Sara El-Gebali - Scientific Biocurator at Pfam

Sara El-Gebali - Scientific Biocurator

Sara El-Gebali was named one of the three 2019 champions of Best Practice at the Supporting Equality and Diversity in Science awards, which took place on the Wellcome Genome campus.

Q&A with Sara El-Gebali

"Receiving this award, I feel motivated to continue in this work and to keep doing more for the LGBTQ+ community on campus."  

Nominated for her energy and hard work in supporting the establishment of the LGBTQ+ Campus Network, Sara has been the driving force behind a number of successful events and initiatives. She tells us about her work at EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute and how it feels to win a Best Practice award.

Q: What do you do at EMBL-EBI?

I’m a scientific biocurator and I work in the protein families team. I maintain the Pfam database, so I get to do protein sequence analysis all day! I create profile Hidden Markov models from the protein sequences in a multiple sequence alignment, in order to detect regions of similarity. That helps me identify homologs and, sometimes, function or structure. It's very cool to see something, such as a particular conserved pattern of cysteines, in the sequences and figuring out that it acts as a contributor to the activity and potency of the venom in spiders! 

Q: What got you into science?

I’m not the type of person who can learn things through theory, I need to understand it in an applied context. If there’s a theory I will try and find the story behind it, find out in which context it fits and if it matches what I had in mind or not. If you apply this to science, it’s the same as having a hypothesis. You don’t know if your idea is right or wrong, but then you try to figure out the story, the bigger picture. So that’s how I got into science, it seemed like a puzzle and I’ve always loved learning to understand challenging and interesting things.

My background is actually very much wet lab in cancer biology. I’ve been working with cancer research since my Masters onwards. My PhD supervisor was a bioinformatician and got me more interested in biology beyond the wet lab environment. I realised how important it was to use bioinformatics tools, but I was stubborn at the start, until I realised how much easier my life is using bioinformatics tools to further my research! Some scientists aren’t into integrating these tools into their day-to-day wet lab work, so I guess that's why I now do teaching and courses and talk about it all the time. I think challenge is what’s always driven me.

Q: What was your first reaction when you found out you’d won a Best Practice Award?

It was a bit of a shock! I was thinking, “No, I didn’t do enough, why are they giving this to me? There’s still a lot more to be done, I can’t just relax after this!” I was so full of emotions which made me feel that I can’t just sit back now, I have to do more. I’ve got to up the game. By receiving this award I feel motivated to continue in this work and to keep doing more for the LGBTQ+ community on campus.  

Q: Tell us about the LGBT+ Campus Network

We needed something to get people together, because creating a sense of community is very important. It’s that sense of belonging that makes people work together in a very constructive manner. Even if it’s something as small as having a cup of coffee together, the network helps people to feel comfortable and to find solidarity in knowing that the people around you are in the same boat. There are approximately 2,500 people on campus, the idea of having the network is to say, ‘You’re not lost, you’re not alone, there’s a lot more of us.’

The other part of it is to raise awareness for people who are on the other side, for those who do not sit within minority groups. These things aren’t always visible, and it’s important to let people know we are here. We want to be recognised. The minute you are recognised, ideologies and perception will begin to shift and people will begin to take into account those differences. This helps lead to acceptance, the preservation of rights, and policies being put into place.

The overall purpose of the network is to help people out on a personal level, get the campus community relating to the issues of minorities and protected characteristics and therefore help to create positive change in terms of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

Q: Tell us one thing about yourself that we can’t find out from Google.

Thank goodness Google wasn’t around when I was a teenager! I used to teach and perform belly dancing. That was something which was very short lived because uni kicked in and I couldn’t maintain it after the first year. But I still miss it.

I was in high school when I started, so about 16-17. I started a group and we started performing at our school and at local events. I think it comes from the Egyptian influence in my family, you grow up watching movies full of dancing!

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