infertility but that’s about as much as we know at the moment.

Unfortunately, we need to know a lot more. But one of the things we’re trying to do is understand the form of the organism during that infertility development and try to develop better drug treatments to treat that form. And so that’s a high priority for us; it’s treatment early to prevent the infertility developing.

Nerina: How many women are affected by infertility?

Willa: That it’s very hard to pin a number on it. Some studies say as high as 20%. I don’t think it’s that high but it’s certainly the more infections there is severe increase in risk. I think the risk is about every about 1 to 5% of infections will develop infertility at least in one tube. But given that… So for example in Australia there is about 80,000 infections, slightly over half of those are in women and if you think even if it’s only 1% annually that still a significant numbers each year of women who will have tubal infertility that they will not know about.

Nerina: How about men?

Willa: There’s lots of evidence that they also get infertility or at least reduced fertility from the infections, no doubt. We think similar scarring occurs up in the fine tubes in the male reproductive tract and they are pretty good transmitters. So they are often asymptomatic, they’re less likely to seek treatment and testing and they’re very good at transmitting the infection because they often have a good infectious burden. So then because of the nature of sex I guess they’re good transmitters. So they have a big role to play A, they can be compromised in their own infertility but B as key people in the networks that we need to kind of get in for testing and treatment who are not as engaged in the healthcare it’s very important that we look at men.

Nerina: What do we know about chlamydia and what do we not know about it?

Willa: So we know that it’s an ancient organism. There is evidence of trachoma the eye infecting version in hieroglyphics, so from ancient Egypt but we even know from genome sequencing analysis that it’s a very ancient organism. So it’s been around as long as we have. So we know therefore that it’s a very clever at living inside us. It’s almost evolved with us in some ways, and so we do know that is really clever and that it’s a really well adapted to live inside our cells.

What we don’t know is why that goes wrong in some women. So logically if you only live in humans you don’t want to stop them having sex and transmitting on the organism and so one hypothesis is that it actually is advantageous for some proportion of women to be infertile or lower fertility with chlamydia because then than they might have more sex in an evolutionary history and the organism could be transmitted. As long as it’s not causing very many symptoms which often it doesn’t cause many symptoms then the women are not prevented from having sexual contacts but they’re prevented from having babies. So they are more likely to have more sex.

So maybe it’s just evolved this feature to increase its spread in the population, but we actually don’t know if that’s what’s happening or it’s something about the women themselves, their particular type of immune response, perhaps their genetic makeup. Maybe those of the factors that they’ve got the unlucky lottery that when they get the chlamydia infection, they’re the ones that are going to develop the infertility. So that’s one of the unknowns that is a big priority. Is that kind of personalized or precision medicine and chlamydia is it really about that.

Nerina: Are there differences between countries in their infection rates?

Willa: Absolutely, it’s a very high burden in the Pacific Rim. So very poor countries like Samoa have very high burden of chlamydia, mostly because there’s very little health intervention and very little treatment and testing. In most developed or well-to-do countries like in Europe or Australia or the US the baseline prevalence, so the average number people who might have it in reproductively aged individuals is about 4 to 6%. But even in those countries marginalized people or people who have low socioeconomic conditions have a much high percent. So it’s a disease of marginalized populations.

For example, in Australia you may be aware that we have the first people, indigenous people of Australia. They are very marginalized and they very socioeconomically disadvantaged, and in young people – young indigenous people chlamydia can be as high as 24%. So that’s really, really high and so we really worry about the burden of infertility and other sequelae from chlamydia like ectopic pregnancy in those young indigenous people.

It’s worth mentioning that the other form of chlamydia that infects our eyes and can lead to blindness. There’s about 5 million people worldwide who are blind from Chlamydia trachoma and a gain to our national shame. The indigenous people of Australia are one of the few peoples in a developed country where we still have trachoma.

Nerina: How are the chlamydia infections of the eyes and of the genitals related?

Willa: They are very related. So they’re quite similar, there are just a few subtle differences between the eye and the genital infecting chlamydia. In Australia in fact, it may be that those eye infecting strains may have come from genital strains that came in with Caucasian people, when Caucasian people came to the Australia continent just over 200 years ago.

Nerina: And chlamydia does not affect only humans but also animals with severe consequences, right?

Willa: This is a really… it’s an important topic for animals worldwide but it’s a very dear topic to Australians because our national icon, the koala is suffering severely from chlamydia. The chlamydia that infects the koala is called Chlamydia pecorum, it’s a different species from the chlamydia that infects humans but the disease presents almost identically. So they get ocular infections all around the eye that can lead to blindness, very severe blindness. They get your urinal genital infections in their urinary and genital tracts, which can lead to incontinence, which we call wet bottom and it’s really debilitating. They’re in a lot of pain, their whole bottom rump is covered in sort of wee basically that isn’t evacuating properly and that’s from scarring. That also scars all through their reproductive tract.

That scarring in their eyes and in their reproductive tract looks exactly like what happens in humans. So it’s a different chlamydia but present in the animals in the same way and it’s a really sad story. In the koala it’s very hard to treat because we can’t give them oral antibiotics very often for koalas. Most the time we can’t because they have a special complex gut composition that they really need because they eat gum leaves.

So part of our research is actually translated from a human into the koala because we need to find new ways to treat chlamydia in the koala. At the moment it’s one of the major threats to the koala. Habitat loss is the major threat undoubtedly and that’s a real problem, but as soon as we do more habitat loss and the koala populations get more stressed the disease increases. So it’s a disease like our marginalized people, chlamydia in the koalas is associated with stresses and then we already put them under stress from removing more trees or whatever we do and then the chlamydia presents and then they lose fertility. So the koalas are a threatened species right now so it’s not on the extinction list but it is severely threatened and vulnerable in some states and threatened in others. So yeah.

Nerina: But chlamydia in men and women is treatable, correct?

Willa: So in humans we can treat chlamydia and it’s very simple. It’s a simple antibiotic regimen and it’s mostly effective if the people would stick to the antibiotics and take them. The problem is that because it’s often a quiet infection, so it’s often asymptomatic people might not seek treatment and so the problem is that they often don’t get this treatment and then the symptoms develop or the infertility develops, sometimes without them being aware.

So treatment is easy, testing is easy. We can do a PCR from a urine sample or swab. But it’s getting the right people into the clinic and getting them tested and treated in time is the problem.

Nerina: What new information have you learned during your research?

Willa: I knew very little when I started just over about 10 to 12 years ago now. I thought chlamydia was fascinating in a very abstract way and I’ve always loved microbes but chlamydia was kind of interesting. Now I guess I’ve learnt that even though it’s on face value a very simple microbe compared to most of the other microbes it’s an amazingly versatile and niche adapted organism that we really only just beginning to understand.

I think that it’s much more versatile and adaptive than we thought and I think that we are also starting to understand that perhaps it lives in more spots than just the urogenital tract. Perhaps it lives in the gastrointestinal tract. Perhaps it survives longer than we think after treatment. There’s a lot of things that we used to think were simple but they’re not and I think that’s the most exciting thing. Life is always more complex than we think it is.

Nerina: What do you think we need the most: better prevention, treatment or information?

