Profile with Pardis Sabeti
Pardis Sabeti (Florida & New College 1997) is a professor at the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, and a senior associate at the Broad Institute. She holds an MD from Harvard University, a DPhil in Biological Anthropology and an MSc in Human Biology from the University of Oxford, and a BS in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rhodes Project: Where did you grow up?
Pardis Sabeti: I grew up in Florida. I was born in Tehran, Iran, and my parents came to the United States during the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Rhodes Project: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Pardis Sabeti: I went through the typical phases. First, I wanted to be a flower-shop owner because I liked flowers. Then I was drawn to creative writing, so I wanted to be a novelist. That followed with wanting to be a doctor. Those were mostly chosen because I actually knew that they were jobs. In truth, what I always liked the most was math. I just didn’t know that there was a job in math at the time, which is a little funny to think about now.
Rhodes Project: What motivated you to pursue research?
Pardis Sabeti: I had planned to be a doctor, so pursuing my medical degree was always something that I was on track to do. I had decided that it would be neat to have a year off before I went to medical school, so I began applying for different things, including the Rhodes scholarship. Once I got the Rhodes, I essentially had three years off instead. Going into college, I didn’t really understand what a PhD was, so I had no intention of doing a PhD, but winning the Rhodes made me think about what I wanted to do for a couple of years before medical school. The more I got engaged in research, the more excited I became about it. By the time I started medical school, I was already really enjoying research. By the time I finished, I really surprised myself in discovering that I enjoyed research a lot more than medicine.
Rhodes Project: Did you ever have an “ah-ha” moment in your initial research on using genetics as an alternative record of African-American History?
Pardis Sabeti: There were certainly a lot of moments where I could see a pattern in the data, and I figured out how to quantify it. There’s one particular moment that I normally turn to, because I remember it so clearly. I had finally implemented the test, applied it to this data and found this pattern of adaptation. I was in medical school, it was three o’clock in the morning and I should have been in bed because I had a lecture in the morning. I implemented it and I saw it – it was really neat that the method had worked. The whole process leading up to it though, was years of little “ah-ha” moments along the way.
Rhodes Project: What is the best part of your job now?
Pardis Sabeti: The journey of discovery with my students is very exciting. The insights that we build up over years just by thinking is really fun and interesting. I love teaching at Harvard and I also love going to Africa and working with my collaborators there.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Pardis Sabeti: I work on a deadly, bio-safety level 4 virus in a developing country with all of the safety and ethical issues there. So there are many many challenges, but we are motivated by the importance of the problem.
Rhodes Project: Who are some of your role models?
Pardis Sabeti: Eric Lander is my main role model, and has been my mentor and advisor since 1993. He’s exceptional. He pioneered the human genome project, founded the Broad Institute which is where I work, and has been the leader of so many medical advances and genomics in the last two decades. He’s an incredibly good person as well as a great scientist. He is also a Rhodes Scholar, and a great part of the reason I followed that path.
My role models are always very close to home. My parents would be my other main role models. They are exceptional people that have overcome so much through the revolution. They always have a positive sprit, and are just good people.
Rhodes Project: How did your band, Thousand Days, start up and what do you enjoy most about it?
Pardis Sabeti: The first band I was ever in started at Oxford. We wrote all of our own songs and started performing. We played seven shows in the next few weeks, and I was hooked. Afterward once we all graduated and moved on, I started a new band called Thousand Days in medical school. We're still going. We have four different CDs and we’re about to go record a fifth.
Rhodes Project: What else do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Pardis Sabeti: There’s a big volleyball league in the summertime, here at the Harvard science center. Every lab has a team, so there are about fifty, and we all compete all summer long. Volleyball is our big summer obsession.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you and why?
Pardis Sabeti: Human potential and human goodness really inspires me. My collaborators in Africa and elsewhere are especially inspirational. The people in the hospitals that we work with in Nigeria and Sierra Leone do incredible work. One of the Nigerian physicians, Dr. Peter Okokhere, is visiting with us now for three weeks. He’s bringing the data set that he’s been developing, and helping us through what he’s been finding on Lassa fever. This is a deadly virus, and Peter is treating patients every day. He puts himself at that kind of risk, and is just so passionate to understand how this disease works. That really inspires me.
Rhodes Project: What are some of your personal goals?
Pardis Sabeti: My personal goals become very centralized around the different individuals in my lab and getting them to a place where they can set off in their careers. A goal is to really make an impact on Lassa virus in West Africa. It’s a devastating disease, and I want to have our team make a contribution to saving lives throughout West Africa. I have a lot of personal goals as well; completing this CD with my band, spending time with my friends and family, loved ones, husband.
Rhodes Project: What brings you joy in life?
Pardis Sabeti: Being outside on a warm summer day. Playing and writing music. Fighting for my students. Breaking through barriers. Science. Seeing other people achieve. The innocence of children and animals.
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