Dr Celestine Aho has always aspired to lead scientific research that translates into practical results for PNG.

It was that ambition that led her into an early career as a scientific officer in Goroka – and prompted her to continue to develop her skills.

‘I came to a point, before going for [further] studies, where I knew I wanted to do more than just laboratory work,’ Dr Aho says.

‘I realised I wasn’t in a position to lead research, and to be able to do that I needed to get a PhD and be equipped with the skills required to be an independent researcher and compete for research grants and lead research in PNG.’

Dr Aho decided to apply for a doctorate through the Australia Awards Scholarships program in 2015.

Her efforts paid off, and she was recently awarded a PhD in Microbiology at the Menzies School of Health Research, affiliated with Charles Darwin University.

She has wasted no time in applying her new qualifications and knowledge to support healthy communities back in PNG.

As a Research Fellow at the PNG Institute of Medical Research in Goroka, Dr Aho is part of a team conducting COVID-19 diagnostic tests for communities across PNG, under the supervision of fellow Australia Awards alumna Dr Janet Gare.

Dr Aho believes her doctoral study has helped her to support an effective response to the pandemic.

‘I have a better understanding of disease transmission and techniques in pathogen detection which has benefited my current role. I am confident in my scientific, writing and analytical skills and I’m a better researcher.’

In addition to her work on the COVID-19 response, Dr Aho is also undertaking research on otitis media (middle ear infection) among children in PNG, building on her PhD thesis which looked at understanding pathogens with relevance to otitis media management in PNG.

Dr Aho’s doctoral research was partly supported by the Allison Sudradjat Prize, which she was awarded in 2015.

The Prize is given annually to outstanding Australia Awards scholars, honouring the late Australian senior official who championed education for development in PNG and Indonesia.

Dr Aho was also the 2018 inaugural awardee of the Deborah Lehmann Research Award during her final year in PhD studies.

The award recognises early career researchers in the Pacific who are investigating infectious diseases in children.

Dr Aho says her work in this field has a strong personal motivation.

‘My personal experience of having a sibling with otitis media in childhood prompted me to do my post-doctoral research in this area.

‘Otitis media is a common childhood infection and causes hearing loss which can affect a child’s language, cognitive and learning development, putting him or her at an educational and social disadvantage.’

Dr Aho is one of many alumni contributing at the frontline of PNG’s COVID-19 response, and to improving the country’s health generally, and is an impressive example of female leadership in action.

With applications for long-term Australia Awards Scholarships opening in February 2021, Dr Aho encourages other Papua New Guinean women to take up the opportunity of further studies and make a lasting contribution to PNG’s development.

Australia Awards Scholarships are prestigious international awards offered by the Australian Government to Papua New Guinea’s current and future leaders.