Willa: I love the list that you outlined. So the challenges for the chlamydia field are almost all three of those. Prevention is critical. Most STIs are best controlled with prevention and the best prevention would be a vaccine. Chlamydia is very hard to make a vaccine against but I have no doubt that will happen eventually. Treatment is absolutely a critical aspect of chlamydia control and I think we could do that better, and that’s part of our research is improving the options for treatment. But information really matters. There’s a real stigma around STIs. In lots of populations there’s a real stigma around infertility that might be because you had an STI years ago.

So I think changing our culture around acceptability of sexually transmitted infection but just sexual behavior in general and just more acceptability, more ease of communication. So that it is not so much of a stigma for those women who are infertile and worried that maybe that’s why and they can’t even talk about that, talk about it. So I think all three yeah: prevention, treatment but also change that stigma and open the conversation. Maybe more people will get tested and treated as well.

Nerina: How difficult is it to speak about STI, sexually-transmitted infections?

Willa: There’s been lots of work in many countries around for women, for example, when they come in for the cervical screening to try and get a routine sexual health workup without a stigma. Just you’re already here let’s do that but that’s often in every two years and now that will decrease with the change in cervical screening to PCR.

There’ve been lots of conversations around try to target risk groups to have a broader conversation around healthy sexual behavior and acceptability. But most GPs find it really challenging to have that conversation or they’re just too busy. So there’s lots of activities around the clinic nurse perhaps around targeted screening and outreach in jails, high schools, nightclubs to try and reach the most vulnerable people and screen them more regularly so lots of go to them.

There was a study done by researchers in Australia about postal pee and post. Where they used a special material to dry the pee so they could post it and do a PCR test and then post them the antibiotics later. So there are lots of, lots of research being done in acceptability of seeking, testing and treatment, but I think we’ve got a long way to go.

Having said that, when we talked to our university students about our research and we ran a free sexual health clinic with the doctors, not with our researchers in the campus. The doctors say that lots of young people on university campuses will openly say I’m here for my sexual health checkup. So maybe we’re getting there with some populations.

Nerina: Why did you decide to research this topic? Is it personal?

Willa: I’m really passionate about women’s health. I think that women’s health and particularly the kind of you know that the “vagina” and the reproductive tract are neglected. I think we need to pay them some more attention. You know I think people feel uncomfortable about honest conversations about sex and about reproductive health particularly for women and therefore we do not know as much and I think we need to change that and we need to change the conversations and our comfort levels around talking about our vaginas, our cervix and our own health. It’s deeply important to us at some point to many of us, not to all of us but at some point many of us will deeply care that we would get to reproduce or that we get to be involved in parenthood and so fertility it’s a really personal issue.

It really matters to me that that our research can actually make a difference to individuals that something is so fundamental to many people that is really confronting when they find out they’re not, they’re infertile or they need fertility treatment. We spend a lot of our lives trying to control the pregnancy and plan for pregnancy and prevent pregnancy until we’re ready and then it’s really shocking to some women to find out that they’re not fertile or they’re going to need treatment to achieve their pregnancies and so it is personal.

Yeah, it’s personal. It’s something I am passionate about and I think as a mom and I also I had fertility treatment for my children. My cause of infertility is still not really clear and just as a woman I think that all of those things matter. For me research is something that I really need to care about, I do care about a lot and that’s why I do it.

Nerina: How important is it in your opinion, to have a conversation about women’s bodies?

Willa: I think it’s critically important that we start having open and frank conversations with men and women that we bleed every month, we have pain every month. Some women have very serious pain every month. We go through a normal biological process where our body changes throughout that month and that’s all normal and we quietly hide it. Why? You know it should be celebrated. Can you imagine if men had periods they would be driven through tampon vending machines, they would be at the bar. You could order your gin and tonic and your tampons.

So you know I just think it’s a symptom of patriarchal society that all of a sudden menstrual blood is icky and that we don’t talk about periods and we don’t admit that we are having a bad day because we’ve got period pain but it’s quite fine to say that we’re having a bad day because we have a headache. You know I think it’s really important and I think by keeping it sort of a secret thing that we can’t talk we’re giving some kind of message to our young women that that’s kind of wrong, but it’s not wrong, it’s biology, half the population goes through it. So for me it’s really yeah… I can go on about it for ages. I think it’s really important that we change the conversation and we’re enabling a better attitude to our health, but I think we’re also enabling a better attitude to women as functional, important members of society we just have a different biology.

Nerina: Equality between men and women should not mean that women should become like men, right?

Willa: Absolutely. If we think as a society we can achieve equality by “fixing” the women and making them more like men and fitting in the patriarchal constructs that we’ve made we’re not going to benefit from that. The women will be less happy than they already are and we’re not actually gaining the biological and the wonderful differences that we give and won’t be gained because they’ll be trying to hide them in pretending to be like men. So now I completely agree that yeah I think we just need to really push some pretty uncomfortable and hard barriers around women are different and it’s a really great and you know period blood it’s everywhere, we all have periods, it’s fine. It’s actually fine look at us we’re here. It’s not the scary thing that you think it might be.

Nerina: You’re interested also in equality in your team. Could you tell me more about this?

Willa: Absolutely. So in my work I’m very conscious of those – the gender differences. Equity and diversity in my sector has a long way to go, diversity as well as equity. So the classic white male or even the classic stereotypically math or computation science may be even an Asian male is viewed as being smarter or whatever it is. There are always horrible stereotypes.

So in our team we talk a lot about that, we talk a lot about the fact that our cohorts of participants need to include diverse participants, indigenous participants, people who identify in the LGBTIQ spectrum there needs need to be represented and in our team we’re always open about people who come who have different identities. Whether that’s with respect to their identity or they heritage – ethnic heritage and we’re lucky in fact, that we have a very diverse team of researchers and all those voices in the room creates an amazing, challenging atmosphere, but also it brings so much. It brings us all so much further forward.

We also have a lot of activities in my faculty around championing that diversity and so in my other role within my faculty I am chair of our Equity and Diversity Committee. So we’re constantly calling out for new behaviors and new activities and new ways to change our culture in our sector to support a broader inclusivity within a sector of these different groups and women, but not just women and not just white women it has to be in intersectional approach.

Nerina: You’re really passionate about outreach. Why does outreach matter?

Willa: So I think outreach is a way of giving back to the community. I’m in a position of privilege, I have a permanent university job, I get to do research, and I get to teach undergraduates and postgraduates. I outreach by going into high schools, I outreach by social media and communication. I contribute wherever I can to Internet forums or you know profiles on Internet things like these because I feel if… A, I think the broad exposure of research matters. The community needs to know what research dollars are being spent on in a way that they can understand it so that they see the value of research.

So that’s one reason for doing it, but one of my really main reasons for doing it is if you can’t see role models ahead of you doing things that you think are interesting then how do you know to go into that field. So I think for young women and girls going through high school if all they see in the media which largely they do is men with beards in lab coats then science doesn’t seem like they belong. And so if what if when not out there, pushing ourselves out there how do they know that they belong in science? And so for me that’s why outreach matters.

Nerina: Where do you see your research in 10 years?

