Support Provided ByLearn More
Body + BrainBody & Brain

Pardis Sabeti: Expert Q&A

On July 8, 2008, Pardis Sabeti answered selected questions about her Iranian heritage, her training and career, and her inspirations.


Recieve emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Q: I am 9 years old and my dad is an Iranian and my mom is an American. I have two sisters. I play violin and soccer. My question is what were you interested in when you were 9 years old? Also, my dad wanted me to tell you that all your hard work has made him proud to be Iranian.

Best Wishes,

Support Provided ByLearn More
Madeleine, St. Petersburg, Florida

Pardis Sabeti: Dear Madeleine,
It is so great to hear from you. Please tell your dad, thank you, that means a lot to me. I am very proud to be Iranian. At 9 I think I had really gotten into tennis, I liked writing short stories, I loved solving math problems, I was learning a little piano, and I was collecting Garbage Pail Kids cards. That is wonderful about your violin and soccer. I wish you, your sisters, and parents the very best. Moafagh bashi.


Q: Hi Ms. Sabeti:

You really seem to be living the kind of life that I admire most: that of the Renaissance man/woman. Your accomplishments at such a young age are very inspiring. Who has inspired you? Thanks. Chris, Santa Monica, California

Sabeti: Hi Chris,
There are too many inspirations to name, but here are just a few examples: The Jealous Sound, Mike Doughty, Frightened Rabbit, The Knife, Sydney Brenner, Leonardo daVinci, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm Gladwell, Joe Dumars in Game 3.... The list goes on and on. Nowadays my students are my daily inspiration. They are so wonderful, so smart, and just such good people. It makes me want to work hard for them.


Q: How do you think your life would have differed if you had remained in Iran? And who is your favorite bassist? Dennis Rutledge, Markham, Ontario, Canada

Sabeti: Dear Dennis,
I sometimes try to think of my life as an Iranian, and it is hard to imagine. I am grateful for the life I have had in America, and all the amazing opportunities and experiences it has given me. But there is a spirit in Iranians I can see that is unbounded by geography.

Hmm, I have a new favorite bassist every day, but one of my all-time favorites has to be Kim Deal. She is just so cool.


Q: I am interested in the algorithm development process that you used. How did you converge onto the final algo? Mehran Nasser-Ghodsi, Hamilton, Massachusetts

Sabeti: Dear Mehran,
It was just a series of little steps by which I came upon an answer. First you have to put it into a context. Mine was just one small advance in a succession of advances. I relied upon history and upon the important work of many other scientists, and so I would say lots of reading others' works was important, and trying to understand the most basic principles on which their work was based. And then lots of trial and error. Just staring at the data and playing with the data till it started to make sense. And talking to my wonderful colleagues like David Reich, Steve Schaffner, John Higgins, Eric Lander, and many others. So lots of lots little moments. The great thing is when you lock into a problem, everything around you can provide a clue and gets you closer to an answer.


Q: Now that we are mapping genes and developing treatments, what is the probability of a treatment mutating and becoming the super threat that there is no treatment for? Anonymous

Sabeti: Dear Anonymous,
That is an important question. Every time we introduce new treatments we have to be careful that there isn't some adverse potential outcome. This is critical when working with infectious diseases like malaria. As we develop new drugs and vaccines, the parasite will likely evolve in response, and we need to be ready for those changes. As we develop interventions against the mosquito that carries malaria, the mosquitoes may similarly evolve. It will help us to closely monitor each new intervention to understand the evolutionary consequences and how they may impact us. That said, our interventions have saved many lives and overcome great burdens to human health, but it is always better to be thoughtful in application and observant to outcome.


Q: First of all, I would like to thank you as an inspiration for my future goals and ambitions. I am also an Iranian-American who is fascinated by many areas of science.

I would like to ask how you managed to accomplish so much, from being an assistant professor at Harvard to obtaining a Ph.D. at Oxford as well as helping people with malaria and much more.

Secondly, I was wondering how you feel so entwined in two cultures and countries that seem to be on the verge of war.

I admire your work and hope to one day accomplish as much myself. Daniel, Grade 11, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Sabeti: Dear Daniel,
I want to thank you for your note. It means so much to me to hear from young students just at the beginning of their career with so much ahead of them. I am hoping the best for you as you move forward in your education and career.

