Forensic Genomics (QUT)
Where are they from? How ancient DNA can help identify unprovenanced and unidentified human remains.

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:


I am the only woman of colour ancient DNA expert in Queensland. My research is in the exciting male-dominated field of Paleogenetics focuses on retrieving DNA from ancient remains found in arid and humid tropics. DNA generally does not preserve well, if at all, in warmer climates. However, I have successfully retrieved DNA from Egyptian mummies, ancient Asian, Australian, and Papuan human remains. 
My work helps with human remains identification, population history and migration questions. I have contributed to knowledge about the prehistoric peopling of Southeast Asia and the identification of the Australian WWI & II unrecovered war casualties. Moreover, my research provides insights into the mortuary practices of the Cape York Indigenous Australian communities. Recently, in collaboration with many Queensland Traditional Owners, my research has focused on using DNA in the repatriation of the unprovenanced Ancestral remains, which is greatly valued and in high demand by the Aboriginal communities.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

In Queensland, Aboriginal Ancestral Remains were stolen from their resting place and treated as objects of curiosity and research by individuals and institutions since the onset of colonisation. This theft is now recognised as a substantial barrier to reconciliation. Many First Nations communities identify that repatriating Ancestral Remains to Country as quickly and respectfully as possible is a cultural duty and a crucial step to strengthening Aboriginal Australian cultures today. The case for urgent action is clear, but a vast number of Ancestral Remains have not yet been, and cannot be, repatriated to Country. A fundamental problem preventing more widespread repatriation today lies in the unknown origins of many Ancestral Remains. Many museums in Queensland, still holds many “unprovenanced” Ancestral Remains of individuals for whom not much cultural information has been recorded. Repatriating these Ancient Remains will be impossible unless we can identify their geographical origins and enable the correct communities to lead decision-making about their Ancestors. Over the past five years, my work in collaboration with many Traditional Owners of the lands located in Queensland in recognition of the repatriation movement. To address this issue, I applied a new approach that integrates the cultural knowledge of First Nations Australians with cutting-edge scientific knowledge of genomics. I was the first to report complete recovery of nuclear genomes of Aboriginal Australians. Our paper entitled ‘Ancient nuclear genomes enable repatriation of Indigenous human remains’ was published in a top tire journal Science Advances. Here we use ancient Aboriginal genomes to identify human remains Place of Origin by comparing the ancient genomes to a map of contemporary Aboriginal Australians that we had constructed —the first complete high coverage nuclear genomes sequenced from 100 Aboriginal Australians living from the Western Desert to Cape York. This ground-breaking ‘proof of concept’ strongly suggests that larger-scale repatriation studies of this kind are possible. The future significance of this work for Queensland’s Indigenous people is that the thousands of the skeletal remains of our First People that are held in museums and that cannot be returned to their Place and Country are now able to give back to the original tribal groups/communities from where they came. Through my research, Queensland is featured as the only laboratory in Australia that helps correct the past by supporting long-demanded repatriation efforts.
As an independent aDNA researcher, I have led other study that has provided the first insights into the mortuary practices of the Indigenous Australian communities in Cape York using the ancient DNA analyses. To support Women in STEM, I have collaborated with the Flinders Island and Cape York communities to design a simplified community reports illustrated with comics aimed at communicating the practical and social benefits generated by the genomic research to Aboriginal STEM students throughout Cape York. In 2021, I was the first to study available genetic data to investigate gene flow resulting from voyages between Cape York, New Guinea and the Torres Strait Islands in partnership with Indigenous communities in Cape York. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