Willa: I think I see my research becoming much more holistic and much more engaged with women and looking really at chlamydia and other infectious agents still in the reproductive space but really whole approach it and the whole package. Social factors, their immune response, their body, maybe their genetics and how all of those come into play in some women to have the consequences of infertility and how we can work with the whole woman better earlier to understand her risks and work with her to help prevent her risks of becoming infertile later or knowing that she’s at quite a risk and she can consider how to protect herself.

Nerina: Is there one thing that people should know more about chlamydia?

Willa: I guess the one thing which is that I want people to know is that it’s not their fault, even if they’re positive it’s not their fault. It’s okay, come back for more testing and treating. Don’t hideaway if you think you’re at risk. It’s not your fault. It’s okay to have an STI it’s just better if we can treat you more quickly and prevent it from spreading further but also maybe prevent the disease from getting worse for you.

Nerina: Is there a key message that you would like to tell your children?

Willa: Don’t forget who you are. There’s so much in society that tells you who you should be. Who you are and what your core values are just hang onto that and stick to those and do what you want to do that you feel is the best and the right thing for everyone around you but take who you are into that.

Nerina: Thank you so much Willa for this conversation.

Willa: Not a problem. Thank you. I hope that helped.

Nerina: And thank you for watching. See you next time, bye ciao.


Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

Bart Kolodziejczyk

Bart Kolodziejczyk
Nanoscientist and Enterpreneur

Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Do you know what nano-waste is?

Who is responsible for establishing whether a new nanomaterial or nanoparticle is dangerous? How do we dispose of and recycle these products safely? And how early in the production process should we ascertain whether or not these materials are toxic?

These are some of the questions that preoccupy researcher Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk, a material scientist and technologist based in Melbourne, Australia, who’s at the cutting edge of policy making and research regarding nanotechnology.

His most high-profile focus is on how we should dispose of nanowaste, and on examining its long-term effects on biodiversity and human health, at a time when more and more consumer products are beginning to make use of nanoparticles and materials.

In recent years Bart has written several policy briefs for the UN and the G20 on these topics, but just what is nanotechnology, and how vital will it be in our future world? Watch our interview to discover the ways in which this new innovation is bringing with it even newer challenges; and learn about the people who are already trying to tackle them.

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Read the transcript of Bart Kolodziejczyk's Video here

Bart: My name is Bart Kolodziejczyk. I am a material scientist/nanotechnologist and I’m based in Melbourne Australia.

Nerina: And I’m Nerina Finetto. I welcome you to our video podcast. Today we’re going to speak about nanotechnology and nano waste. How did you become a nanotechnologist Bart? 

Bart: I guess it was a long journey because my background is in mechanical engineering and mechatronics. So back in Poland where I am originally from I did that as my bachelors and then I continued for Masters. Then I did another Masters in Renewable Energy because I got interested in renewable energies. I want to explore this field; I wanted to develop new catalysts for solar cells, fuel cells, batteries, etc. Most of these materials are actually nanomaterials and that’s how I became a nanotechnologist. Nano scientists I guess.

Nerina: What is nanotechnology? 

Bart: Nanotechnology deals with very small objects. So nano objects which 10 to -9 of a meter. So they’re very small, you cannot see them with our bare eyes and because of that you need to use very sophisticated equipment. So you want to see a very small world but to do that you need to use large equipment. So it’s quite a paradox. Nanoparticles or nanomaterials behave very differently on such a small scale. So we can develop new functionalities in very old materials, materials that you use every day. They can basically behave very differently if you scale them down to nano level.

Another thing is that dealing with nanotechnology is basically scaling something down. So instead of using big bulk systems you can actually scale them down and achieve the same functions on a much smaller level. Because of that for example your microchips can be the same size but more powerful.

Nerina: The solutions and the opportunities nano technology presents seem too unlimited. But are there any downsides?

Bart: Basically doing research is nanotechnology at one point I realized that this is amazing. We develop all these new things, new solutions but there will be a problem in the future. How do we basically manage nano waste? So waste that originates from nanotechnology. Because nanotechnology and synthetic biology they can potentially change our lives, virtually many applications but we need to think about how we use it. We have to use it safely; we have to dispose it safely.

Nerina: Is this a new situation?

Bart: The story behind nanotechnology can be compared to the story behind computers. We developed computers. We’ve been talking about them for many, many years but it took some time until we actually got our PC. Similar story is with nanotechnology. We’ve been hearing about it for many, many years but that was at laboratory scale mostly. But recently we started seeing products that are based on nanotechnology or nanomaterials.

The tech industrial revolution which is also called e-revolution or electronic revolution brought many different electronic solutions: computers, solutions in telecommunication etc. but we over flooded by e-waste or electronic waste. It’s just too expensive and too complex to basically recycle it or reuse it. I mean we simply dispose it. Unfortunately even if we want to we cannot do the same with nanotechnology. So once nanotechnology product reaches the end of its lifetime we need to think how to dispose it safely and we need to think about it right now because later it might be too late.

Nerina: What makes nano waste so dangerous? Why is there no urgency in this? 

Bart: Many of these nanoparticles and nanomaterials are very chemically active, some of them are even toxic to the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health and they are also invisible for the bare eye. So they can change entire ecosystems or affect our bodies and we won’t even realize why because we simply cannot see it.

So we basically need to think of solutions of how to safely dispose these products when they reach the end of their lifetime or better recycle them if possible. But to do that we need to basically reinforce some regulations and this has to be done using top down approaches. So basically governments need to step up and say, “Oh, we are basically developing this new technology, it is very promising but we need to regulate it. So how do we dispose safely these products? How do we recycle them?”

Nano waste will be growing rapidly with our use of nanotechnology. It is a very different issue to electronic waste or just general waste because you don’t know if it is there but it is there and it’s changing the environments because of the high chemical reactivity and many of them are highly toxic as well. So this our new challenge, completely new type of challenge that we have never come across.

Nerina: How are you involved in this topic? 

Bart: I started getting interested in this topic of nanowaste, management of nanowaste, disposal, safe disposal, recycling etc. and basically I started actively urging the governments and different international organizations trying to develop efficient ways of disposing nanowaste. So I’ve written several different policy briefs and policy papers and I try to basically introduce them to UN, OECD, and European Commission. Secondly I worked with G20. So basically I am a policy maker that acts form bottom up. So I just come up with these ideas and solution and then try to basically introduce my ideas to organizations that can make it happen.

Nerina: What kind of suggestions did you make in this policy papers? 

Bart: I have created a few different policy papers. So different policy papers discuss different issues on the same problem. In some I kind of established debate, in some I proposed specific solutions. So some of the things that I’m asking is who is responsible for establishing whether certain nanomaterial and new nanomaterial is dangerous or not, how toxic it is, how to dispose it safely. So will it be a researcher who develops this material for example in the lab or will it be a company that later on uses this material in commercial products? How early do we have to establish whether this material is toxic, etc.?

And also some of the things that I mentioned in policy papers is that there is a lot of funding to basically take nanotechnology further, to develop new nanomaterials, new applications for them but not much money is put into establishing whether they are safe, how chemically reactive they are etc. We need to establish that. How they basically react when we leave them in the environment? They can react differently to different environments. So for example different environmental conditions will cause different reactions in nanomaterials. If it’s dry environment, if it’s wet environment, how sunny it is etc. all these factors play a role in establishing how these materials can affect our health and ecosystems. So basically my policy papers are more of I try to push a debate and discuss all these issues rather than proposing specific solutions.

