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 was trying to get people in to the lab; I think first and foremost the work that we do is just really fun and engaging and I love what I do. Like I said before, that I get to apply mathematics and problem solving in mathematics to make observations of the natural world, to understand the natural world and how we are connected to nature, how we adapt to our environment, how pathogens and humans have this arms race that we are exploring.
So to me that’s really fun. Especially working in infectious disease it’s very interesting because these infectious diseases, these agents, they evolve over time. So it’s very much an arms race and understanding how each changes to protect itself and to continue.
And so it’s very much this puzzle solving but with this great urgency and importance in what you find. And the kinds of discoveries we make have great implications to human health, and so for me I enjoy it very much.
Question: What are the implications for human health?
Pardis Sabeti: There is the day-to-day implications. So in order to do the work that I do in Lassa fever, as I said before. That’s an area that’s there is-- it’s been so neglected. In a way it’s actually because I think enough West Africans are immune to it because, probably natural selection, it actually almost clouds over how deadly this disease is and that if it actually spread how actually catastrophic it could be. So that’s a disease that’s been very well neglected so there aren’t really good diagnostics. There’s only one treatment, ribavirin, and it’s not known exactly its efficacy right now. And so a lot of what we need to do is build infrastructure just to study that.
So on a day-to-day basis the work that I do also involves infrastructure building in Africa and infrastructure building in the States towards application to Africa. So we are building diagnostics based on recombinant DNA in order to test people very quickly to see whether or not they’ve been exposed to the disease.
And so on a day-to-day basis what’s nice about the work that we do is that in order to do research we actually have to build capacity, and that capacity has direct implications.
We also have to do a lot of training of African scientists; and it’s tremendous. African scientists and doctors are some of the most hardworking people that I’ve ever met. They wake up in the morning. They work into the night. They’re very, very focused and are very, very committed because they see the day-to-day implications of the diseases.
Right now we’re working with the University of Ibadan in Nigeria with Christian Happi and it’s amazing. So for me it’s just wonderful to see him and the commitment he’s had to building the site and training a lot of the doctors at this hospital called Erua [ph?]- in Erua that has many, many patients with Lassa and so direct implications there, but then once we actually are able to investigate the disease we can understand the virus and how it’s- what might be the pathogenic traits of the virus that might be causing disease, if there is different variants in the virus community, some that are more dilute than others, understanding what it is that causes that kind of virility and strong outcome.
We can understand those individuals that have immunity, how they’ve maintained immunity, and hopefully use that towards understanding the disease and the pathogenesis of the disease, and then maybe the therapeutic implications.
So what’s great about this kind of work is that at every step you get this gratification about training scientists throughout the world, building diagnostics that could help on a day-to-day basis and then doing the kind of research that will allow us to understand these diseases in the long term.
Question: When did you become interested in science?
Pardis Sabeti: I liked solving puzzles and I think probably societally I liked science. I liked people and so I kind of began to think I should be a doctor but it was- I don’t know if that was necessarily just-- I enjoy-- I like biology a lot and I definitely love medicine but I think the one thing that was always true is that I always loved math a lot.
I adored the puzzles. It was-- I just-- Yeah. I’ve always liked problem solving and so I’m never- I’m not really much- I wasn’t much in to geometry or a lot of the sort of spatial calculus or anything like that. I just really liked number crunching in different ways. I like-- I love calculus. I love linear algebra, probability and statistics, that kind of stuff. I just really like that.
Question: What teachers inspired you?
Pardis Sabeti: I had a long list of really great math teachers, too many to name. I think all along I had great math instruction. Actually, probably my best teacher, the one that got me excited about it from the earliest age, was my sister who used to teach me-- She was two years ahead of me so she used to teach me what she learned in school in the summers before, so I’d learn it a year and a half ahead- in advance.
She probably was the earliest person that got me really excited about math. So she always taught me addition, subtraction, multiplication, algebra two years before schools were teaching it. And I think that got me really excited about it. So when I would go in to school, it was weird because I already knew everything that I was being taught that year so I just got really obsessive about it. I’d have to do my multiplication tables faster, in half time. because I was learning it so early that I just got really in to excellence in it of-- Yeah, just doing the same stuff everyone was doing but just doing it faster and better, really enjoying that, and so that was probably the spark that I got really excited about that kind of thing, and then, yeah, lots of teachers.
If there was a teacher that kind of really inspired me it was Mr. Bludish,[ph?] my biology teacher and AP biology teacher in high school. He got me really excited about biology and Mrs. Peoples; I took an anatomy and physiology course and those courses in my high school were incredibly good
So when I left by my senior year I just really thought I was going to be a biologist and genetics I was really excited about. So that’s what I went in to. Had I to do it again, I would have been a math major, probably a double major, and did take a lot of math classes but I would have taken a lot more.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008