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A Virologist with Contagious Enthusiasm

Courtesy, Ali Saïb

French virologist Ali Saïb (pictured left) wasn't born in one of the social spheres that scientists traditionally come from. Saïb, 39, grew up in "the hard suburb" north of the French city of Marseille. "In this area, we never talk about science," he says. But although this made it more difficult to find a way into research, it also spurred within Saïb an insatiable appetite for doing and communicating science. Today, Saïb can claim publication credit for 80 journal articles and 20 articles in French magazines. He has also made a movie on viruses and created an association that provides French high school students with exposure to science.

Saïb's efforts, in both science and science communication, have been noticed. Already he has received several prizes for his scientific results, including one from the French National Academy of Medicine and another from the French Academy of Sciences. His achievements in science communication won the first prize at the 2006 PARISCIENCE, International Science Film Festival, and, more recently, an award from the European Molecular Biology Organization. Saïb's success, he says, is a result of hard work, extensive networking, and good time-management skills.

First encounters

Saïb's interest in viruses goes back to high school, where one day "my English teacher gave me a scientific article showing the genome of HIV," Saïb recalls. "I said to myself, this would be the topic of my professional life."

After obtaining his baccalauréat in 1986, Saïb went on to study biology at the University of the Mediterranean--Aix-Marseille II University in a 4-year program. He says that his fascination with viruses grew, partly for personal reasons. "During university, some of my friends in Marseille got infected by HIV. It was an important reason for me to work in that field."

In 1990, Saïb set off for Paris to gain a master's specialization in virology at the University of Paris 7. It wasn't an easy decision; Saïb had been working in restaurants and Sunday markets to finance his studies, and he knew it would be even harder to get by in the expensive French capital. He arrived in Paris too late; registration for the virology diploma had closed. Rather than pack up and go home, he went for the last option available--a master's degree in cancer research--and picked a cancer lab that also studied viruses, at the University's Institute of Hematology.

That lab, at the time led by Jorge Périès, was working with innocuous foamy viruses. "For me, it was a real shock," Saïb says. "It was the first time that somebody was telling me that there could be a virus that causes no disease." To him, that spelled opportunity. With Périès leaving him free to work on whatever subject he wanted, he found a way to address a critical virology question even as he worked with an innocuous virus. "My first idea was trying to understand why these viruses don't cause a pathology and how they can persist in the host," Saïb says. After securing a 3-year grant from the French ministry, he decided to pursue this research for a Ph.D.

Foamy viruses, he found, come in two forms that interfere with each other. "In a host, in vitro or in vivo, if you have both forms, the virus replicates very slowly; therefore, this virus can down-regulate itself" so that it doesn't kill cells, Saïb says. That question answered, Saïb started working on how foamy viruses move within cells to import their genome into the host cell's nucleus, which is what his adviser considers his most important work.

So far, "in my view, his most important achievement[s] were his initial demonstration and further exploration of the centrosome as a critical hub on the route followed by retroviruses between the plasma membrane and the nucleus. He made the initial observations as a Ph.D. student and then developed them as an independent investigator," Hugues de Thé, a molecular biologist who took direction of the lab after Périès retired, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

"Ali progressed steadily and very rapidly to complete scientific independence," de Thé adds. By the time he was done with his Ph.D., Saïb had a technician, several students, and two staff scientists working under his direction. Upon gaining his Ph.D. in 1996--and with it three awards--Saïb realized that the best thing for his science and his career was to stay where he was. So he applied for a permanent research position from the National Institue for Health and Medical Research that would enable him to stay at the Institute of Hematology, and got it.

Seven years later, Saïb became a full professor at the University of Paris 7 but kept his laboratory at the Institute of Hematology. Today, he leads nine people working on foamy viruses and HIV. Foamy viruses "are very important to understand in general how retroviruses behave" in host cells, Saïb says.

Spreading the word

Like his research line, Saïb's commitment to communicating science goes back to the initial revelation that pathogenic viruses are only a minority in the virus world. "When I started talking about that to my friends or my family, nobody knew about that," he says. So during his Ph.D., he started writing articles for the general public, publishing his first piece in the prestigious science magazine La Recherche. Last year, Saïb edited a special issue on viruses for Pour La Science, the French version of Scientific American. "Ali has an incredible ability to interact with all kinds of people of largely different cultures or educations," de Thé says. "This is a tremendous plus for communicating with people, including scientifically."

When, in 2000, a Nature paper showed that viruses found in our genomes help to create the placenta during pregnancy, this was "also a revelation," Saïb says. "I decided to make a movie on that for the general public." With the help of a moviemaker friend, he wrote the scenario, secured some seed funding, and got national TV education channel France 5 to produce Dr. Virus and Mr. Hyde. "It was really, really exciting. It was a new field for me," Saïb says.

Why is communicating science so important? Increasingly, Saïb says, "we are talking in our country about social diversity. We need to have people from different origins, women, [and] people from social groups who are initially not dedicated to science." One way of attracting those people is to tell them about science. "Communicating science to the general public is opening some doors to these people," Saïb says.


Doing science and communicating science, Saïb found, presented a real time-management challenge. He says that the movie in particular "was a big deal for me because I had the lab. I had my lectures" to deliver. Furthermore, his first child was born at about the same time. Saïb's solution: get organized and work in a disciplined, methodical way. He divided his work in several blocks and focused on each during 2-hour slots.

Saïb believes that public communication is a professional responsibility. For established scientists, he argues, "communicating science to the general public should be part of our daily activities." The situation is different, he acknowledges, for scientists early in their careers, for whom research has to be the highest priority. Then, try to "enhance your communication activity progressively," he advises.

This year, Saïb became chair of the biology department at the National School of Engineering and Technology, an applied research center that also promotes the scientific culture and offers lifelong learning opportunities to adults.

Then, together with some colleagues, he also created the Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Research (APSR) The Knowledge Tree in 2004. "We are trying to open labs for young people," Saïb explains. One Wednesday afternoon each month, students from local high schools come to work with researchers. Participants are selected based "on his or her motivation, not on his or her marks. We have a lot of people who were not good at school who after this activity can work at school and get their diploma," Saïb says. "These students become aware of the different jobs within a lab, different ways of thinking, and have also a direct link with real scientists who can help them for their future orientation." More than 200 students have taken part, and other centers, such as the Cochin and the Curie institutes, are now also implementing the scheme.

After his research, this outreach project is Saïb's "second most impressive achievement," according to de Thé. "I must say that I was not enthusiastic in the first place, thinking that this was too time consuming. In fact, this concept has had a tremendous success, and the sight of high school students so pleased by their initiation [in]to science is just heartwarming."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.  

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