Nerina: Could you give me an example about how nanomaterials behave in a different way than normal materials? 

Bart: So when we basically scale one material to a nano level they behave very differently. They have different properties both mechanical, chemical etc. For example, when we speak of silver; we use silver in bulk to basically make different types of jewelry. But when we scale it down silver can become very chemically reactive. So silver nanoparticles are actually used as antimicrobial kind of treatment. So there are for example already socks in the market that have some kind of silver nanoparticle coating and because of that they don’t smell. So you wear them but they don’t smell because they kill all the microbes that produce this odor.

And for example there is one facility in China that produces silver nanoparticles but the safety standards are not that great in this facility and basically everything around this facility is kind of dead. It’s a bare land because silver nanoparticles killed all the microbes, microorganisms in the soil. Without them basically other plants and animals cannot function because these microbes produce some substances that are essential for other forms of life to exist. The entire area around the factory is basically bare land that’s because silver nanoparticles killed some microbes that are actually beneficial for the soil, soil microbes.

Nerina: As a consumer can I see if they’re some nanoparticles in the products that I’m using?

Bart: There is no specific kind of sticker that is put on them saying that nanotechnology inside or something like that. So you really need to be a chemist and read the description, ingredients to distinguish whether you’re dealing with products that contain nanomaterial’s, nanoparticles or not. So for example many people use toothpaste or sunscreen but they’re not aware that there are nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide, Tio2.

Nerina: Are there any studies about the dangers to our health?

Bart: So for example, the recent studies several of them actually show that Titanium Dioxide can cause cancer or affect our nervous system but no one has banned it as yet. So there’s no governmental policy to ban Titanium Dioxide even though it’s widely used in toothpaste, in sunscreens, as an artificial sweetener for our food products etc. I have not heard so far that any government has basically stepped up and said, “Oh we should ban Titanium Dioxide.” We are using Titanium Dioxide broadly but we’ve never realized that there might be issues associated with that.

Nerina: What has to be done in your opinion? 

Bart: I guess one way is to raise awareness. It has to be a more kind of consolidated action because by myself I cannot do much. It has to be driven by more people and there are actually organizations that are already exploring these issues and trying to address it but the process is slightly slow. Maybe too slow than it should be but previously that was the case with asbestos. So we realized that it is highly toxic, it can cause lung cancer and basically one government after another followed and they banned it. So I guess at one point it will be a similar case with Titanium Dioxide. So basically raising awareness is one way.

The other way is to basically develop effective and efficient ways of disposing different nanomaterials and this has to be regulated with some sort of policies.

Nerina: What would you like the researchers to do, that policy makers do, that consumer do?

Bart: I guess whenever you develop new nanomaterial or new nanoparticle a part of your responsibility is also to at least some basic tests how these new nanomaterial’s can effect environment in different environmental conditions and what can be basically health issues associated with these new nanomaterials, just basic. That will give ideas to whoever wants to use it further to basically to do more in-depth tests. Policymakers to regulate the field, to work together with scientists to develop effective ways for disposing all these nanomaterials and consumers to be more aware and more educated. But again these awareness and education have to come from our scientists again.

Nerina: What will Bart do in the future? 

Bart: I kind of got intrigued by this science policy field, science advice and I now realize it’s very different to just doing scientific research. It is more interdisciplinary because you need to have knowledge in both law and regulations and also your specific field of research. So in that case it is nanotechnology and also synthetic biology because synthetic biology has similar problems to nanotechnology. So we kind of try to explore both.

That was a great journey, just another journey, very different one. But the output and what I’ve read from all these organizations that I worked with was very encouraging. So basically I got really into it, I really got into science policy field and science advice. I’m very interested in science law these days so that’s something I would like to continue in my free time. I do all these nanowaste and synthetic biology kind of activities in my free time. It became in a way my hobby, it’s a bit weird to say my hobby is science policy but I guess that’s what I do in my free time.

Nerina: What do you focus on right now in your research? 

Bart: Well I guess there are many opportunities that arise from research. You have this idea, you develop this idea, you come up with certain solutions. So it’s not only about doing research but doing applicable research that actually helps us to develop further as a community. So I guess that’s why at one point I decided to leave. I’m still kind of doing scientific research but its more hands on, more applicable.

I’m currently with a Singapore based company that manufactures state-of-the-art electrolyzers. Electrolyzer is like an electrochemical basically cell where you apply electricity. You have two electrodes and in our case we are into hydrogen production. So we put these electrodes into the water and we split water particles and on one electrode you get oxygen, on the other one you get hydrogen. So we’re trying to make a shift towards a hydrogen economy.

In our company there is also quite a bit of research, it’s very exciting, very noble. So yeah that’s what I do currently.

Nerina: I guess we have to have one more conversation about this project and the future of energy. Do you see yourself as a change maker? 

Bart: I guess I don’t want to think of myself as a change maker. I do make some change but I get there using very small steps, so step by step and eventually you will get there. So slowly but systematically I guess. In a way you bring change but it’s not like you don’t make a change over a day or over a period of a week but eventually you will make it.

Nerina: Who inspired or inspires you?

Bart: I guess my mom was one of them because she gave birth to me. She was always there when we were young to support us, she was very protective, and she kind of ignited this curiosity in us; I mean in me and my brothers. The second very important person in my life was I guess my PHD supervisor. I have massive respect to him, to my supervisor. He was really like a father to not only to me but also to other PHD students. But I guess right now the most important person is my fiancée Ranthini. We are getting married next year in Malaysia. It will be a Hindu wedding so there’s a lot for me to learn. All the different cultural rituals, all the wedding rituals are very different compared to my European culture, Christian culture. So that will be interesting.

Nerina: Good luck on all your projects and I wish you all the best with the wedding preparations. 

Bart: Thank you Nerina for having me and for your time.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation Bart. 

Bart: Bye.

Nerina: And thank you for watching.

#followup with Bart Kolodziejczyk | Synthetic biology and gene drives

Here a follow-up video with Bart Kolodziejczyk speaking about synthetic biology, gene drives and the need of regulations.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:

Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Jason von Meding

Jason von Meding
Disaster Risk Reduction

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

When disasters are beyond natural

As long ago as the 1970s, scholars were already of the opinion that there’s no such thing as a truly natural “disaster”. Instead, there are simply conditions that allow for certain areas of society to be disproportionately harmed by natural events.

So, just how can we reduce the risk to human life during these occurrences? To answer this question, researchers like Dr. Jason von Meding at the University of Newcastle, Australia, are applying the scientific method to social, political, and environmental issues, and asking how humanity will be able to support itself in an era of increased consumption, and finite Earthly resources.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Jason von Meding's Video here

Jason: Hi Nerina. My name is Jason von Meding. I’m a senior lecturer at the University of New Castle, Australia and I generally say my area of research is disaster science or disaster studies, but specifically in my field, we talk about disaster risk reduction.

Nerina: You wrote that there are not any natural disasters. Could you tell me more about this? 

