Rhodes scholar Pardis Sabeti graduated with her medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 2006, earning the school's highest honor - the third woman ever to do so. She's also the lead singer and songwriter of the band, Thousand Days, who uses her music to make science appealing to children, especially, girls. As a graduate student at Oxford University in England, Sabeti developed a way to detect natural selection at the level of individual genes. In Eric Lander's lab at the Broad Institute, she scanned the entire human genome to figure out which genes have changed within the last 10,000 years and which have spread rapidly in the human gene pool due to natural selection. With these tools, geneticists can study how cultural and environmental changes have affected the evolution of the human genome. Now Sabeti is applying this technique to her true passion: understanding the interplay between humans and the pathogens that cause diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and leprosy. Her work - published in December 2007 - revealed genes involved in drug resistance and in evading the immune system, giving researchers potential targets for new therapies and vaccines.
Pardis Sabeti: Well, there’s always the experiments that you do as a child. I was actually not some sort of a child prodigy by any stretch. We were-- My mom was always helping us with a science fair project the week before. There was always that kind-- We were a little bit-- Yeah. So that was a little hodgepodge. I can’t say you can actually have-- So I’m living proof that you can be a terrible young scientist and still have a career but- and so I think when I got to college was the first time that I’d ever really done.
One, we weren’t Americans so we didn’t really know a lot about all these summer programs and fancy things that you could do to get an early start and we were- and I was pretty clueless. I’m the kind of person that instead of thinking oh, I can skip grades I was just how am I going to get 100 in everything and do-- I was always working within my confines, which I think is good. Sometimes if you think too far, three steps ahead, you don’t really appreciate what you have, but I think my whole education was about doing what I could at the time, but-- So all of that as backdrop-- I had never really even known what a lab was until I got to college really and early on in my freshman year I joined David Bartel’s group and David Bartel is one of the world’s leading- one of the- is a pioneer of RNA and understanding sort of microRNAs and how they work so he’s tremendous and-- Yeah. And it was- I was his second person in his lab-- So he had just started at MIT. He had a spectacular technician and then he had me and I was not good.
I had just picked up the ______________ for the first time and if anything about RNA work it’s very difficult because RNA is not nearly as stable as DNA and so you can contaminate it really easily. You can affect it real easy. You can be working with an artifact and so it was a really good training and I applaud David for his patience in working with me and I think there is a lot of times where he was “You sure—“ I think I just was so tenacious I just kind of kept coming back. I think he was hoping that one day I would be “I don’t need to do this anymore,” but I stayed with him for all four years of college, and so for me it was great because after doing RNA as an undergraduate with no experience everything after that became very easy. So DNA was this-- I could just do it blindfolded and still make it work, which was great, but it was definitely a interesting slow start.
Question: What have been particularly good or bad days?
Brett Dobbs: Is there a particular memory you have that was a disastrous day or—
Pardis Sabeti: Oh, yeah. I don’t even know if I should talk about it but yeah. There is-- I will just say that there was a disastrous day where I discovered really what radioactivity is and that just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not everywhere so-- Yeah. I was a slow learner for sure.
I think now the best days; there was a lot of great days and I think a lot of great days in the lab often come with working with people. So I have one student, Patrick Varilly, I worked with for the last few years. He’s sort of-- He was my- an undergraduate I worked with as a post doc and some of the best days were just the two of us sitting together in a room going back and forth. He was-- He’s a computer-- Well, he’s a physics major but with a big computer science training so he was doing a lot of the more rigorous programming we needed to do and I was doing a lot of the analysis so we’d go back and forth.
And this most recent paper that we did where we talk about Lassa fever and the hair and sweat in Asia and all sorts of things we were developing a lot of tests and I think this six-week period where Patrick came from vacation and the two of us worked 16 hours a day for six weeks just plugging away running- and also some of the genome high five-- We both had headphones going and would go back and forth and would high five each other every time something cool happened. I think that’s the kind of stuff where it’s just- it was-- It’s funny. We talk about it being the most fun time ever even though we really just sat, woke up, got breakfast, came in.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008