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: I think the process is important so grant writing in science is important. It’s difficult ‘cause the numbers are so low and it’s so hard to get funded but at the same time while it’s a painstaking process it’s- it makes sense to me. In any business or industry you have to show that you’re going to use the money wisely and you’ve thought out through all the different options so for me so far I’ve really enjoyed the process.
It uses the process of thinking through in advance and looking at all the different outcomes that could come in to play and whether or not it’s-- So it keeps you responsible and it keeps you thinking very proactively about what’s the best way to do your science. So I enjoy writing the grants and I think it’s important, but at the same time it’s definitely difficult for a lot of scientists because money is becoming more scarce and this isn’t a great time for the national budget in science so that makes it difficult. So obviously I wouldn’t want it if I- if rejections were the norm for a long period of time but I see why it’s important.
Question: What’s inspired your research?
Pardis Sabeti: So I think like most people-- We find our inspiration or our excitement from all sorts of places so- and while there’s a couple of things that are pretty fundamental to me like medicine, music, I’m always- you’re always dabbling, right, in a hundred different things and that’s very much the kind of these- generation X and Y is about, exploring all sorts of things. So when I was at Oxford I really started getting in to the history of science so reading all about all of the early people in evolution actually like Darwin and Wallace and also Hooker and Lyell and Melvis[ph?]. And so I went through this really big period of just understanding the history of science and that was- that definitely inspired me and kind of made me think about a lot of the process in a very different way and ended up writing a play about it ‘cause I got so in to it. Lately-- And then I go through these periods of just really loving fiction writers so I- there’s tons of them that I like so it’s hard to say. Nick Hornby I love. Alex Garland is great. Yeah. It’s actually hard to say. There’s lots and lots of different writers that I enjoy.
Oh, Frank Portman, King Dork, fantastic book, just really good, really good. If you like music and you have ever fantasy banded, it’s a great book, so go through my fiction periods as well, and then I think more-- Lately I’ve been reading a lot of the more nonfiction, well, because I’m starting a lab and reading a lot of management books and the Harvard Business Review, which is excellent, and- but like Malcolm Gladwell.
Both Blink and Tipping Point are really interesting, Freakonomics. So you go through just different periods where different things become mini obsessions and I’d say right now that another mini-- I have so many mini obsessions, right now still back to music but rock band is a mini obsession. I love it and I’ve never-- The one instrument I never played was drums and I think it’s just a great- it’s great for music literacy and it’s just great for-- Like I said, it’s my own personal teacher. Right. You’re just checking and you’re going through the different-- You go through each song and you go from easy to medium to hard and then you go through all the different-- It’s fantastic.
Question: How has your family leaving Iran inspired you?
Pardis Sabeti: Yeah. I’m-- So I’m very, very close with my family and I think that if you have to look at the- look at your life in general-- And probably no one’s had a greater impact on me than my family. I’m-- So I’m close to them and I grew up with them but they are just tremendous people that-- I am-- So my close family would be my sister and my mom and my dad, just- all just wonderful people, really caring and are so inspiring in so many ways, just the way that they look at life. My mom is just one of these free spirits and she’s always been. She’s always-- She was always that mom on field trips in elementary school who was the one everybody wanted to go in her car ‘cause-- Mrs. Sabeti was ridiculous, played the loud music, got the big food, all these-- She made it very fun. She was a very fun mom and was very in to us doing well in school but in a way that made it that we wanted to do it so she made it fun.
So I enjoy what I do and it’s always been very hard so you enjoy the hard work and you enjoy the payoffs and then she makes it fun and my dad is just an incredibly resilient, strong person who’s always been the very responsible, caring person in my life, and I have a great deal of respect for him. And my sister-- I was saying that before-- has been-- She’s definitely the-- Because she-- My parents are great but she was going through the whole process with me so she was just one step ahead of me in school. She was always teaching me in school. She was always just a tremendous influence. She was an incredible athlete so she got-- I was always trying to be able to be like her so it was wonderful.
Well, I was very young when I moved over. I was 2, going on 3, so for me the memories are pretty clouded. I don’t really know but I think that there is a feeling of you see your parents go through so much and you see not just my parents but my parents’ generation going through so much with all of our friends and family all transitioning and having the exodus from their home country where they’ve built an entire life for themselves and have to start over. So there’s some-- It’s definitely-- It makes you think whatever-- America is such a place of opportunity that nothing that I went through would even come close to what they gone through in their lives so I have tremendous respect for my parents and everyone in my parents’ generation.
And seeing my parents exit-- They’re really resilient and not just resilient but happy and grateful and I think that was one of the things that I get from them is that they are grateful for the time that they experienced in Iran. They’re saddened for what’s happened to the country and the people there now but they do what they can but they’re also excited about their new life so they’ve always been really thankful for the opportunities America gave them and their children. And that’s what I kind of-- That’s what I get from them is the resilience and the appreciation for life and every opportunity that they have.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008