Ali Saïb's El Dorado

Ali Saïb lives, communicates, researches and teaches viruses. Some will say he was born under a lucky star. Perhaps – if that lucky star is not only symbolic of a destiny but also of the intelligence and determination that forge it.

Ali Saïb, “You must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn.”© Christine Rugemer
Ali Saïb, “You must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn.”
© Christine Rugemer

At the age of 10, Ali Saïb lived on the northern outskirts of Marseilles. At the weekend he worked at the markets and at night as an apprentice baker. Thirty years later, Ali Saïb is director of research and chair of the biology department at the National School of Engineering and Technology (CNAM) (FR). In addition to the CNAM he also teaches at the University of Paris 7 (FR) and heads a research team in virology with the support of various scientific bodies. With an impressive list of distinctions and publications to his credit, his curriculum vitae could not fail to interest the promoters of the Talents des cités prize (1) that he was awarded in 2002. He says, “I never mention this prize because I do not like this notion very much of being singled out as in some way exemplary. Rather than attrac ting attention in this way, which can be deluding, I prefer work that can serve as a reference without making a big show of it.”

The reality of viruses

Ali Saïb believes in working and networking. Back in the early 1980s there was not yet much talk of AIDS. But it existed and was moreover present in the neighbourhood where Ali lived. “This was the first detail. I use this word deliberately to speak of very particular points of apparently minimal importance that later have a major influence on the life of an individual.” At the same time, another ‘detail’ emerged during an English lesson when the teacher was working with his pupils on translating scientific articles, including on the subject of HIV sequencing. “In these so-called problem schools some teachers do a marvellous job in identifying potential.” It was in this way that the teenage Ali Saïb came into contact with the world of virology, with this ‘scientific El Dorado’ that has fascinated him ever since.

After that it all went very quickly, from university (biology, genetics, cancerology) to research, the leadership of research teams and appointment as a university professor. “Biology is fascinating because it is concerned both with the reasons for life and the mysteries of death. As to viruses, we are still not sure whether they should be classed as inert or living entities, and they could even be both at the same time. When present inside a cell, viruses are able to express their full potential, whereas they seem to be totally inert when outside a cell. They are truly fascinating. Genuine disruptors of the genetic information of the whole kingdom of life as well as genuine accelerators for evolution.” For Saïb the researcher, “the quest for knowledge and pleasure are essential in this job. If you find that the pleasure has gone out of it then it is time to change direction.”

The team headed by Ali Saïb is looking at how retroviruses hijack a cell mechanism in order to move, needing to reach a cell nucleus and penetrate its genetic patrimony in order to multiply. Although this is in the realms of fundamental research, for this virologist the divide between fundamental and applied research is not so clear-cut. “In the life sciences, I see rather a continuum between these two aspects. Our research can be regarded as either fundamental or applied, depending on the point of view you adopt. The research is much more applied than in other kinds of research that lies further upstream. I would also not impose a clear divide between private and public research. They both have common denominators. Although a financial return is vital in the former case, everybody also knows that the latter is impossible without funding, that research directors have to respect deadlines and business plans and have become genuine fundraisers.”

Visible – or unforeseeable – implications

While it is relatively easy to attract the interest of investors when combating cancer or Alzheimer’s, for example, it is much more difficult to raise capital when working on viruses that are not harmful to man – the case for a large majority of them – or on the nocturnal activities of ants! “This is a very damaging situation because, when a researcher abandons one field for another where capital is available, it is his entire expertise in a very particular field that is lost. The question needs to be asked. Must every researcher, or every laboratory, be in part involved in tackling the major issues of the day? Perhaps. But the public authorities must then understand the vital need to support projects that lie a long way upstream.”

This is a question that affects directly the relationship between science and society. The participation of civil society in the strategic choices of research is an idea that is gaining ground in Europe. But it does not take much imagination to realise that everybody is going to give priority to approving funding that relates to a field of interest to them, whether it be health, social issues or environmental protection.

“The job of scientists is also to transmit the fundamentals – the basic knowledge – to the general public so that people are able to participate in the debates generated by certain areas of scientific progress, such as GMOs, stem cells or other so-called sensitive fields. The scientific community must also explain the need for upstream research whose short- or medium-term applications are not evident. The history of science is full of examples of major discoveries in areas where they were least expected. Take, for example, the discovery of the role played by the tiny interfering RNAs in regulating the flow of genetic information, for which Andrew Fire and Craig Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine. This vast and new field of biology, with its major implications for human health, emerged due to the study of petunias! Research is like planting seeds. Some will germinate, others not. But it is vital to plant them all in the interests of future generations.”

Learning, unlearning, relearning

Committed to communication, Ali Saïb writes scientific articles for the layman, chapters of encyclopaedias or atlases, speaks at conferences and also made a documentary film on viruses (Dr Virus and Mr Hyde – Memories of a virologist) produced for television and winner of two awards in 2006 (2). He is also one of the founders of The Association for the Promotion of Sciences and Research (APSR) (FR). Among other things, this works in cooperation with scientific institutions to give secondary school students the chance to work in laboratories alongside researchers to whom they can pose their questions. It is Ali Saïb’s achievements in this field of science communication that in 2007 earned him the EMBO Award for Communication in the Life Sciences.

As a teacher, Saïb believes it is important to develop a critical sense and open mind in young people from a very early age, “even if it is disconcerting for a student to sense that a teacher is instilling doubt rather than transmitting a hard and fast truth.” The relativity of the present is the rule: “what I say is valid today, and tomorrow it will perhaps be something else. You have to be able to adapt and embrace new concepts and paradigms. You must be able to learn, unlearn and relearn several times in the course of a life, while retaining a critical approach and cultivating creativity.” It is also this that led Ali Saïb to the CNAM, a public institution dedicated to lifelong education.

Christine Rugemer

  1. In France, the ‘cités’ or ‘banlieues’ are areas located on the outskirts of major cities with a concentration of social housing and people with socio-economic difficulties.
  2. First prize at the International Science Film Festival and Best Science Film at the International Festival of SCOOP and Journalism.