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Being the first woman from the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research (PNGIMR) to obtain a PhD for her research into HIV drug resistance in the PNG Highlands, Burnet Institute alumna Dr Janet Gare had many challenges to overcome.
And there are many more challenges ahead, now that she’s graduated and returned to PNG to fill a senior role in sexual health research.
Dr Gare’s four years studying at Burnet on a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) scholarship were split between fieldwork in PNG and time in the laboratory in Melbourne.
But her aim was always to return to her hometown of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province. Upon returning from studies in October 2015, Dr Gare was appointed as the Laboratory Co-ordinator of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit of the PNGIMR.
It’s PNG’s principal laboratory for research into HIV and other sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and syphilis.
Recently, the laboratory has embarked several integrated studies aimed at understanding the epidemiology of human papilloma virus in PNG and its relationship to cervical cancer, the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in women in PNG.
“The problem of HIV and STIs is not just limited to the Eastern Highlands Province,” Dr Gare said. “In Papua New Guinea, there’s a high rate of infections among young people.
“In fact, PNG has the highest rate of STIs including HIV in the South Pacific, and is among the top five in the South East Asian region, so we have an important role to play to address a serious problem.”
IMAGE: Dr Anna Hearps, Dr Janet Gare and Professor Suzanne Crowe AM celebrate the awarding of Dr Gare’s doctorate
Dr Gare was recently appointed acting head of her unit, which has given her a new perspective of the bigger picture, and the importance of funding.
“There’s a lot of research to be done for a lot of unanswered questions, but it all comes back to where we can source our funding,” she said.
“Most research funding comes from competitive research grants including from DFAT and a small portion from the PNG government.
“We cannot do all the research we need to do on our own, we need financial support, research support and working with collaborators and having a relationship with an institute such as Burnet is so important.”
As the first woman from PNG in her current role, Dr Gare is looking forward to setting a positive example.
“It’s challenging, being the first local female with a PhD in my institute, I have to perform well in a male dominated area,” she said.
“My achievement should be an encouragement for the up-coming young female scientists including the five who are currently doing their PhD, mostly in Australia, that it is possible to complete their degree and attain a PhD.
“It’s exciting and well pleasing that women are now taking leading roles in medical research.”
That excitement is shared by Professor Suzanne Crowe AM, Dr Gare’s supervisor at Burnet and the Institute’s Associate Director of Clinical Research.
“Janet has achieved so much already, but she’s committed to making a difference,” Professor Crowe said.
“She’s returned home to be a leader, not only for the IMR, but for Papua New Guinea.”