Mag Events,Feature l by HI Magazine l 20 Aug 2022     - 133

Flying the flag for Woman in science

Making her mark at Institute Pasteur in Paris

Words: Amrita Hapuarachchi


When you think of Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology, what is the first thing that comes into your mind? Most of us think of big, many legged creepy crawly bugs that find their way into our bodies. Our immediate reaction is to shudder! Not to Aro Nugawela. Aro is a life scientist, she works on topics related to living things. She uses them as a model to understand how human cells function and is currently doing her PhD at the Institute Pasteur in Paris.

Her research will focus on African sleeping sickness, at the level of parasite molecular biology. Her specific scientific interests revolve around parasites in blood-borne diseases and the molecular genetics of their immune evasion strategies.

In her free time, she composes music for the guitar, plays snooker and enjoys reading fantasy novels.

She grew up in Newcastle in the United Kingdom.  When she was nine, her family moved to Hexham, a countryside town.  Unlike most children her age, she did not attend school until she was twelve and she discovered she loved it.  When she started her sixth form college, she was forced to do biology which she didn’t enjoy initially.  Thankfully for her, she had two fantastic teachers who inspired her to work and pursue the subject and she ended up doing her Bachelors in Biological Sciences.  

What interested you in the field of Molecular and Biochemical Parasitology?

During my Bachelors degree in Biological Sciences I focused on molecular genetics and cell biology. I wouldn’t say that anything in my degree really hooked my interest until much later on. I was in my final semester of my degree when I took a course taught by my now supervisor, Dr Paul McKean, that I really got interested in a specific field. Paul works on trypanosomes, tiny organisms which cause sleeping sickness in humans and animals. His research focus is on how they move; they are very dynamic little things –wiggling around in a corkscrew motion. And that’s what interested me, the fact that they were so lively and energetic.

Did your parents encourage you to study medicine or some other field?

Honestly, I’ve always followed what I’ve been interested in – I think that’s the only way to really succeed. I’m not the kind of person who can do well at things that I don’t want to be doing.

What are the challenges you face in your field?

I think regardless of the field, the biggest challenge is maintaining your focus and forward momentum when things don’t work out the way you planned. Science likes to throw curve-balls and when that happens once, it’s easy to deal with but when you’re faced with a string of things not quite working out, then that’s more difficult to push through. It takes a team effort, and sometimes you just need to sit down and work it through.

There can be the temptation to be competitive with your colleagues or lab partners but at the end of the day you succeed or fail by the cooperation and collaboration you have with the people who work around you.

We hear about new viruses being found. Some scientists believe they are found in the melting ice caps in the Arctic.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think medicine and research both have a lot of challenges coming their way. I know a lot of people think that the difficulties climate change will bring will be 10, 20 or 50 years down the line but really that isn’t true. Country to country we are already seeing massive changes in weather, in water availability, and in food production.

This isn’t something that can be put off or ignored, whether the danger comes from a virus trapped under the ice or simply the changing landscape we already face. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call as to how one disaster can change everything, and that there really is no immediate fix for something which affects the whole world.



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