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Faces of HPC: Michelle Sahai

Michelle Sahai is a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Roehampton, London, UK. Michelle’s first introduction to HPC was during her undergraduate degree and she is now using HPC resources to simulate membrane proteins.


Michelle is a first-generation Trinidadian-Canadian, who has used the confidence she developed in embracing two cultures in her career to network and foster collaborations. Having studied in Toronto and Oxford she now lives in London but loves to travel the world and visit new places. 


Tell a bit about yourself.

I was born in Trinidad, the larger island of the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, located in the West Indies. My family moved to Toronto, Canada where I attended the University of Toronto, specialising in Pharmacology and Toxicology in my undergraduate degree. I completed my Masters also at the University of Toronto, in Medical Biophysics and following that I moved to the United Kingdom where I completed my D.Phil in Computational Biochemistry at the University of Oxford.

Apart from my obvious fascination with science I am also an avid reader. I try to read at least one book a month and currently am completing Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I also find every opportunity to travel and experience new cultures. At the end of my undergraduate year I took a year abroad (while doing some research) to travel extensively in Eastern Europe, having Hungary as my base while I travelled and spent weeks at a time in Romania, Poland, Croatia, Slovakia and Slovenia. I picked up that proverbial “travel bug” and since then I have visited most European countries, North American cities and islands in the Caribbean. I hope to start my travel experience in South America with Brazil being the next place on my list to visit. I am also a big foodie and love trying new foods which is ideal when visiting new places. Also Netflix is my drug of choice!

What is your current job?

I am a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Roehampton, London. At Roehampton, I teach both undergraduate and graduate students and I am also research active. This post was a traditional progression from my D.Phil via a Postdoctoral fellowship.  My research requires HPC infrastructure to perform computational modelling and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations of membrane proteins. I am particularly interested in the interactions of small molecules with these proteins. At present I am investigating the effect of synthetic (designer) drugs on monoamine transporters. My HPC requirement includes multi-core and GPU hardware.

How did you become interested in HPC?

I was introduced to HPC in my undergraduate 2nd year project at the University of Toronto where I was performing ab initio quantum mechanical (QM) calculations using Gaussian. The ability to use computers to perform theoretical simulations to study biological problems fascinated me and I was eager to apply these computational methods to larger biological systems. In my Masters and more specifically in my D.Phil I conducted MD simulations, which created new challenges when dealing with HPC. I was introduced to practices for using external HPC clusters, hierarchies involved when storing data and backup, coding and different submission queues. All of which has extended to my current HPC practice.

As part of this project we want to celebrate the diversity of HPC, in particular to promote equality across the nine “protected” characteristics of the UK Equality Act, which are replicated in world-wide equality legislation. Do you feel an affiliation with this matter, and if so how has this interacted with or impacted your job in the HPC community?’

It is unfortunate that we don’t see more diversity in HPC but I feel that education is changing this landscape. It is reassuring when you visit conferences or meetings that there are more and more speakers utilising HPC who are women and even more so visible minorities like myself.

Is there something about you that’s given you a unique or creative approach to what you do?

I believe I developed my outgoing personality as a first-generation Trinidadian-Canadian trying to embrace two cultures and ultimately make new friends. This confidence has allowed me to easily network and build relationships which are ultimately important as a researcher, collaborating with various scientists either in the HPC community or not.

Were there any challenges when you first entered the field?

Programming was initially a struggle for me. It was only after a mentor said that I should try to find a problem to solve, rather than read a book or go through tutorials, that I really grasped the syntax for the languages. I know now how to approach problems without feeling that mental block but I still find it easy to utilise forums and sometimes deconstruct ready-made scripts when I’m stuck on a problem.

What’s the best thing about working in HPC?

Working in HPC has allowed me the opportunity to network and interact with professionals from various fields in academia and industry. I find that working with traditional wet-lab experimentalists provides the necessary out-of-the-box perspective that I miss sometimes when designing my computational experiments. Our field is still emerging as technology improves and identifying key shortcomings, so that we may perform experiments efficiently with sometimes limited resources, is key and I think this is an exciting time to be part of the HPC community.

If there’s one thing about HPC you could change, what would it be?

Fundamentally I think funding agencies still need to invest more in terms of national HPC facilities. It is disheartening that there is still a limit to the amount of computational resources you can get on these grid services. This will continue to get worse as the competition to bid for these resources increases with the number of users. For now we must rely on consortiums, which are working tirelessly to provide such services to users.

What’s next for you in HPC?

I am currently putting together my own laboratory and research group and I’m relying on the expertise of mentors and proven specialists in the field such as Acellera for support.  I am excited that in a few months time we will have a local GPU infrastructure at the University of Roehampton. Stay tuned!

Michelle was interviewed by Toni Collis in February 2017.

Last updated: 09 Mar 2017 at 15:58