Jason: Disasters are sometimes seen by both the people that are affected by them and by scientists, by decision-makers, policymakers as something that could really be avoided, which is nobody’s fault, which is an act of nature, which is maybe an act of God. They start to approach disaster in this way which takes away any culpability from the people who create the conditions where people are vulnerable to a disaster. A lot of us in that field are committed to fighting against this terminology because I think it creates this context where nobody is responsible, where nobody is accountable for the people that are impacted by disasters.

Nerina: Who is affected by disasters?

Jason: Disaster impacts affect the poor, they affect the marginalized, and they affect the people who are most unjustly treated by the conditions of the society. You will be able to find some examples of a disaster which only affected a small number of rich people, right? So there will be exceptions but they’re exceptions to the rule. The rule is that disasters affect the most vulnerable in society because of their structural conditions which are not an accident, they’re by design. So the way our societies are structured is to benefit a few people at the expense of the others and these are the things which you don’t get to talk about if you use words like natural disasters.

Nerina: How did you get into this topic? 

Jason. I think when I was about 12 in school I really started to feel like I wanted to pursue a career as an architect and right through school that was my one focus. When I went to University to study to be an architect, I started to work in the practice. When I was just finishing off my postgraduate studies I had the chance to do a research thesis and at that time Hurricane Katrina had just affected the US. So I was born in the US, from Chicago originally. So I put together a proposal to go and do some field study there looking mostly at how a hurricane affects buildings. So of course, I was interested in buildings and design, materials, structures. So I went to the Gulf Coast of US and did a very, very simple study.

You know I was affected by the stories coming from Gulf Coast of how people were impacted. I ended up doing not only a study of buildings but of people. So I started to talk to people about their experiences. I started to talk to design professionals but also just residents who are affected. So that fed into my thesis.

Nerina: You decided to change your career from being an architect to a researcher. When was the turning point?

Jason: I think when I went to Southeast Asia to conduct fieldwork for my Ph.D. I went out there with the intention of helping or producing knowledge to help NGOs manage disasters better or become more efficient as organizations. I was mostly collecting data from project managers within these NGOs. I heard stories through them about what it was like for people to experience disasters, but when I got the opportunity to actually hear directly from people who are impacted then it really started making me think about the structural problems that people were suffering from.

Because when I heard from people that were affected by this tsunami in Sri Lanka or by cyclones in Bangladesh they started to tell me about the conditions of vulnerability which they were forced to live in and those were the things that cause them to be affected by disasters. They didn’t feel like well it’s was just a natural disaster that has destroyed our homes or has killed people very dear to us. They felt like they were put in a position of vulnerability by conditions in their society, which were not fair. So they were poor, they were very marginalized and this is why they were affected like they were. So that really changed the way that I thought about disasters because it made me think much more about the social constructs which determine how people experience disasters. That really maybe shifted my research agenda for my career.

Nerina: What are you focusing on right now in your research? 

Jason: A lot of our research is on the social science side. So a lot of the time we’re working with vulnerable communities to understand how they experience vulnerability, how they experience hazards. It’s important to distinguish between disasters and hazards. If you have an earthquake which occurs in a location with no people who are vulnerable then you don’t have a disaster, you just have a hazard. What we try to in my group is to conduct scientific research to better understand the conditions that people experience and produce by their knowledge to present to the public, to present the policymakers, to the whole range of stakeholders in this field to try to convince them that we need to think more about the real courses of a disaster which are rooted in the way societies are constructed. So that’s how I try to explain my research to people.

Nerina: You wrote that disaster risk reduction should be everybody’s business. Should it be and why?

Jason: A lot of people when you speak to them about disasters will not necessarily be thinking about the social and political and economic angle. Of course, if you say economic system or politics is everybody’s business. That’s alright, yeah okay, but if you say disasters are, then not everyone understands the connection. So that’s something that I feel quite strongly about and it’s something I’m working on is how do we communicate the importance of involving stakeholders from across the spectrum in the discourse about disasters, connecting all these disperse interests and actors in this discussion about reducing risk. Because reducing risk is really about addressing the vulnerability, addressing structural injustices which often have its roots in historical events or historical developments. So I think the critical thing is really connecting all of those social constructs which everyone accepts as being part of something everyone should be involved in with the understanding of disasters. That’s what I’m trying to do through my kind of public advocacy and position as an author, as a communicator.

Nerina: What has changed in this field of research over the last few decades? 

Jason: The field has been active for a long time, 50 years. You know that it has very much progressed from a traditional understanding of disasters. In the 1980s you had efforts to manage disasters better; really that was kind of the approach. When the UN got involved it was to manage disasters and then to reduce disasters and then as we progressed over time you start to talk about reducing the risk of disasters. So, there’s been this progression in the language that is used in this. Although even in the 1970s top scholars were saying that we need to appreciate that no disaster is natural. So that’s a long time ago and we’re still having this debate.

So in some ways, things are still the same but we’ve learned so much more in many fields and we definitely learned a lot more about the real causes of disasters. In the last 10 years, that’s been really driving a lot of great research. So in 2015, we had significant global frameworks on climate change, on sustainable development and also on disaster risk reduction. In Sendai in Japan, we had the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in March 2015 which was agreed by the nations of the UN; which was really a global commitment to adhere to certain principles.

Nerina: Are we on the right path in your opinion? 

Jason: When I go to some of these international forums which are said to represent the international community… I mean now in 2017 we have a pretty good representation of stakeholders from different segments of society. So, you have your government representatives, your NGOs, the UN bodies, the community activists. You know the UN and different UN agencies have really taken the lead on bringing governments, bringing scientists and communities together to talk about these key issues.

So on paper, it all looks like a pretty good representation of the diversity of voices, but when you actually look at who’s speaking, who’s on the panel, who is in the small room at the side or who is on the preliminary stage then you start to see where the real power is. The voices that are given the most space are those who have the existing power, who represents the interest of maintaining the status quo and this is a big problem at that international level. It’s that we’re not putting the issues that really need to be discussed in the primary position.

Nerina: Which are the issues that need to be discussed?

Jason: Some of the things which are kind of unquestioned are this idea that we can have economic growth forever, and maybe through our innovation, we will find a way to stop damaging the environment, while still growing. But it comes back to the ideology that we actually need economic growth. There’s lots of literature out there which challenges this assumption but I think in terms of disaster risk reduction community it’s not really being challenged vigorously enough.

I would say that most of those in the scientific community, certainly most of those in large global institutions move ahead with that assumption. Maybe they agree that we should challenge but they think argh it’s just too difficult, it is not the right time. You know we have to work within the limits of like where we are in this time and space.

The other one that I really felt strongly about recently was this idea that we can continue to consume to the level that is expected by developed societies, highly developed societies. If you’re going to developing countries and you start to talk to people about what their idea of success or of a healthy society would be. They usually point to a country like the US or they point to Europe and say if only we could be like them, then we would be developed and we would be successful. As a global community and led by Western culture, we’ve become addicted to trying to consume and trying to accumulate as much as possible. The reality is that we’re on a planet with finite resources and already we consume far more than the earth can replenish. Only a small part of human society has reached developed or highly developed status.

