Her office at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM) at the University of Bern looks bare. The desk is empty. Only the reference book "Medical Statistics" is ready to hand next to the computer. Behind the computer sits the scientist and physician Eliane Rohner with a concentrated, attentive gaze.
Viruses that cause cancer
Rohner is interested in viruses that cause cancer. And she is committed to preventing cervical cancer, which most often comes from infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). In 2018, she embarked on a two-year research stay abroad with a grant from Swiss Cancer Research, which took her first to the U.S. and then, unexpectedly, to South Africa.
"The fellowship gave me insights into both a well-known university and a country where a great many women develop cervical cancer," Rohner says. With this bulging backpack of experience, she finally returned to the University of Bern, where she had studied medicine 15 years ago. And is now setting up her own research group.
Interest in global health
But first things first: After her medical studies, Rohner first worked clinically in psychiatry and geriatrics. "I basically liked working with patients," Rohner says. "But in the daily routine, I often didn't have the time to get to the bottom of things." She is better able to fulfill this need in science. "I really enjoy learning and feel comfortable doing research," Rohner says.
While still in college, she developed an interest in worldwide health, or "global health." After an internship at a hospital in Ghana, Rohner plans to further her education in this area. She signs up for a master's program in international health at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin, but it doesn't start until six months later. To spend the waiting time wisely, she is interested in an internship at the ISPM, which soon leads to a six-year position as a research assistant.
Nothing comes of Berlin, Rohner stays in Bern and continues the research she started during her internship on cervical cancer in southern Africa. She and her colleagues prove, among other things, that this type of cancer is particularly common among women with HIV and that screening leads to lower rates of cervical cancer. Along the way, Rohner is earning a master's degree in epidemiology via distance learning at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
But Rohner's thirst for knowledge was not yet quenched: "I wanted to learn more about the methods and dive deeper into the basics." The advanced training in epidemiology was immediately followed by a master's degree in statistics at the University of Neuchâtel. "That was quite a challenge, all those mathematical formulas right in the first week," Rohner recounts.
After her second degree, Rohner plans to continue her research in other places. She has contacted experts at various universities in the U.S. and Canada - and chose the prestigious University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She submitted an application to Swiss Cancer Research for a research fellowship abroad. With the vague idea or intention of returning to Switzerland at some point, Rohner recalls.
Detection of HPV in urine
At the elite university, Rohner is part of Jennifer Smith's research team developing urine tests for HPV - in an effort to make screening more accessible. That's because many women from low-income backgrounds aren't reached by current screening programs, according to numerous studies. As a result, some of them miss the chance to detect a developing cancer in the cervix at an early stage - and have it removed.
With Smith and her team, Rohner shows that, in fact, many women prefer the urine test to the cervical smear. And that the test actually also detects traces of the HP viruses in the urine of four out of five women with high-grade cervical changes. "It's still not as good as the smear test," Rohner says. Still, he says, it makes sense to work on such a test. "If we can get more women to get screened as a precaution, we can prevent more cervical disease."
For another part of her project, Rohner had actually planned to conduct a cost-effectiveness analysis of the new HPV tests. But because the data were lacking, that part did not materialize. "So I proposed a change in the research plan," Rohner says. She threaded a collaboration with Carla Chibwesha, who is a professor at the University of North Carolina and Wits University in Johannesburg.
Unexpectedly to South Africa
That's how Rohner finally ended up in South Africa. The move from the tranquil university town in the USA to Johannesburg - a "juggernaut and huge melting pot" - is significant. But Rohner is not thrown off course by this change. "When you seize opportunities and embrace unplanned change, they are all the more rewarding," she explains. Rohner assists in the clinic, poring over "routine data from electronic medical records to describe the continuum of cervical cancer screening and care among women living with HIV," Rohner notes in her project's final report.
While still in Johannesburg, she learns that her former research group leader at the ISPM is moving to the Tropical Institute in Basel - and that an interesting position will therefore soon become available in Bern. She applies and is offered the position, which is limited to five years. What will happen after that is still open.
For the time being, Rohner has her hands full in her new position. She is working on her habilitation, which she plans to submit soon. And is pushing ahead with building her own research team to do so. "My priority is building a solid foundation," Rohner says. She's looking at project planning software, budget issues - and people management. "I'm concerned with making sure things are right for everyone on my team."
It all takes time - and pays off later. It takes a good dose of courage and perseverance to stand up to the career and publication pressures in academia. But Rohner doesn't much like the idea of competition. "We generate knowledge that serves the general public. That's why I think it makes more sense to collaborate than to compete," Rohner says. Only when you work together can you combine your expertise and make the most of your individual strengths.