Student lands grant to further tuberculosis control in Indonesia

Tuberculosis control in Indonesia's Philips Loh
Philips Loh at the MDR-TB clinic at Persehabatan Hospital, Jakarta, Indonesia. (courtesy of Loh)

September 26, 2013 — For Philips Loh, the suffering of tuberculosis patients — and the frightening ease with which the disease spreads — was a wake-up call. After working as an intern at a hospital in his native Indonesia, Loh decided to abandon his plans to become a physician and turn his focus to infectious disease prevention. Now the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) doctoral student is helping implement a new TB research and capacity building initiative in Indonesia, for which he won a three-year $420,000 grant.

Loh, who earned a master’s degree at HSPH this spring, developed the proposal as his master’s thesis. It aims to identify risk factors in Indonesia for the spread of multidrug-resistant (MDR) and extensively drug-resistant (XDR) tuberculosis. These deadly strains can develop in locations where TB control programs are weak and treatment protocols are not followed correctly. Indonesia has the eighth-highest burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis in the world.

The researchers’ findings will be used to inform the development of better TB control strategies in Indonesia. The work also will funnel much-needed funds into the country’s research infrastructure, improving its capacity to respond to drug-resistant TB outbreaks, Loh said.

Expected to start early next year, the project was funded by the PEER Health Program, which is administered by The National Academies on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Loh will act as a liaison between researchers at HSPH and Indonesia’s University of Andalas, working closely on all aspects of the study’s design and implementation with Indonesian principal investigator Andani Eka Putra and [[Megan Murray]], professor in the Department of Global Health and Social medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH, who serves as the project’s NIH partner.

At the same time, Loh will be keeping up with the typical responsibilities of a graduate student — teaching, passing oral qualifying exams, and working on his dissertation papers. After enduring a nerve-wracking six-month wait before finding out this summer that he won the grant, Loh is thrilled to be able to get to work on a project that will help his home country. “It is exciting but also somewhat daunting,” said Loh. “I feel very fortunate to have been paired with Megan Murray as my advisor. She has been able to offer really invaluable resources for this project.”

While Loh is modest about his accomplishment in securing the grant, Murray praised his “can-do attitude.” She said, “It’s very unusual for a masters student (or any student) to take this kind of initiative — finding a grant, identifying a collaborator and bringing all the pieces together. Philips has a real talent for building teams, getting people excited about research and making things happen — skills that we don’t teach people in graduate school classes.”

The HSPH research team also includes Panji Hadisoemarto, a doctoral student in global health and population, and Christian Suharlim, an MPH student in health policy and management, both Indonesian physicians, and Emilia Ling, an SM candidate in Epidemiology.

Amy Roeder