So, when you start to let your mind think ahead to what would it mean for humanity if 5 billion more people join the middle class and start to consume the average American. That’s really a crazy thought and that’s a very scary prospect because it is just not possible. So, we need to start talking about this much more seriously. We need to start not only talking to developing nations and say well maybe that’s not the trajectory for societies to go in. But we have to challenge our own conception of what’s we are entitled to. Are we in highly developed countries entitled to consume like this forever when everybody else can’t or you know we can’t really say that. But on the other hand, are we really prepared to give up what we’re used to. It’s a big challenge.

Nerina: Yes indeed and what kind of world do you see these for researchers?

Jason: So in my position as a researcher, as a scientist, I try to think about what kind of knowledge I can generate, can I build which will actually help people to fight against injustice, which will help people to mobilize to move ahead, to build momentum to create change. So that’s kind of where I think I can best use my time and my efforts is by using my position to speak, to create this discussion to refocus people on they’re the real problems. They not only need to understand why but they need to understand how, like what they can do. I think there’s an important role for academics, for scientists to generate change.

Nerina: What kind of change do we need?

Jason: I’m making a documentary movie which is called Deviate and it’s really trying to express, articulate a lot of these issues which I’m interested in, which are connected to disasters. In the making of this movie, I’ve been talking with a lot of people who are part of movements or who are kind of influencers in different ways of change. I am hearing stories about how people resist structural injustice in their society and how they generate momentum for movements for change. So, there are different ways and I think we need a coordinated effort in all these different spaces. I mean there is no panacea, there’s no one way to get to a better society. But we need to advocate for all of these strategies as a coordinated movement for change which is inclusive because there’s no one way that we can make things better.

Nerina: Is there something that everybody can or should do? 

Jason: I think we need to really go outside our comfort zone in our own sphere of influence. We need to really make a robust challenge to the existing status quo, which tells us that we need growth, we need to increase consumption, and we need to accumulate stuff. Like we not only need to challenge government decisions, we need to challenge like our friends and our family about the choices they’re making and the ideas and the myths sometimes of which they’re so attached to. So we need to be willing to go, move outside our own comfortable existence. Of course, I speak is a very privileged person.

At the core, I think we need to develop a more human understanding person-to-person across those divisions in society and in international borders and so on. To understand that we have shared values, shared space of this planet and it’s the only one that we have. Anyone who speculates that we might just move on someone else’s is probably a little too optimistic.

We need people to understand, especially people in privileged position that there is actually value in caring for the people who are on the margins. Making the world better for everybody not just for us, not just for you know my family or my friends. It’s actually expanding what we care about beyond our little groups, beyond our social groups, beyond our national border. The solutions will not really happen if people in positions of privilege are willing to recognize that the way that they’re privileged is not fair and for them to be privileged, other people have to lose out. When you realize that then you can start to bring yourself to a position where you say oh I don’t need all these things and how can I be happy if other people are not happy. When we start to do that we start to humanize each other, we start to humanize the most marginalized in society.

Nerina: If you had the power and if it would be possible is there one thing that you would like to change tomorrow?

Jason: Oh wow. I would like to change the behavior of people that exercise power over other people in a negative way and change their behavior… change their mindset so that they understand that actually there are alternative futures. There’s a different way to do things where we can set up a society which functions well around shared values and around respect for each other, you know, around love, around trust and that’s actually powerful as well. If enough people come together around those values we can have a different society, but as long as the way that society is constructed is based on an oppressive type of power, like power over others I think that it’s going to be very difficult to resist that. Because a lot of times people become very obsessed with taking over the power, but as we’ve seen through history many times when a really revolutionary movement or individuals take power, they just end up oppressing other people.

I think there’s a problem with how we use power in the world and if there one thing I could change it would be to eradicate that behavior and that ideology of using power oppressively.

Nerina: What drives you? What motivates you?

Jason: I have five children you know quite young. When I got into this field when I started to read broadly and really understood the gravity of our situation with my limited understanding of science you have to think of the future. You have to think like what is the world going to be like for my kids or for their kids. The thing that motivates me is the concern of course for my children, but also all of the positive things that I see happening around the world.

The more that I meet people who are really on the frontline of the fight against injustice I realize there are more people than I thought that really want a better future. What gives me hope is that the majority of people do want a better future; they do want a future which is sustainable. The majority of us want a planet where our kids will be healthy and will be able to enjoy life.

Nerina: What is your dream? 

Jason: My dream is that the people who are trying to build change movements are successful and actually reach enough people to generate the power of the masses to say the world we want to live in is very different than what we have. So we’re going to dismantle the status quo and we’re going to build something different.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Jason, for this conversation. 

Jason: You’re very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity to speak to you Nerina.

#followup with Jason von Meding | Deviate - the movie about disasters

Jason von Meding, senior lecturer in Disaster Risk reduction is making a movie: Deviate. Disasters are not natural.

We spoke with him about his motivation, the purpose of the movie, some myths about disasters, the challenges, and the experiences during the shooting in Vietnam.

Watch the trailer:
Watch the video:

and construction management. School of Architecture and built environment University of Newcastle, Australia.

Monir Uddin Ahmed

Monir Uddin Ahmed

Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology, Primeasia University. Executive Editor at Scientific Bangladesh & Member of the Global Young Academy.

Research and leadership for a developed Bangladesh

There is a tiny world around us. The world we can’t see or touch. However, it has a huge influence on us, both negative and positive. Small bacteria protect us and attack us all the time.

Dr. Monir Uddin Ahmed from Primeasia University, Bangladesh, researches these tiny living organisms in order to make better food, and make our lives better and healthier. To make life better is his real passion, and he believes that more research and more effective leaders can improve society, and help Bangladesh to become a more developed country.

Watch our interview with Dr. Monir on microbiology, research, and leadership.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Monir Uddin Ahmed's Video here

Monir: Hi, this is Monir Uddin Ahmed, talking from Bangladesh from the capital of Dhaka city. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in microbiology, a master’s degree in biotechnology, and I did my Ph.D. in microbiology in Australia.

Nerina: What is so interesting about microbiology?

Monir: Microbiology is very interesting because we are dealing with organisms that are not visible to the naked eye—we need a microscope to see them. But these very tiny organisms are very smart and very powerful and mostly have benefits to humans and other animals and plants. Very few cause diseases, but still, we are more concerned about their harmful effects—that is the interesting part.

Nerina: What kind of positive effects do these microorganisms have?

Monir: Microorganisms have a positive role in every sphere of our lives, they live in our body, and we call them normal flora. They prevent pathogenic microorganisms from colonising in our body; they prevent them from attacking our body under normal conditions by occupying a space, fighting for food, and many other things. Some even provide us with vitamins.

Nerina: What was the topic of your dissertation?

Monir: My Ph.D. was on an organism called Campylobacter jejuni which is one of the most frequently encountered microvillus bacterial pathogen in the food industry; especially in milk, water, and meat. Globally, it causes a very large number of infections every year.

Nerina: So, you wrote that you want to make life better by making food better? 

