Diaries From the Field Blog

Barriers, Boxes and Borneo Adventures

July 07, 2017
Lab Space After
Clinical Research Center lab at SEGi University: "After"
Lab Space Before
Clinical Research Center lab at SEGi University: "Before"

By Sarah Philo, MSc-GH student

We’ve been here in Malaysia for almost a month, and time is flying. Research was slow to start as we were developing protocols and reaching out to our field collaborators about sample collection. But now, it seems I blink and six new things have happened. 

Sometimes these are good, other times they are pretty big road blocks we have to find a way around. More times than not, I feel we take two steps forward and one step back.

One of our biggest challenges starting here was our lab space. Over the summer, we have plans to collect hundreds of samples from local markets, hospitals and pig farms. Then, we have to extract the genetic material from any viruses present in the samples and run PCR to see if one of our 19 target viruses are present. 

Needless to say, there is a lot of lab work to do, but we didn’t get our own lab space until our third week here. Drs. Toh and Lim were tirelessly working with contractors to get the lab finished, but our short timeline this summer made any delays that much more stressful. Thankfully, we’re now fully moved into a wonderful lab space (I think we have more room than at Duke!). It’s really exciting to get a lab up and running not only for our summer research, but also for (hopefully) future international research collaborations.

One barrier we’ve started to face recently isn’t necessarily bad, but can lead to some logistical nightmares without careful planning: we all need access to a biosafety cabinet before we can do any analysis on our samples. 

Sometimes, we realize too late that we have all planned on using the cabinet at the same time. We learned pretty quickly that we needed to spend more time talking about our daily lab plans to avoid any unnecessary stress during the day. 

Unfortunately, some of our barriers have posed a greater problem than too many people trying to work at once. I'm going to start by quoting the well-known fictional character Neville Longbottom:

“The only problem is I can't remember what I've forgotten.”

Sometimes, you don’t even remember you've forgotten something. Despite all of our careful planning, a few key supplies fell through the cracks and we left them at Duke. Just like Neville, we couldn’t remember what we've forgotten until it’s too late and we needed to use whatever it is we forgot. 

Luckily, because we have an incredible support system with our collaborators here in Malaysia and the rest of the lab group back at Duke, the supply issues were quickly solved and we’ve been able to push forward on sample collection. 

One of the more surprising obstacles we’ve faced happened on our first visit to a pig farm. Before entering the barn to start sample collection, Laura, Rick, Kerry and I were asked in what year we were born. The farm owner was interested in learning our Chinese Zodiac sign to make sure they weren’t threatening to the pregnant sows and the piglets. 

Rick, born in the year of the tiger, was seen to be too threatening and wasn’t allowed in the barn. Fortunately, this gave him the chance to collect nasal washes from the farm owners while Laura and I walked ankle deep in mud to collect samples from the pigs.

 
 

Me (Sarah) collecting pig stool samples

Despite all of these potential issues, our team has found ways to enjoy ourselves and de-stress after long days in the hospital. We had the chance to celebrate Hari Raya with Dr. Toh and his family by visiting the homes of Muslims throughout Sibu. We had so much great food, and one thing we really loved were the many varieties of layer cakes found only in Sarawak that are served for holidays and special events. 

 
 

Our team in the home of one of the hospital nurses celebrating Hari Raya at her family's open house

We also managed to find an “escape room” here in Sibu. For those of you who don’t know about escape rooms, you pay a company to get locked in a room and then have to solve puzzles in under an hour to find your way out. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t make the time cut (we got out in 61 minutes), and I still think the language barrier had something to do with our ultimate demise. They have three other rooms and we definitely plan on going back to redeem ourselves!

 
 

Jane, Rick and Sarah with Jane's friend from home, Gabe (the pirate), and her boyfriend, Bubby (in the clown wig)

Needless to say, we’re really enjoying both our research and our free time here. We’ve been able to overcome hurdles through teamwork and creative thinking. 

I’m thankful for the research team, both here in Malaysia and at Duke. Together I know we’re going to accomplish some really cool stuff this summer. 

This post was originally published on the research team’s blog and was republished with permission.

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