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Originally from Chile, Karla Araya-Castro is a biotechnologist and visiting postdoctoral researcher based in Otago’s School of Biomedical Sciences’ Department of Biochemistry. She also describes herself as a person with a physical disability, a wheelchair user, and a wine lover.

Araya-Castro arrived in Dunedin in October 2022 with her husband Benjamín Durán-Vinet, who is undertaking a PhD with Professor Neil Gemmell in the Department of Anatomy, and their son, Máximo, now aged four.

Born in late 1989, when Chile was in the grip of disruption as it voted to reject the violent Pinochet regime, Araya-Castro’s birth was to have been via C-section, but her mother went into labour early. Due to the civil unrest, the maternity clinic was understaffed when her mother arrived, and the obstetrician was not contactable.

The delay in surgical intervention meant Araya-Castro was oxygen deprived and was given an APGAR score of just three at birth. “My mum woke to find me in an incubator. She fainted when she saw me connected to all the electrodes. The doctor told her, “Sorry, but you will have a baby forever, due to the brain damage she has suffered”.

“But my mum did not accept that, and she told him he might be a doctor, but he wasn’t God”, says Araya-Castro.

The family went into action mode. Araya-Castro’s older sister had started studying physiotherapy by the time she was born, and together with her classmates began practising rehabilitation techniques on her.

“My brother was also much older than me, and a mechanical engineer, so our house was full of stimulating activity,” she says.

“I also went to a local rehabilitation institute for intense therapy and attended many other programmes. I finally started taking some steps and speaking at around one and half years of age. Mum fought for me to attend ‘normal’ daycare, saying that it was only my motor skills affected, not my brain and that she wanted me to be challenged.”

“I attended a mainstream school after that, but sadly my country wasn’t really ready for me, as a disabled person. So, I had to be ready. I had to adapt to my challenging environment. I’m never afraid to ask for help. That way of being – of reaching out, connecting and working collaboratively, has helped me very much as an adult and a researcher.”

“My approach to life means that I’m always open to opportunities. In 2009 I became a Senior Fellow of the Melton Foundation, which promotes and enables global citizenship as a way to work together across boundaries of place and identity to address global challenges.”

Araya-Castro travelled to Germany as part of a Melton orientation meeting and saw how important context was, and that Germany was a much more accessible environment for a person in a wheelchair. “This was a mind-blowing realisation for me”, she says.

When she returned to Chile, she was determined to take action to improve the lives of people with limited mobility in her home country. In parallel with her PhD work, which focused on the green synthesis of copper nanoparticles using biomolecules from algae, she also led a project to develop an app that could help people with mobility challenges identify the accessibility of venues, streets and public transport.

Araya-Castro holds an undergraduate degree in Biotechnology and a PhD in the Science of Natural Resources from the Universidad de La Frontera in Chile. She has been a visiting researcher in Canada and New Zealand and has also travelled to Zambia for a clean water project.

As a lab-based researcher, she is used to working around her physical abilities. She has limited use of her hands and arms and must use a wheelchair for mobility. Handling solvents in smaller, more manageable amounts is one strategy she uses.

“Support for students and staff with disabilities is very good at the University of Otago”, she says. Assistance for lab work, buttons that activate doors, and note-takers are some of the important supports available at Otago, she adds.

Araya-Castro was recently invited to be a member of a new departmental committee that champions Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) matters in the Department of Biochemistry, working together with existing committees and teams to support best practice in the DEI area.

“In my own research, I am collaborating with Richard Macknight and Arlene McDowell on using lipid-based nanoparticles for delivery of specific plant miRNAs. These nanoparticles act as cross-kingdom communication shuttles to enhance the plants’ development.”

Araya-Castro has a passion for cross-disciplinary work after her experiences with app development and the Melton projects. When her current role winds up, she would love to work on “getting research out of the lab” and helping PhD students to find additional career pathways. Another important upcoming project for Araya-Castro is her baby girl, who is due later this year!

Kōrero by Sally Knox, Communications Advisor, School of Biomedical Sciences

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