Monir: Yes, because we cannot live without food, so if foods are safer, then our lives become safer. We have to make food safe from microorganisms, especially bacterial pathogens which can easily get into foods—this is a global public health problem in both developing and developed countries. For example, Australia and New Zealand had the highest number of Campylobacter infections in the world; both of them are developed countries, but in our country, we have a slightly different problem. In developed countries, infection comes from meat mostly, but in developing countries like ours, it is from water and milk. My research interest was India—finding the source of infection—if we can find the source of infection, we can find ideas of how to prevent the bacteria from entering foods.

Nerina: You also initiated a science magazine? 

Monir: Yes, I have started a science magazine which is online only and bilingual. I would say that it is the only serious science magazine in Bangladesh. We want to talk more about the policy level and review how our research organisations are performing. Since 2011 we have been publishing a review of science publications in Bangladesh; how many articles are published, which organisation is at the top, and also, which scientist is at the top.

Nerina: What is the purpose of this magazine? 

Monir: I’m dreaming about developed Bangladesh. The theme of our scientific Bangladesh magazine is a science review for developed Bangladesh. Actually, our mission is a science review for developing Bangladesh. We want to see Bangladesh as a developed country; and we believe that in reviewing its scientific performance, and government and non-government associations, we can contribute a lot to that field.

Nerina: How relevant is research for a developing country, like Bangladesh, in your opinion? 

Monir: As far as we can say, research is relevant because research means finding a solution to a problem. In a country, especially a developing one like Bangladesh which is highly populated and overcrowded, we have more problems in comparison to other countries. We have different problems, so we have to find our own solution to those problems—be it social, microbiological, physical science, whatever it is—to reduce the problems and make our lives better, healthier, and prosperous—we don’t have any way other than research.

Nerina: How relevant is research from a developing country, like Bangladesh? 

Monir: Scientists have the same role in both developed and developing countries—they have to play a dual role; one is working in the laboratory finding the solution of the national and global problem, and communicate the solution to the public, to other scientists, and to the policy makers. By playing this dual role, I think scientists can really bring changes. If they don’t emphasise both types of roles, it’s very difficult to bring any changes to the society or the country because there are lots of solutions and findings sitting in the laboratory that are not commercialised or communicated to the people or the policy makers.

Nerina: What are the main challenges that researchers are facing in Bangladesh? 

Monir: First of all, the lack of sufficient funding. Secondly, we have issues with leadership in the scientific area. Thirdly, we are lacking in infrastructure (the technological side) — we have issues with lab facilities, instruments for laboratories, and consumables for laboratories. These are three areas where we have to make improvements.

Nerina: What should or could be done in order to improve the situation? 

Monir: I think we have to focus both on improving the technical facilities in the laboratory and leadership skills of the scientists equally. Because we might have technical facilities, but if we don’t have the leadership to run the laboratories properly, we will not utilise the funds and technical facilities properly. The limited facilities that we have, I’d say we are not utilising with more than 50% efficiency because we have poor leadership everywhere, especially in the scientific area. So if we can improve leadership, we can make better use of our money and human resources—our intelligence and merits. Without focusing on that area, we cannot improve. Actually with whatever area we are talking about, be it politics or science, improvement or progress is proportional to the quality of leadership.

Nerina: What does leadership mean to you?

Monir: In one word; leadership is influence. I have my own definition of leadership; because that’s my area of interest, and I’m writing a book about leadership in Bangladesh. So my definition is leadership is influencing people to act to achieve goals. Whenever a scientist is working they have a goal; to achieve that goal they have to influence other scientists to work because research cannot be done alone. Actually, hardly anything can be done alone.

Nerina: In your opinion, what does a researcher need in order to become a good leader? 

Monir: The first point is communication skills. The second point is specific goal setting—what I want to do and by when. If we don’t have any goals, then things will not actually go anywhere. The third point that’s important is that we want to contribute to our community and the world. If we can find a solution to a problem, it will be used throughout the world. It will not be limited to any specific area or country, though we might try to distribute technology, it’s very difficult, so scientific discovery by anyone of any race, colour, and nationality, that is the asset of the community and the world. We have to think about that one; that we are making a contribution to the community and it has a long lasting impact.

Nerina: If you had all the money and the power you could imagine and you could change something, what would you change?

Monir: I would like to do something that will have impact generation after generation. I’ll increase the investment in research and education as it is said that investment in self-development is the best investment; for individuals and as a nation. I’ll invest that money in the development of people; that is their psychological and intellectual development. In other words, I can say I’ll invest in leadership development in every single person in the country and the whole world.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Monir: Actually, motivation is that… As a Muslim, we believe that we have life after death, and there are two options—either we go to heaven or hell. It depends on our activities. There are two types; one is worshipping God, or Allah—that will be finished when I die—but also if I do anything for humanity that is affecting the lives of humans, I’ll get benefit from that. So people may not be aware of what I’m doing or how my work is affecting their lives, but it will continue. That is called, in my religious language, “Sadqa e Jariah”, which means your charity will continue even after you are dead. So I see it this way, this is the driving force behind trying to bring changes or influencing lives of people.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of? 

Monir: I have a dream of a just society where everyone will be treated with justice because without justice we cannot have peace and prosperity.

Nerina: What would you tell a teenager in Bangladesh who would like to become a researcher?

Monir: I would say try to know your field of interest, find your interest, be it social, political or natural science, and then focus on solving problems in people’s lives. There is no greater contentment than solving problems for people, so if you really want to enjoy that contentment, then you can be a researcher.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Monir. 

Monir: Thank you Nerina for calling from Sweden and giving me the opportunity to share my ideas and experiences, and convey my message to people, politicians, and teenagers in my country. Thank you very much.

Nerina: Thank you, Monir.


Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology, Primeasia University. Executive Editor at Scientific Bangladesh & Member of the Global Young Academy.

Paul Mason

Paul Mason
Medical Anthropologist

Associate Lecturer, Macquarie University, Australia

Why does tuberculosis still kill?

Tuberculosis is a slow killer, and a hugely neglected disease. The programmes we currently have are not sufficient to stop TB. So, what are we doing wrong?
Paul Mason shares his vision of how we should address tuberculosis, and what approach we need to take in order to cure it.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Paul Mason's Video here

Paul: Hi, my name is Paul Mason. I am medical anthropologist based in Sydney, Australia. I work for the Woolcock Institute for medical research and also the Center for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney.

Nerina: How did you get into this field?

Paul: Okay, so my background is in biomedical science. I actually started off working in neuroscience on the brain and I was doing laboratory research in neuroimaging and then I moved into neurogenetics and then I moved to circadian rhythm research actually. And what I started to realize is that if we want to understand how organisms work, we have to understand them in context. This drew me increasingly towards anthropology because the basic premise of anthropology is to understand matters in context because it is the context that confers meaning. So after my biomedical science degree and after working in a few laboratories doing a honors in psychophysics, I then drifted into anthropology and eventually did a PhD in anthropology because I saw that the social and cultural dimensions of human behavior are so important to understanding how biological and physiological dimensions about being come into life and how they come into being.

Nerina: What has an anthropologist to do with tuberculosis actually?

Paul: As an anthropologist, I spent a year in Vietnam interviewing TB patients. So I interviewed 75 tuberculosis patients, conducted focus group discussions in rural villages in the southernmost province of Vietnam and also performed what is called Participant Observation Research in diagnostic laboratories and district health center. That means I took part in the lives of the people around me, I became involved in the activities of the health center and the diagnostic laboratory and mapped up and documented the activities in order to analyze it from a qualitative perspective.

