|Siriraj Hospital and Mahidol University at Bangkok Noi Campus, Thailand.
And while the long distance didn’t bother Ketterman much at all – he grew up with a father in the Air Force and moved around constantly as a kid – the adjustment to Thailand’s research culture has taken a little longer.
Financial resources are indeed an issue, though it’s not a simple cut-and-dried proposition. “Budgets, grants and salaries may be much smaller in Thailand,” he says, “but so is the cost of labor, so getting bodies and hands into a lab is not hard at all.”
Ketterman adds that the Thai government has placed an emphasis on improving science education, so the labs are filled with eager students in addition to technicians and support staff.
Supplies tend to be more of a concern, however, as Ketterman has to pay prices for products that are similar to those paid by any U.S. lab. “The deliveries for these products can take a while, and we don’t really have the capabilities to handle frequent shipments,” he notes, “so you often have to plan far ahead in your experiments and anticipate what reagents you might need in a month or two.” That planning can be tricky, because given limited resources, funding priorities can shift abruptly.
In Ketterman’s case, he slowly shifted his GST work from malaria-related questions to a more general understanding of the enzyme family; as part of this effort, he recently pulled out all 41 GSTs identified in the Drosophila proteome for some comparative analysis.
But then engineers took over funding policy positions, and the government cut back basic research money to prioritize applied science. That meant Ketterman had to put his Drosophila GST collection on hold and find a new project.
So he teamed up with five other Mahidol investigators to study chikungunya virus, a tropical mosquito-borne pathogen that has re-emerged in the past few years.
The formation of such megagroups is an increasing trend in Thai research projects, as it provides a way to combine resources and use a variety of approaches to try to solve a problem more quickly. For his part, Ketterman will use his enzymology background to study a protease critical for chikungunya replication.
It’s a worthwhile task, for the virus has come back stronger than before. “It used to be the virus induced joint pain similar to arthritis, but it wasn’t too serious,” Ketterman says. “But now people are starting to die from chikungunya infections, so it’s become an active research area here.”