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Meet the Fellows: Afrah Khairallah

December 15, 2019

A Sudanese scientist is using high performance computing to find new potential malaria drugs.

Afrah Khairallah, a 2015 fellow from Sudan, is currently completing a full-time PhD fellowship at Rhodes University in South Africa, where she is using a computational approach to study the potential of a specific enzyme, GTP Cyclohydrolase I, to be used as an anti-malarial drug. We asked her to answer a few questions for us about her research and what she hopes to do after finishing her PhD.

How did you learn about the OWSD fellowship, and what difference has it made to your career?

I learned about OWSD from a friend who was an OWSD Fellow at that time. She encouraged me to pursue my postgraduate studies and apply for the fellowship. The day I received the acceptance letter, I was thrilled. I felt like I had finally gotten the support needed to reach my full potential and fulfill my dreams. The support and financial security allowed me to focus my efforts on my research. Because of the conference support included in the fellowship, I was also able to attend and present my research to international audiences at the ISC 2019 supercomputing conference in Germany, the 27th conference on Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology and the 18th European Conference on Computational Biology in Basel, Switzerland. There, I had the opportunity to meet the keynote speakers, network and learn about the latest developments in my research field. I am truly honoured and grateful to be an OWSD fellow!

What are you researching? What first made you interested in this subject?

My research involves the application of computational tools and high-performance computing to drug discovery. I am aiming to identify new metabolic targets and novel drugs to combat malaria. I virtually screen compounds for their potential to be used against a specific malarial enzyme. Once screened, the compounds are filtered according to their best binding energies and then taken forward for further simulations and analysis. I have chosen this field because it combines my two areas of interest: biology and computer science.

Has anything surprised you about your research experience?

What has surprised me is the way technology is emerging and affecting the current state of research. We are encountering a fourth industrial revolution that entails advances in computing power, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, which has already been shown to alter the way we conduct research. I think about this every time I’m doing my research, when I am able to virtually screen thousands of compounds against malarial enzymes in such a short time.

What are your plans for the future? What will you do after you complete your PhD?

After receiving my PhD, I plan to do post-doctorate research in my field for few years in order to have a solid enough foundation of knowledge to establish a computational biology research unit. I would like to collaborate with researchers worldwide to progress the research in my home country and in Africa. I would also like to take part in establishing the infrastructure for high-performance computing in Africa. In addition, I’m also very interested in lecturing and in creating opportunities for young women, so that we can work toward equal gender representation and inclusiveness in science. I have so much potential that I would like to pass on to other women. 


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