"Melbourne is incredibly multicultural – you always find connections here, you’re never alone.”
One week into a three-month internship in Melbourne in 2011, biologist Dr Ranja Salvamoser knew she wanted to move from her native Germany to complete her PhD here.
“I remember straight away thinking ‘I want to do my PhD in Melbourne’,” she said. “I was fascinated by the city and knew about all the other research going on here, and I knew that I wanted to come back.”
The internship, part of Ranja’s master’s degree through an exchange program with Victoria University, confirmed her feeling that Victoria had the most to offer in terms of opportunities to pursue her research.
“Having specialised in cell death research, I knew Victoria had great research labs and facilities for that,” she said. “With the research I wanted to do and the equipment I needed, I knew everything would be here – including the expertise. Since I’ve been in Melbourne, I’ve never been limited in my research because something isn’t available.”
After identifying a supervisor and successfully applying for a scholarship, Ranja moved back to Melbourne in 2014 and began her PhD at the University of Melbourne.
A post-graduate workstream visa gave her the opportunity to stay in Victoria after completing her PhD, and in May 2018 Ranja began a role with Exopharm Ltd, a biopharmaceutical company with research labs based at the Baker Institute.
“I was interested in the industry sector,” she said. “I wanted to work with human research and clinical trials to see ‘the other side’, not just academia.”
When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, Ranja’s expertise in the bioengineering of exosomes for therapeutics was put to vital use in Exopharm’s research and development team.
“I lead a team working on a project called Fortrexo. We are developing an anti-viral response to COVID-19,” she said. “We’re creating a treatment that gives cells the tools they need to prevent the virus from replicating, which limits the impact of an infection.”
For those who are already infected, as well as immunocompromised patients and others who are not eligible for a vaccine, this treatment will be a crucial element in the long-term fight against the virus.
“We designed the project so that if required, it can very easily be adapted for future mutations in the coronavirus,” said Ranja. “We’ve seen some of those variants already so I’m glad we took that approach.”
In a particularly difficult year to be far from family and friends at home in Germany, Ranja took plenty of positives from her role in Victoria’s public health response to the pandemic.
“I’m proud of what we do. I loved coming home and talking about it because I know it’s a project that matters, and it’s something that I believe in,” she said. “It’s meaningful, especially because as scientists we all worked incredibly hard last year – there were some very long days and nights in the lab.”
“For me it helped thinking ‘if you figure this out, maybe international travel opens up quicker and maybe we can all see our families sooner’. So that was always in the back of my mind and kept me going – I’ve never felt as driven as I did in the last year.”
During 2020 Ranja was selected for Victoria’s skilled visa nomination program.
“I’m not sure if many other countries offered what Australia did last year when the pandemic hit – a visa stream that recognised that permanent visa applicants needed special support,” she said. “It was done in such a short period of time for me, and that just showed why I chose this place.”
When her grandmother passed away in Germany it hit Ranja hard, but when she opened conversations about the pressures the pandemic was placing on international staff, Exopharm moved quickly to develop a support system and counselling service for their employees.
“I reached out to my company and said ‘this is how I’m feeling, I feel like there might be other people struggling as well, we need to do something to support them as soon as possible’,” she said. “My seniors were so supportive, and that response made all the difference.”
While she is looking forward to visiting her family in Germany when international travel opens back up, Ranja is grateful for her decision to live in Victoria.
“Melbourne is incredibly multicultural – you always find connections here, you’re never alone,” she said. “The people are so diverse and it’s such an open-minded community. I just feel welcome and safe here.”