Gita Vita Soraya helping Indonesia become malaria-free

Indonesian PhD student Gita Vita Soraya from Melbourne University is working to find an easier way to diagnose malaria. Gita and her team recently received research grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She tells Australia Plus more about her research and its impact on the Asia Pacific.


Your PhD research aims to develop a diagnostic device in precision medicine. Can you tell us more about it?

"I am currently doing a PhD at the University of Melbourne... my project involves developing point-of-care diagnostics for applications in precision medicine. Together with my team, I am aiming to develop a diagnostic device that can be utilised without requiring a laboratory (as is the current gold standard), and can be used at a low price to perform genetic testing predictive of life-threatening drug reactions. I am fond of the fact that my team and supervisors are all passionate about the issue, and that we have a common goal."

Diagnostics, we believe, should be made accessible to everyone despite their geographical location and economic status. It can determine whether a patient receives appropriate diagnosis and therapy in a safe and cost-effective manner.

What is the scope of the project being funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

"The project aims to develop an ultra-sensitive (1000 fold more sensitive than current diagnostic tests) and non-invasive point-of-care immunosensor for malaria. The team (Professor Stephen Rogerson (Doherty Institute), Professor Stan Skafidas (CfNE), Professor Patrick Kwan (Department of Medicine) and myself) will be developing dielectric immunosensors targeting parasite proteins expressed by malaria parasites commonly found in the Asia Pacific region, to be validated on both infected saliva and blood samples.

By optimising the platform on saliva samples they hope that it can provide an alternative as a less invasive diagnostic tool. Ideally, the prototype should be low-cost and as user-friendly as possible to improve accessibility."

What is the expected contribution by the project? If successful, how will it affect malaria management in countries such as Indonesia?

"The project was based on the need for a diagnostic tool that would be suitable to aid in the elimination of malaria.

Indonesia is currently listed as one of the countries in the Asia Pacific Elimination Network, and aims to be malaria-free by 2030. Overall the nation’s effort to control malaria has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of people dying of malaria.

However, there are still many cases of malaria, and there are clear differences in malaria burden across the islands in the archipelago, which are affected by geographical, infrastructural, and financial limitations.

There is also the issue of the limitations of current diagnostics available in the field in terms of sensitivity.

Current Rapid Diagnostics are insufficient for detecting low levels of parasites, which is imperative in elimination settings. It is this gap for Indonesia, namely the lack of a sensitive, low-cost, and user friendly diagnostic test, that this new project wants to address."

What challenges do you face while working on multidisciplinary projects?

"I think every PhD will have its own unique challenges depending on the type of project. For my case, the biggest challenge has been adaptation.

I come from a clinical/medical background but have decided to endeavour on a project with a more translational and multidisciplinary approach. Although it is very exciting, it took some time for me to adapt to a different mindset, a different way of thinking, and learn the required practical skills I needed for the project."

Often, things don’t go the way you plan. But I believe that is all part of the process, in which we learn to plan, manage, and execute research both independently and through collaboration. And most importantly, learn from mistakes and always keep moving forward even if initial experiments fail!

How do you see the research environment you are in now?

"One of the reasons I chose to work on my project was because I saw something that I really wanted to be a part of, and that is interdisciplinary approaches in medical research. I have not had the opportunity to experience that prior to my PhD, and my idea of research was somewhat more confined to purely clinical research.

Don’t get me wrong, clinical research is absolutely exciting. But I wanted to try something different; I wanted to do something where I can work together with scientists from fields outside of my own to create novel approaches and innovations.

Collaborating with other scientists in a very diverse research team here has widened my horizons so broadly. Day to day, I am working with clinicians, molecular biologists and engineers. There really is never a dull moment when you are surrounded by motivating and interesting people.

"They encouraged me to think outside the box as well as learn how I can place my expertise in line with theirs to work as a team. I really believe this is where the scientific world is heading for the future."

What do you think of Indonesia's research environment?

"Indonesia is no different, and big changes have been taking place in the last several years. The Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP) is one of the biggest contributors, in my honest opinion.

LPDP allows Indonesian graduates to pursue their higher degrees in accordance to their interests as long as it is a strategic field that can be beneficial to Indonesia in the long term. I believe it’s an amazing stepping stone for improving our nation's academic atmosphere and output.

LPDP is my sponsor and I cannot thank them enough for the opportunity for allowing me to pursue the field that I am interested in. Also, research grant schemes like the Indonesian Science Fund (DIPI) are a breath of fresh air since it will allow for more flexibility and collaboration among academics."

How does your family support you in your work?

"I am currently living with my husband Muhammad Yasir Wahab and our 3-year-old son Aqil. My husband has been very supportive throughout the PhD. It is very hard indeed to be far away from our big family in Indonesia as we are used to having our families around.

But now that it is only the three of us, with both my husband and me working, we have learned to work together through our hardships, and to understand each other’s strengths and limitations."

Ultimately, life should be about addressing your challenges, chasing your dreams, and savouring every precious moment with your loved ones.

This story first appeared in ABC Australia Plus on 2nd June 2016. Click here to view the original.