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: So it’s difficult to say what drives people’s passions or why we do one thing rather than another but I know that I’ve always sort of- always had an interest in medicine and in the natural world actually. I love animals. I love plants. I always have so I’ve gravitated towards them.
So I think probably as a child my two big things that you would say are distinctive of me is that I loved nature and I just loved kind of going outside and playing with animals and seeing plants and looking at the world around me, and I’ve loved math and math puzzles. So to me the work that I’m doing it’s happened to be in sort of its windy path that it’s taken me to exactly where I was probably at the age 6, which is wandering around looking at the world and trying to understand it mathematically.
Question: Is there any spirituality in what you do?
Pardis Sabeti: Yeah. So absolutely. I think that everyone has different ways that they’re trying to understand the world and a lot of people do it through religion and I respect that tremendously.
But for me actually I do it through the study of science and through looking at the people around me and the world around me.
The world is so fascinating both culturally and scientifically and I have really enjoyed that so I think that my journey, if we all have journeys, is through that, through understanding the world.
I think that evolution; like I said, I absolutely respect religion and people’s religious beliefs and there’s a lot of beauty to it, but I think that evolution also just has a lot of beauty to it by understanding how-- I don’t think that it’s at all denigrating to think that we are related to the other animals on earth. I think it’s just a beautiful thing and it’s an extension. In many ways warms my heart to see the connectivity between all of these different organisms and how they’ve grown together.
Question: Have you worked with people that have had malaria?
Pardis Sabeti: Yeah. So I’ve worked with-- I don’t do clinical work right now so that was a choice. It was-- The difficult choices we have to make in our lives is that I couldn’t do- teach and do research and do medicine well and I wanted to be able to do whatever I do well, and I didn’t think that it would be good for my patients if I was focusing on research and teaching and also seeing them from time to time. I wanted to focus and some people can do it well. They said I had too many interests and so while I love medicine I wasn’t going to ever be able to do clinical work but we do work with a lot of sites in Senegal and Nigeria and actually throughout Africa with a lot of different consortiums that we work with. So I’ve seen and worked with a lot of patients with different- with malaria and Lassa fever but I leave it to the doctors to do the good work.
Question: What’s the urgency in the work you do?
Pardis Sabeti: It’s kind of-- It’s a wonderful thing to be in a field that you know that- has such a sense of urgency, that malaria every day that you’re not working, every day that you don’t have a cure, those are lives that could be saved, and the same with Lassa fever.
So you benefit from feeling that intensity but fundamentally science takes time and to do it well. You don’t want to actually rush in so quickly that you don’t-- in a way is actually a very difficult thing and in some ways we have to be very patient in the way that we try to interact with it because we tried in the ‘60s- and ‘50s and ‘60s to eradicate it and it just came right back.
So in a lot of ways while we don’t want to be too patient that we’re not moving as quickly as we can you want to be very thoughtful in the way that you approach it, and so I both feel the sense of urgency and the need to be very cautious and careful.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008
For Pardis, the work she is doing has taken her back to what she was doing at age 6 - though it's more urgent.