The explorer Sun Nyunt Wai

[2012-07-06] Step by step, Sun Nyunt Wai has made pioneering discoveries in her studies of pathogenic bacteria. One
of these is Vibrio cholerae, an infectious organism that causes cholera, a lethal epidemic disease.

Sun Nyunt Wai has published impressive evidence of her research on the characteristics of these bacteria and the way they use special vesicles in their outer membrane to spread their toxins, and affect surrounding host cells.

Sun Nyunt Wai’s thirst for knowledge began in her native country, Burma, where she graduated from medical school in 1980 and started out in obstetrics and gynaecology.
“When I was around five years old my grandparents became sick and had to pay an enormous amount for health care. That’s when I first dreamt of becoming a doctor and being able to treat patients without them having to pay so much. I became a diligent student and focused early on becoming a doctor.”

From Burma to Japan

Sun Nyunt Wai’s knowledge grew as a clinical physician. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to do research in Burma, but a research grant in bacteriology took her to Kyushu University in Japan. After completing her doctorate, she went on to a postdoc at Stanford University. Sun Nyunt Wai arrived for the first time at Umeå University in 1999 as a visiting research fellow.
“It was their outstanding microbiological research that got me to apply for a position here. I returned to Japan for a while as Assistant Professor of Bacteriology but decided to return to Umeå. I saw the potential to further my academic career where it is possible to compete on equal terms, and applied for a grant to establish a research group.”

An international setting

Sun Nyunt Wai has been a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Umeå University since January 2010. Her research group consists of some ten colleagues from France, India, Japan, China, the Ukraine and Sweden. Students from various Master’s programmes also work in her lab.
“I like working together in an international setting. When we recruit it is almost always internationally. It is such a rich learning experience to share a common interest in research with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and environments.

Sun Nyunt Wai’s research team continues to pursue new knowledge about bacteria and the way they infect.
“We are investigating the molecular mechanisms that come to play between microbes and host cells. We want to gain a better understanding of the reasons for infectious diseases and discover new possibilities to prevent and cure them. Cholera is one such disease.”

Sun Nyunt Wai, Professor of Medical microbial pathogenesis at Umeå University, was the recipient of the Fernström Prize for her discoveries of the way pathogenic bacteria spread toxins. She began as a physician and teacher at Yangon University Hospital in Burma, did
her dissertation in bacteriology at Kyushu University in Japan and continued her studies as a postdoc at Stanford University. She arrived to Umeå for the first time in 1999 as a visiting research fellow. Sun Nyunt Wai is a member of UCMR (Umeå Centre for Microbial Research) Linnaeus Programme, with a ten-year Linné grant from the Swedish Research Council.

Text: Sofia Eriksson
Photo: Elin Berge

Editor: Karin Wikman

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