Nerina: And what picked your interest for tuberculosis?

Paul: Tuberculosis is an infectious disease. It outranks HIV/AIDS as the world’s biggest infectious killer. So, sadly over 1.5 million people die from tuberculosis disease each year and this really shouldn’t be the case. There is an effective treatment for tuberculosis, so there are antimicrobials that patients can take to get rid of this disease and become healthy again. Sadly, however, too many of these patients are not accessing the proper diagnosis and treatment for tuberculosis.

It’s a very slow killer, so it takes a long time to kill someone which means that it has lots of opportunities to transmit to other people. The most likely scenario to get tuberculosis is sharing a house with someone who has tuberculosis and having a high microbial load in the environment.

Tuberculosis is a hugely neglected disease. There is funding available to conduct tuberculosis research, to fund tuberculosis control and care and prevention program, but it’s not sufficient. And so, as the biggest infectious disease but one that we can actually cure, I felt that this was an area where I could channel my skills and that would pay off, because we do have a cure for this disease. It’s just a matter of making sure that the cure is getting to the patients.

Nerina: What do we do wrong actually when we have a cure but we don’t cure the patients?

Paul: I think actually it comes down to this as an answer. We tend to invest all available life in the cure of tuberculosis in the tablets that we give to patients. So donor agencies around the world and foreign aid organizations work hard to make sure that those pills are offered for free to tuberculosis patients around the world. But what we forget of course with that is the care and support services that need to accompany those pills in order to make sure those patients can fulfill their complete treatment and treatments for tuberculosis are long.

At a minimum, they take six months, at their worst they can take up to five years and so this isn’t a very easy disease to treat. In the sense that it requires a big investment on behalf of the patients who have to access services, who have to find ways of making money when they can’t go to work, finding ways of meeting the ancillary costs of treatment, having proper nutrition, looking after the side effects that the drugs you are taking etc. So there are a lot of peripheral dimensions to treatment that we forget if we focus too much on the pills and don’t think enough about the quality of life and the patient important outcomes.

Nerina: How important is context for tuberculosis?

Paul: Oh, context is almost everything. I might be overstating it but allow me to explain. Not everyone who gets tuberculosis falls sick with tuberculosis. In fact, they estimate that around only 10% of people who are infected with the organism actually become sick with tuberculosis.

So, this says something. It says something about one people suspected genetic predisposition but secondly, it also tells us about the conditions in which someone is living. If someone is living in an overcrowded living arrangement, if someone is malnourished, if someone is living in poverty, these are the biggest risk factors for tuberculosis. Even before they discovered the organism Mycobacterium tuberculosis researchers and medical clinicians saw a relationship between poverty and tuberculosis. So, in fact, if we want to address tuberculosis then we have to address the conditions that foster the transmission of the disease and the activation of the disease in vulnerable bodies.

Nerina: But do we have a problem with resistance?

Paul: We have a very big problem with resistance. So sadly the globally standardized models of treatment that we’ve been using for tuberculosis have been focusing on drugs susceptible tuberculosis. Drug resistant tuberculosis in some locations around the world may, in fact, replace drug susceptible strains of tuberculosis.

Nerina: Why do we not speak about this danger or why do we not speak about tuberculosis that much?

Paul: This is a really interesting question because and I think a very superficial answer. Not an inaccurate answer but a superficial answer is it doesn’t affect us. In high-income countries tuberculosis is something that we can get treated, so if we get tuberculosis we go get treated and then we forget about it, which is unlike HIV/AIDS for example. If someone has HIV/AIDS that’s a chronic condition. At the moment we don’t have a way of getting rid of this disease, someone has it for the rest of their life. So this generates advocacy groups around HIV and AIDs, we don’t see the same culture of advocacy around tuberculosis.

So not only is it not happening much in high-income countries, it also is a surmountable problem in high income countries. People in low and middle-income countries don’t have the facilities to create this advocacy groups, don’t have the resources to create a community around this disease and really foster and support each other through what is a very lengthy treatment process. So because it doesn’t happen before eyes because it isn’t problematic for us, I think it’s very easy to forget how challenging this disease can be for people in the developing world.

Nerina: How can we beat this illness?

Paul: To really stop the devastation that tuberculosis is causing on human populations, then we really need to think about the complexity of this disease. We really need to be thinking about a holistic integrative approach that looks at the disease, not in terms of just a pharmaceutical treatment but also in terms of human races, in terms of food security, in terms political mobility behind the disease, economic capacity building, as well as stigma reduction strategies. So, there’s no simple answer to that question but there’s a very exciting answer in the sense of looking at these integrative holistic solutions.

Nerina: You wrote a book for children about tuberculosis. Could you tell me more about it?

Paul: I did, yeah. This is really exciting. I wrote a book about tuberculosis based on my work in Vietnam and the book has got this lovely message about supporting someone who is on treatment: sending them an SMS, sending them a letter, letting them know that you’re thinking about them, supporting their families as well. So it’s a very simple book, it’s got a very simple message and it talks about the diagnosis, the treatment, the symptoms of tuberculosis. What’s been really exciting for me is that I’ve been contacted by people from Tanzania, people from Malaysia, people from Indonesia, from Romania, from so many different countries to do translations themselves. That’s been really fun and almost weekly now I am putting the book into a new translation and making it available for free on the Internet.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Paul: It’s the opportunity to do something to someone else. It’s the opportunity to contribute. The sense of fulfillment that you get from doing that.

Nerina: And what is the most important lesson that you have learned from your research?

Paul: The most important lesson I’ve learned is perseverance. A tuberculosis patient I’ve worked with in 2014. He surmounted incredible challenges to: in the first instance to get a diagnosis, in second instance to complete his treatment. And when I realized how the small tokens of effort that came from me how much they transformed his life that’s when I realized that if we are willing to step outside our box, if we’re willing to really persevere and make those small tokens of effort possible then we can engage in some wonderful acts of reciprocity that build really unlikely friendships and transform lives around the world.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Paul: Well, for one, I dream of a society that is free from the conditions of hostile diseases like tuberculosis that’s free from poverty. I dream of a society where we think about sustainability not just in terms of rhetoric but in terms of the practices that we bring into everyday life. I dream of an integrated society, you know a society that is free from conflict on a mass scale and mistrust. I think it’s really possible to engage in cross-cultural communication in ways that are fruitful and creative and constructive. I want to live in a world that isn’t as destructive as it currently is. I’d really like to live in a world where people learn how to get along and I just don’t know whether we’re quite there yet but we have the skills out there. I just want to make sure that those skills in some sort of way are getting to the greatest number of people possible.

Nerina: Thank you Paul.

Paul: Well thank you very much, Nerina. I appreciate that.

#followup with Paul Mason

Last year, we spoke to the medical anthropologist Paul Mason who told up about his research on tuberculosis. On the occasion of the World Tuberculosis Day, 24 March 2018, we spoke with him again. Listen to Paul and learn more about TB and Daru Island.

Watch the video:

Associate Lecturer, Macquarie University, Australia

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