Science - March 15, 2018

Crisscrossing Pakistan in search of a laboratory

Kenneth van Zijl

Ghulam Ali was back in the Netherlands for a few days to defend his Thesis at WUR. Now he is back on his parents’ farm in the northeast of Pakistan. A glacier in his home country plays a significant role in his proposition, he explains.

Ghulam Ali got his PhD on 6 March for a study on the diversity and biological activity of nucleopolyhedroviruses in the larvae of Spodoptera litura.

Proposition: Being stuck on a glacial mountain is as terrifying as doing PhD experiments in a developing country.

‘My research concerned viruses that can serve as a form of pesticide against larvae on cotton plantations. Both the viruses and the larvae are only found in Pakistan, so my fieldwork had to be done there and I would have liked to do my laboratory research there as well. But after collecting my samples of larvae I could not find a decent research facility. Pakistan is a developing country and there is hardly any research infrastructure. I went to various universities around the country. But without any result.

In that period I had a kind of dream in which I saw myself standing on the Siachen glacier in the north of Pakistan. It is one of the biggest glaciers in the world, and the Silk Road once ran past it. In that dream I couldn’t get off the glacier, no matter which way I went. That’s how I felt in Pakistan when I couldn’t find anywhere to conduct my research.

People who get stuck on a glacier in real life hopefully get rescued by helicopter. The helicopter pilot who rescued me was my supervisor, Professor Just Vlak. He made sure I could do my laboratory work here in Wageningen.

Cotton is a major crop in Pakistan but a lot of pesticide is used in farming it. I want to persuade farmers and government bodies that there are other ways of protecting crops as well. Alongside my research work, I run a farm with my father. We don’t stand to benefit from the results of my PhD research, though, because we grow rice and grain.’

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