University of Calgary

Dr. Jim Strong

Submitted by alumni on Thu, 04/13/2017 - 00:12.

Dr. Jim Strong

BSc’88, BSc’90, PhD’96, MD’97
By Deb Cummings

How does a microbiologist, educated at the University of Calgary, wind up living in Winnipeg where he toils over the effects that nasty viruses have on humans? We caught up with this four-time alumnus who has worked in some of the planet’s deadliest zones, such as Sierra Leone and Guinea, where the explosive 2014-15 Ebola epidemic took 11,000 lives. We peered in his suitcase: A Leather-
man multi-tool, waterproof matches, fishing line, chlorine tablets . . . oh, yeah, and dental floss. We had questions:

Is your area of research exciting?

Quite, especially during an outbreak. But, like any job, about 95 per cent of the time it’s the same thing over and over again (meetings, emails, grant- and paper-writing) and five per cent is the “cool,” other stuff.

What advice do you have for students interested in your field of research?

Go for it! It’s a great job, but remember — there is only one Level 4 containment lab in Canada (capable of handling viruses such as Ebola) and only a handful throughout the world.

At 18, what would you have said you’d be doing at 45?

Surveyor — maybe? My dad was a surveyor for oil exploration and I used to work with him back then. I loved being outdoors all the time, often in the middle of nowhere.

Why work in Africa?

I’ve been deployed to four different outbreaks: Uige, Angola, 2005; Luebo, DRC, 2009; Isiro, DRC, 2012; Guinea and Sierra Leone, 2014-2015. In each outbreak, we worked for four to six weeks at a time.

When you’re in the field, what does a typical day look like?

Get up at 6, eat breakfast with the MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and/or WHO (World Health Organization) staff. Travel to the lab by 7:30 and bleach the mini-lab, gas up the generator and then get the machines and computers running. We’d start receiving samples by 9 a.m. and would usually run a morning set of tests and then another later in afternoon. We’d head back to hotel/lodge house for dinner at 8 p.m. and cap off the evening with a “coolish” beer and be in bed by 11.

What were the working conditions?

It was always hot, sometimes raining like I have never seen before! We always wore surgical scrubs and gum boots at the Ebola Treatment Centre, just like the MSF staff. When samples from the patients were available, the MSF staff would yell “Lab, lab, lab,” and we would walk over to the exit area, where the health-care teams would be sprayed with bleach, in order to retrieve the samples in a bucket that the hygiene teams would spray again with bleach (each blood sample was packaged in triple Ziploc bags sprayed with bleach, with patient identifiers on a separate sheet or on the tube). We never saw any hostility and the locals were always very good to us and friendly.

Is there a certain “thing” you hope to discover in your lifetime?

Yes, I would love to answer the question of where does Ebola hide between outbreaks. There is a big piece of that puzzle that is still missing, despite intensive research.

When you are living/working in pretty basic conditions, what do you miss about home?

My wife and daughter first. And my dog. Beyond that, maybe barbecuing and air-conditioning, but our lodging during the more recent outbreaks has been more comfortable than the earlier ones, so I can’t really complain.

What is your idea of happiness?

Family, friends and ongoing health. Oh, yeah, and a lake full of fish and a boat helps, too.

What kind of books do you read?

Historical fiction.

What are your three favourite movies?

Good Will Hunting, Stand By Me, Lion.

Who are your heroes?

Astronauts and space scientists were my heroes as a kid. I am not sure that I have heroes now. I think my dad qualifies — I lost him last year and miss him a ton.

What do you miss about Calgary?

Meatball sandwiches from Spolumbo’s and the mountains. If there were mountains in Manitoba, I would consider this the perfect place. U

← Back to Unconventional Paths