As an Egyptian scientist, I have always wondered why there are fewer women than men in science worldwide. Could it be due to the culture, which sometimes stereotypes women to specific types of jobs, level of education and less time commitment for science? Or is it the lack of encouragement from mentors and family, the lack of funds or simply discrimination? My current perspective is that all these factors mentioned above have contributed, in some way, to the low numbers of women in STEM. However, I consider myself as a living example for a successful woman in STEM as these have not deterred my interest in scientific research but motivated me to obtain my PhD degree and continue with my academic career. My passion for ancient Egyptian history and mummies research has kept me going as a young female researcher in a European, male-dominated field. Although, I have had to balance my research life with my other roles as a wife and mother for two kids. 
When I started my career as an ancient DNA researcher back in Egypt and established the first aDNA lab, the world was against our team. They believed no aDNA could be preserved in the Egyptian mummies, nor are Egyptian female researchers capable of carrying the work. In 2010, we proved them wrong when we presented the family tree of the very famous King Tutankhamun and his cause of death. Even after I moved to Australia, as a female from a Mediterranean background, I have overcome the language and culture barriers and proved myself as an ancient DNA expert, placed among the top 10% in the world and Asia Pacific region (Web of Science/Incites, 12/2021).
I believe in changing the status quo: STEM women are role models. Through my years of research, I have successfully shown that women are just as brilliant, intelligent and capable as their male counterparts. Anyone and everyone can be a scientist. Science is a way of thinking that is not defined by a person’s race, gender or country of origin. However, female scientists need to support each other and inspire the next generation of young thinkers. If we are not visible to society, we won’t be able to change the traditional status quo.  Hence, I confidently took every chance to step out of my lab into the public community and share my knowledge. I always give this advice to my little daughter and all young generations in my talks “Find your passion, talk about it and always fight to make it happen, never give up”. Brisbane World Science Festivals, school visits, summer work experience training, Soapbox Science were just some of the many platforms that allowed me as a woman in STEM to share my passion and inspire the next generation of female scientists. I am glad that I have participated in many of these and would continue to participate again and encourage all female scientists to be involved in such public outreach events.

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

I have been involved in many national and international public outreach events to show beyond the laboratory, science is for the enrichment of the people, encouraging young girls to consider a STEM career path.
Since 2016, I have been featured by a large number of media outlets nationally and internationally for my research in ancient DNA. Coverage has included a BBC Horizon documentary, ABC Radio, The Guardian, The Conversation, Nature Middle East, The New York Times, The Age, Television New Zealand Breakfast show, Brisbane Times, Canada's public broadcaster CBC and New Scientist. I was also featured on the 10 Peach channel, talking about the sacred ibis mummies “What Were Ancient Bin Chickens Like”.
In 2018 and 2021, I was invited to present my research to nearly a thousand primary and high school students and general family audiences as part of The World Science Festival in Brisbane. I have also hosted a lab apprentice program for public groups to shadow me while I worked in the ancient DNA lab, getting them suited up in full-body coverall, masks, and overshoes to protect the ancient remains from our DNA. This has allowed me to be a role model to the next generation of young scientists in a real-world experience. An example of the feedback I received through the organising committee after participating in the WSF “Virtually everyone was interested in Sally's research. It is precisely the kind of science that captures the imagination of people, no matter what their age. In addition, she has an extraordinary ability to communicate her research. Perhaps even more importantly, she can transfer to others the intense mental excitement that is inherent in the field generally and in her research in particular”.
I was competitively selected as a speaker in the Gold Coast 2019 Soapbox Science event to share my work with beach visitors. Soapbox Science is an international, novel public outreach platform of science communication events that highlight women's work in STEM and promotes women and the science they do. The events usually take place in public spaces, such as Surfer Paradise beach for general learning and scientific debate. I dressed like an Ancient Egyptian king in that event, I used Egyptian mummies photos and figurines as props, and all enjoyed the in-street lab experiment extracting DNA from a strawberry. I used the opportunity to make sure that everyone from different ages, gender and backgrounds could enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by my science. I talked about what inspired me to study ancient DNA and why I think I have the most fantastic job in the world!
In my day-to-day job as a University Lecturer, I am passionate about developing remarkable student experiences and creating opportunities for the exceptional postgraduate scholars that I continue to attract through our high-profile research. Through teaching, I strived to develop the students’ skills, providing work-integrated learning opportunities for students under my supervision through internships, appropriate training for graduates, and creating relevant student research projects.