Profile: Pardis Sabeti

  • Posted 07.02.08
  • NOVA scienceNOW

By day, Pardis Sabeti is a Harvard evolutionary geneticist who is using an algorithm she developed to try to understand how the malaria parasite develops resistance to the drugs we use to fight it. By night, Sabeti and her band Thousand Days play the clubs around greater Boston. In this NOVA scienceNOW segment, meet the Iranian-born Sabeti in both of her very different worlds.

Running Time: 08:00



PBS Airdate: July 2, 2008

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: A lot of scientists, just like a lot of people, secretly wish they were rock stars. But really, how hard could it be?

Our love was like...a the nebula of my soul,

But now...I find your just a big black hole.

Well, maybe it's harder than it looks. But in this episode's profile you'll meet a scientist who has a much better shot at becoming a real rock star. Don't believe me? Check this out.

Thirty-two-year-old Pardis Sabeti is a member of the rock band Thousand Days...singer, bass player and songwriter. She's a rocker by night; come morning, Pardis plays a different tune.

PARDIS SABETI (Harvard University): I'm a geneticist, with an interest in infectious disease.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: This is her stage by day, complete with its own dressing room and, of course, her instrument of choice.

In 2001, Pardis used her instrument to make a major breakthrough in genetics. She was combing through the human genome, trying to track natural selection.

ERIC LANDER (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard): The process of natural selection is one of the most fundamental driving forces of evolution.

PARDIS SABETI: I'm looking for all the things that are beneficial in the human genome. Everything that I do is based on a very simple principle: things that are beneficial will spread through populations very quickly.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Think of it this way, in natural selection, our DNA, our internal blueprint, constantly mutates, and some of those changes help us survive in our given environment. Those beneficial changes will be the ones that get passed down to future generations.

ERIC LANDER: If an advantageous mutation should occur, something that might protect you against a disease, for example, you'll leave more offspring, and your offspring will leave more offspring.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: And sometimes a genetic mutation will allow you to take advantage of a new source of food, for example, cow's milk. Thousands of years ago, most adults couldn't drink milk without getting sick. But after cows were introduced to Europe, people with a particular mutation that allowed them to drink milk safely could take advantage of this new food. They had a better chance at survival, and passed that milk-drinking gene on to the next generation.

Today, 80 percent of European adults can drink milk. That's a genetic brushfire.

Pardis figured out how to spot brushfires, like these, in a genome. She came up with an algorithm to compare genetic codes among hundreds of different people around the world, and identify the genes that have become very common, very fast, a sure sign of natural selection at work.

ERIC LANDER: The cool thing about what Pardis did was figure out what to look for in the first place, figure out how to sift the haystack to find the needles.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: And this idea has created a little brushfire of its own.

ERIC LANDER: Pardis' idea has been picked up by many, many groups now. It's now considered a routine tool for scanning the human genome to understand evolution.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Pardis is a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Medical School. In one year, she received not only a seven-figure research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but an honorable mention in Billboard's World Song Competition.

A female rocker who was born in Iran and is now a genetics professor at Harvard...wait, let me repeat that: a female rocker who was born in Iran is now a genetics professor at Harvard.

Pardis is her very own mix of a new generation's sensibilities with the old generation's credentials.

PARDIS SABETI: If you do you what you love, things happen fast. And I think that, that I don't manage my time well, I don't think I do anything special. It's just, I stick around things that I love.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: She learned that at an early age. Okay, maybe not this early, but her biggest lessons in life came from a unique family experience.

When Pardis was only two years old, her family was forced to leave their home in Iran because of the revolution. They found refuge in the United States, but they had lost everything.

PARDIS SABETI: You established a life in one country, and then you get to a new country, and it's sort of like: start over, learn a new language and get going. So it took awhile.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: All of this uncertainty meant that throughout her life there were only two things Pardis could count on, herself and her family.

PARISA SABETI (Pardis Sabeti's Sister): We were always, always together, which was great. And so then you felt safe.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Parisa is Pardis's older sister, appointed playmate, and caregiver since birth.

PARISA SABETI: The moment that my sister came home, my mom made a big effort to say, "This is your sister. Take care of your sister." The two of us were always very, very close.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: After her family finally got its new life in America on track, Pardis was in the 9th grade, when her father was in a car accident that nearly killed him.

PARISA SABETI: He shattered both of his legs. It was an 18-hour operation to piece his legs back together.

PARDIS SABETI: Months and months and months in the hospital. They really didn't think he'd ever walk again.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: Her father made a full recovery, but this experience changed Pardis's life. She apprenticed with the doctor who performed the operation, which led to her decision to study medicine. And her father's example provided a lifelong lesson.

PARDIS SABETI: As long as I have a heartbeat, I'm fine. So I just do what I love, and I do it the best that I can. And if it all goes away, I'll just start over. You get this added drive because life is so precious.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: These days, Pardis has taken up the challenge of fighting malaria, a disease that infects at least 300 million and kills one to two million people each year. She's traveled to Africa to study how the malaria parasite interacts with its human hosts. And just like the human genome, the genome of this parasite, spread by mosquitoes, has now been mapped. Pardis is searching its genome for signs of natural selection in the hopes of understanding how this parasite develops resistance to the drugs we use to fight it.

PARDIS SABETI: The same types of methods I used to study what are the things beneficial in humans that allow it to continue to survive and stay on this Earth, we can do the same thing with malaria.

DYANN WIRTH (Harvard School of Public Health): This approach that Pardis is using is bound to lead to breakthroughs.

ERIC LANDER: What's wonderful is Pardis has no boundaries about what she'd like to do, what she's interested in doing. Her problem will be how to choose which of those she can fit into a 24-hour day.

NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: And while the future is anybody's guess, Pardis insists she's a scientist through and through. As she says, "It's much cooler than being a rock star."

PARDIS SABETI: You get these moments of thrill. There you are, at 3:00 in the morning, and you know something about how we evolved that nobody else in the world knows. It's a thrill of discovery. You make this breakthrough and you find something. It's this wonderful, wonderful scavenger hunt when you got to the end. It's just so great to be a scientist.


Pardis Sabeti

Edited by
Jerry Pratt
Produced and Directed by
Robe Imbriano & Carla Denly

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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Image credit: (Pardis Sabeti) photo by Carla Denly, © WGBH Educational Foundation


Eric Lander
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Pardis Sabeti
Harvard University
Parisa Sabeti
Pardis' Sister
Dyann Wirth
Harvard School of Public Health

Related Links

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