New scholars to honour Evelyn Lavu

Image: Professor Evelyn Lavu

Laboratory scientists Nomin-Dora Tenakanai and Jennifer Kopania Banamu are the inaugural winners of a new travel scholarship created to encourage tuberculosis (TB) researchers in Papua New Guinea (PNG) to expand their skill set at Burnet Institute.

The Evelyn Lavu Travel Scholarship provides AUD $5,000 for a PNG national who is a healthcare worker, researcher or scientist to travel to Australia to participate in research, training or mentoring in the field of tuberculosis.

Offered by Burnet Institute in partnership with the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Tuberculosis Control (TB-CRE), the scholarship honours the late Professor Lavu, a leader in the field of genetics and diagnostics who made a vital contribution to TB research in PNG and at Burnet.

Rather than share the scholarship, the selection panel elected to award both recipients a full scholarship in acknowledgement of the excellence of their applications and to help provide a strengthening of skills at a time of critical need in PNG.

A longstanding former colleague of Professor Lavu, Jennifer Kopania Banamu oversees tuberculosis diagnostics for PNG in her role as lead scientist at the Central Public Health Laboratory (CPHL) in Port Moresby.

Ms Banamu said she was excited to take up the scholarship in honour of Professor Lavu who was a mentor and strong supporter of her work.

“Receiving added training during this scholarship will enable me to gain additional skills and knowledge to move further in TB diagnosis and testing,” Ms Banamu said.

“I will then be able to impart that knowledge gained to young Papua New Guineans in the same field.”

Ms Banamu graduated with a Diploma in Medical Laboratory Sciences at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences UPNG in 2000 and obtained her bachelor’s degree in 2014.

Nomin-Dora Tenakanai joined Burnet in 2019 as a laboratory scientist on the clinical trial of the Truenat TB rapid diagnostic, designed to address an urgent need for accurate, cheaper, point-of-care TB diagnostics for use in rural and remote settings in a country like PNG as an alternative to laboratory-based instruments.

Ms Tenakanai will dedicate her scholarship to investigating the contamination rates of TB cultures from laboratories in tropical settings, an issue prompted by her work on the Truenat clinical trial.

“I am honoured to be one of the first recipients of the Professor Evelyn Lavu Scholarship, and thankful to the TB CRE, Burnet and the family of the late Professor Lavu,” Ms Tenakanai said.

“To me, she was the kind of role model that did not mentor you from where she was, but from where she had come from and how far she could see you go.”

Ms Tenakanai graduated with a Bachelor of Science from UPNG in 2011 and has worked as a TB technician in a range of settings including CPHL, Alotau Provincial Hospital and in the Marshall Islands.

Burnet researcher and international paediatric health expert Professor Steve Graham said Professor Lavu was an inspirational leader for women in PNG to engage in academia and science.

“It was Evelyn’s vision to strengthen laboratory diagnostics for TB and multidrug resistant TB in PNG – that was the focus of her PhD and it’s a focus of this scholarship,” Professor Graham said.

“Evelyn would be immensely proud of such a legacy to provide an opportunity for Nomin-Dora Tenakanai and Jennifer Kopania Banamu to strengthen their skills to fight TB.”

Current statistics show that 1.5 million people die from TB each year while another nine million people including many children struggle to overcome the debilitating effects of the disease, with a huge global burden in the Asia-Pacific region.

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