Rodney's Story

This article is one from 15 different Papua New Guinean scientists taken from the manuscript of the new Grade 9 Science Outcomes textbook prior to the design and editing processes currently being undertaken at Pearson Education Australia. This is Rodney’s story. I hope all the parents, teachers and students read and enjoy it. More scientists’ stories will appear here during the next few months.

This photograph is of Dr Rodney Itaki during a surgical proceedure. He is third from the left.

Brian Robertson

Dr Rodney

Hello everyone, my name is Dr. Rodney Itaki and I am from Wapenamanda in the Enga Province. I am a medical doctor and currently working with the Gutnius Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea. I am based at the Immanuel Lutheran Rural Hospital in Wapenamanda.

My interest in science came about because of a great science teacher I had who taught me at Tokarara High School from grade 8 to grade 10. His name is Mr. Sam Lora and he is currently the principal of Gordon Secondary School in Port Moresby. I especially enjoyed his practical classes because we did little experiments and later answered questions from the experiments that made science real. I learnt about how plants use the energy from the sun to make their food (the process of photosynthesis) through the experiments.

When I did my grades 11 and 12 at Kerevat National High School I had several great science teachers who kept my interest in science going. Unlike other subjects, science is very practical. In the practical and experiments I found an application for the theory of science. That captured my interest and imagination. I also discovered during my grades 11 and 12 that mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics were not separated from each other but interrelated. I discovered that I could use chemistry formulas to solve physics problems or vice versa. I could even apply mathematic formulas to solve physics problems or vice versa. The same applied with chemistry and biology. It was exciting. It was all because I could see science come alive when conducting the experiments.

For example, in one of our chemistry classes we placed a strip of Magnesium into a dish of water and the strip ignited and burned with a very bright white flame. Then we had to answer the question: “why does Magnesium ignite and burn when it comes in contact with water?” In another practical we had to design a water treatment plant for a village using our knowledge of how water moves through the soil and different types of rocks. So I could see that science has the answer to most of the practical problems of daily leaving.

I was always trying to find out why things happen the way they do and how does it happen and science provided the way to answer these questions. So at the end my grade 12 I decided to apply to the University of Papua New Guinea to do the science foundation year. In science foundation you study all the branches of science before deciding what you what to specialize in.

During the science foundation year my interest in science grew as I did more complicated experiments. I remember especially my chemistry tutor, Dr Clement Waine from Chimbu, who is now working as a research scientist with the company DuPont in USA. Dupont is one of the largest companies in the world.

At the end of my foundation year I was one of the top students so I was accepted to study medicine at the faculty of medicine. In medicine, you apply all your knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and anatomy. This suited me because I found an application for all my science knowledge.

When I was in the third year of studying medicine, I decided to take a year off and do a research degree. Because of my interest in experiments I wanted to design and conduct an experiment on people. So I studied the effect of betel nut chewing on the cardiovascular system in Melanesians. I discovered that chewing betel nut causes the heart rate to increase and the blood pressure to fluctuate.

I presented my findings to the annual medical symposium organized by the PNG Medical Society in 1998 and was awarded the “Young Scientist of the Year” award. The findings also made the front-page story in The National newspaper. I also helped in another study on betel nut chewing which showed that betel nut chewing in Papua New Guineans could cause a heart attack. This knowledge is now taught in the medical school at the University of Papua New Guinea. The findings of these studies was presented to the Asia Pacific Cardiac Society meeting in Auckland in 1999 and was highly acclaimed. Betel nut chewing therefore is recognized as a cardiovascular risk factor in Papua New Guineans. I was supervised by Professor Sir Isi Kevau, Papua New Guinea’s first cardiologist who was the director of the Sir Buri Kidu Heart Institute. At end of my studies I graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Sciences degree in addition to the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor Surgery degree.

Because of my interest in research I was awarded a scholarship to do research training in Japan for 3 years. In Japan I conducted experiments on the anopheles mosquito that transmits malaria. I conducted experiments to study how mosquito larvae behave in water so we can find out the best way to kill them to control malaria. I also studied their DNA to find out the different species we have in PNG and the Solomon Islands.  The results of these experiments have been published in both national and international journals.

After returning from Japan I decided to work with the Lutheran Mission. One of the main factors attracting me to rural PNG was that we still do not know a lot about diseases in rural PNG and by working there I could do studies to find out more about health problems in PNG.

Currently I am conducting a study to find out how we can determine the nutritional status of pregnant mothers without doing blood tests and correlate that with the baby’s birth weight. The reason is because if the mother is under-nourished then the baby will not grow properly in the womb. In rural PNG we do not have enough resources to do blood tests to find out the mother’s nutritional status so we have to find other ways of determining that. Being a medical scientist and a medical doctor as well helps me to conduct studies while at the same time helping keep people free from disease.

Being a scientist means you are always asking questions. So I encourage you all to start asking questions and do not accept things just because the textbooks say so. Remember the knowledge in the textbooks came about because of scientist asking questions and conducting experiments to find out why things are way they are.

Apart from doing studies to find out more about diseases I also work as a medical doctor. My daily duties include conducting ward rounds to examine patients in the wards, attending to emergencies, conducting consultation clinics and performing life saving surgeries.

Before prescribing drugs I have to do blood tests and x-rays to make a proper diagnosis before giving medicine to patients. Studying science helps me as a doctor to know how germs live and cause disease, how the body functions, what happens when the body is sick or injured, how drugs work in the body and how drugs kill germs.

Being a doctor can be tough at times so you have to enjoy life and not just work. I try and plan for my free time and spend the time going on nature walks with my small digital camera and take photographs of nature.