An Indigenous researcher has scooped up a major prize at the 2019 World Science Awards.

Clare Villalba, a proud Torres Strait Islander woman and PhD student in the Medical Robotics team at Queensland University of Technology, has been awarded the Women in STEM: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Jury Award.

The ceremony took place at the World Science Festival in Brisbane, with Ms Villalba recognised for her research toward preventing blindness by developing innovations in technology, policy and service provision.

She said diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Australia.

“Our eyes are our window to the world around us—so we need to do everything possible to protect them. Eye checks can help prevent over 95% of eye problems, but Australians with diabetes are still going blind,” Ms Villalba said.

An Australian develops diabetes every five minutes, with 280 Australians developing diabetes a day and Indigenous Australians over three times as likely to have diabetes than non-Indigenous Australians.

Ms Villalba’s research has involved a Brisbane-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service.

“From working with the health service, we have found that medicine and technology are important, but alone they are not enough.”

“Instead, we need to put people back into focus. We need to think about people’s experiences. For example: how will they be reminded? What is it like waiting? How they will get results? And how will they access treatment?” she said.

Ms Villalba is working to develop ‘people-focused’ eye checks and is contributing constructive ideas for a national health policy.

“When we develop new healthcare services we need to understand the perspectives of everyone involved. From the diverse people using the care, to doctors, nurses, family, and policymakers—these people are at the heart of this challenge and are best positioned to come up with ideas to enhance healthcare in their own communities and improve health globally.”

Ms Villalba said she never expected to follow this career path.

“My journey has led me to many interesting experiences, including using my design skills to prevent blindness. Following my passions and giving things a go has brought me to where I am today. I am working in a field I never heard of as a kid, but it turned out to be a place where I have found my passion and drive. I am enthusiastic about encouraging all people, particularly young women, to follow their dreams … even if they don’t quite know where it will take them,” she said.

Ms Villalba is a Queensland Young Science Ambassador and has attended regional student Wonder of Science Conferences and a Girls in STEM camp to discuss career options.

The Women in STEM: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Jury Award is the first of its kind and is aimed at recognising the contribution of Indigenous female researchers to Queensland science.

Each recipient receives $5,000 prize money to develop further research in their area of expertise.

The award was made possible by the BHP Foundation’s partnership with the World Science Festival.

By Rachael Knowles