Ali Saïb: a virologist hungry for life

At one stage, he had intended to go into bakery but ended up becoming a well-known virus specialist. This 38-year-old university professor directs a research team at the Institute of Hematology from Paris 7 university. He publishes books, articles, writes documentaries, and manages an association… one lifetime isn’t enough to do everything he would like to do.

Everything happened very quickly. In his final year in secondary school, Ali Saïb developed a passion for viruses. Ten years later, aged only 28, he was already managing a research team at the CNRS (French Center for Scientific Research). But that wasn't enough. At the same time, Ali Saïb continued to get involved in several other projects. Now, at the age of 38, it seems as though he has already lived out several different lives.

He did a degree in Sanskrit at the same time as preparing his thesis. He also developed a 52-minute documentary film devoted to viruses, entitled Dr Virus and Mr. Hyde that received the Grand Prize (
best film in competition) at Pariscience, the International Festival of Scientific Films. He is also working on a book on the same topic, aimed at the general public which is to be published by Fayard. Ali Saïb has already published eighty scientific articles and articles for the general public. And last but not least, he set up an association called APSR, which creates opportunities for young people and researchers to meet, a project that is of particular importance to him.

What is the secret of his success ? Work and Encounters" resumes Ali Saïb. The encounters mentioned would be those with Hugues de Thé, for instance, the current chairman of the scientific Committee of IUH (CNRS / University Paris-7), who first introduced him to molecular biology. Or maybe Jorge Périès, former director of the laboratory where Ali Saïb now works, who took the young PhD student under his wing. Between the two men a relationship was formed, one of "master to disciple, like in martial arts." This was how Ali Saïb first started studying a family of viruses that do not cause pathology, the Spumavirus. His objective was to understand how they managed to elude the cells’ defenses and cause infection.

The course of his life was not always easy. Ali Saïb was born in the northern district of Marseille in 1968. "It was nothing extraordinary,
" he sums up. He is the youngest child in a family of eight children and while he was in year 10 he worked nights in a bakery, from midnight to six in the morning, to bring home money to his family. But also for the pleasure and exhilaration of feeling grown up.

However his school grades began to suffer. One of his brothers advised him to choose a track, instead of trying to do lots of different things. He chose to go to school instead of going into the art of the bakery. And then, at the age of 17, he developed a passion for viruses.
"What sums me up the most is my hunger for knowledge," he says. He reads everything he can lay his hand on about the subject. "Deep down, I love biology because it is about the reasons of life and the mystery of death, all at the same time."

From that time on, he has been totally devoted to study and research, gathering scientific awards on the way. He was awarded no less than five times, from 1997-2002, from prestigious bodies such as the University Chancellery of Paris, the National Academy of Medicine or the Academy of Science.
"These awards are recognition for the quality of the work carried out. I am very proud of them and they reassure me that my work is not in vain. Recognition is important. It gives the energy and the urge to go on."

This young man from the suburbs has become an example. He was the winner of the first "Talents des cités" (talent in the housing projects) contest in 2002, a contest that awards men and women in the housing projects that have set up their own companies or associations and enables them to become an "ambassador of success". But Ali Saïb does not feel at ease in this role. Some people like to believe that any young person can succeed in the same way. But he refuses to be used in this way. "When you live in the conditions found in the housing projects, it is impossible to succeed," he believes.

In any case, at least if someone doesn't come looking for you to show you that real life is much richer than you had thought...
"You can't think about becoming someone, a biologist for example, if you don't even know that such a job exists," Ali Saïb points out. It was for this reason that the virologist set up the Association for the Promotion of Science and Research with researchers in the Saint Louis Hospital, such as Dominique Vitoux. The aim of this association is to open up the doors of laboratories to young people. This scheme has continued since 2004. Once a month, a researcher takes a junior or high school student from the neighborhood into the research unit. These students are selected from their cover letters, rather than according to the grades they get in school. Together they develop a research project. At the end of the year, the findings are presented in public by the students themselves during a congress for trainee researchers. And it has proved a success. This year sixty pupils have benefited from the scheme in different research institutes in Paris. Next year, this number is expected to double. It could also spread to provincial areas of France and possibly to other scientific disciplines. With Ali Saïb, who knows where it will all end.

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