Dr Sara Macias Ribela on the interaction between viruses and hosts

She talks about her work to disentangle the interaction between viruses and hosts, focusing on understanding how embryos vs adults defend from infections, the challenges of translating research findings into practise, and the importance of learning from the people who support you so you can succeed in your career.

Sara Macias Ribela

Sara is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow working on a project to understand the contribution of miRNA-interferon interaction to human disease.

The Macias lab has shown that micro-RNAs (miRNAs), a type of small molecule, are crucial for controlling interferon levels. Interestingly, this interaction is reciprocal, as interferons also control the levels of miRNAs. Sara's group now hypothesises that defects in these interferon-miRNA interactions are key to understanding human diseases characterised by impaired miRNA or interferon production.

Could you briefly summarise your work?

My group studies how our bodies protect themselves from viruses. We are particularly interested in deciphering the mechanisms by which we fight infections at different stages of life, i.e., during embryonic development and adulthood, but also in understanding why our body activates the antiviral response when there is no real infection, i.e., in autoinflammatory diseases. To this end, we use different -omics approaches as they provide a complete and unbiased picture of the immune response to viruses and allow us to discover novel or unanticipated aspects.

Why is your research important? How is it relevant to people’s lives?

Our research is important for understanding the complex nature of the interaction between viruses and their hosts. It provides fundamental information about how our bodies fight viruses and may offer new targets to enhance the immune response to the virus.

What are the major challenges in your field?

The biggest challenge of our research is to translate the results into a real-life setting. Because we want to understand how humans defend themselves against viruses, we use human cellular models that allow us to manipulate the system and perform infections in a controlled manner. Unfortunately, cellular models are only an approximation and cannot recapitulate important complex interactions that can only be observed in a full organism, but we can still gain many fundamental knowledge!

What inspired you to be a scientist?

During my high- school I was fascinated by mathematics, physics and chemistry. Then at university I studied biology, one of the most inexact disciplines of all STEM subjects (apologies to all biologists who disagree!). My passion for biology began when I started learning about how genomes work and how they can be manipulated to understand the basic rules of life. I just found it fascinating.

What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

The best part of my job is the moment of discovery. We spend most days troubleshooting protocols and experiments, and when they finally work ... it's a special day! It's also a very special experience because you are probably the only person on the planet who knows about this discovery.

The hardest part is dealing with the pressure for productivity and funding. However, we need these to have the freedom to do the research we are passionate about.

If you could have tea with another scientist (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I wish I had the time and opportunity to have tea and chat with as many scientists as possible, because in these casual conversations you learn about other aspects of your profession or field that are not published in the journals. I would prefer not to focus my response on an individual scientist because of a particular discovery. Knowledge is a collective effort, and most discoveries that have revolutionised a field are the contribution of many teams and many "not so well recognised" scientists.

What is the most unusual thing you have done as a scientist?

When I was a graduate student, I organised a public engagement event in a small town (100 people) with a very diverse audience and people of all ages. We first taught them how to extract DNA from fruits and later opened a discussion about the possibilities of genetic manipulation and its ethical implications. It was a great experience that taught me that as scientists we need to constantly engage with the general public. Society needs to be involved in the debate about the ethical boundaries of discovery, but also in how funding and scientific resources are prioritised.

If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be doing?

I would have loved to be a musician. Both music and science demand lots of perseverance and a creative mind.

Do you have any advice for people who want to go into this field of research or start a career as a scientist?

Passion, resilience and learning from the best people* if you can! (*the best people are those who will support you to succeed).

What do you think are the major challenges facing humanity? How can science help?

Climate change. Science has already provided enough data to require action on the climate emergency, and it can also be part of the solution, but science cannot do this alone. Governments and businesses, especially in the Global North, need to accept that it is time to reduce growth and conserve natural resources.

Related Links

Sara Macias Ribela profile

Macias Lab