I was able to do so much because I truly love what I do. It is not always easy, and I had plenty of rough patches, like when I thought my Ph.D. project was at a dead end, or when I flubbed my way through my first music show. But I just enjoyed the process knowing that if I keep at it, it will break through. And knowing that both the journey and the finish line were a treasure.

I have always loved being entwined in two cultures. It gives you a very interesting lens through which to see the world. It is of course very difficult to see relations between America and Iran becoming increasingly tense, and knowing that it is not the people of the countries, but a subset of leaders and radicals that are causing such strife. I am hoping that the spirit of the people will triumph.


Q: My name is Lawrence. Regarding malaria, is the sickle cell (of sickle cell anemia disease) a natural defense aganist malaria? Thanks. Lawrence Fletcher, Los Angeles, California

Sabeti: Dear Lawrence,
A natural defense against malaria is a pretty good way to describe sickle cell. Over many generations of exposure to malaria, variations that protect from severe disease, like sickle cell, have emerged and spread through populations. We are now trying to find all of the different natural defenses in human populations and use this information towards understanding the mechanism of disease and towards developing therapeutics.


Q: I'm just wondering what your undergraduate and graduate degrees are in and where they are from. Gail Jacobson, San Luis Obispo, California

Sabeti: Dear Gail,
I have a B.S. in Biology from MIT, an M.Sc. in Human Biology and a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from Oxford University, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. I never intended for so many degrees, but I enjoyed getting them all.


Q: Hi, my name is Yassamin Alayan, and I am also from Iran! It actually brings tears to my eyes for some unknown reason to have come across someone who is a Iranian woman who is doing so much in her life!! I would be honored to be able to get to know you. I am currently a student studying Accounting at Washington State University Vancouver and would love to know others like myself who are acheiving their goals and having the opportunities as you and I have. I hope you will write back and we can at least say hi to each other. You are an inspiration, and I am very proud of your accomplishments! I can only imagine how difficult it has been. Take care. Yassamin Alayan, Vancouver, Washington

Sabeti: Dear Yassamin,
Thank you. That is really kind of you to say. I am grateful for the opportunities women have now in America and that they are growing in the world. I know as the opportunities grow, we are going to see many more stories of Iranian women pursuing their dreams and thriving. That is wonderful that you are pursuing accounting and I wish you the best with it, and hope to meet you one day. And I hope that your career and life are full of much success and happiness.


Q: You mentioned you speak Farsi. What is the difference between that and the language of Iranians, Persian? Jon, Pasadena, California

Sabeti: Dear Jon,
Farsi is the language of Iranians. A lot of folks describe it is as Persian because that is a more familiar term than Farsi.


Q: Are you influenced at all by the Persian Sufi poets? If so, in what way? Gene, Baltimore, Maryland

Sabeti: Dear Gene,
I do not know the Sufi poets as much as I would like to, but I hope to learn more one day. Growing up, I always really loved the Persian poet Omar Khayyam. He was one of my great early loves in poetry.


Q: Where did the inspiration come from, to make the connection between the identified genes, and the evolutionary changes of genes?

Also, just to comment. You are a very beautiful women as well as an obviously talented and brilliant person. Are you single? Eric McQuisten, Salt Lake City, Utah

Sabeti: Dear Eric,
Evolution is something I was always really fascinated by, and the more I read papers, the more I realized that it might be one great way of getting at the biologically important genes in the genome.

Thank you very much. I am not married but am seeing someone.


Q: Where can I get a CD of your band? Anonymous

Sabeti: Dear Anonymous,
I appreciate the question. You can get them at:

Thanks to NOVA scienceNOW, we just sold out of CDs, but we will have them back in stock by next week. You can also get mp3 versions through CDbaby on the Web site or on iTunes. You can also listen at:

but it is always nice to support artists so they can keep making music.


Q: How does "wonder" inform your social interactions? Annie Lalla, New York City, New York

Sabeti: Dear Annie,
I really love meeting and getting to know people. I find that everyone has something very special about them; that makes the world full of wonder. My song "headlight waves" reflects on how the world contains so many things that are wrong and sad, but that there are moments that come like waves when you see something so beautiful, so kind, and so wonderful.