This year’s winner of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science is Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D. You know… really smart… Oxford… Harvard… you are a dumb-ass compared to her etc. etc. Her work is helping scientists identify how to defeat diseases and microbes. Oh, yeah, she also happens to be in a rock band.
Pardis Sabeti discovered her love for biology from her older sister, Parisa. She was a National Merit Scholar, graduated from MIT in biology with a perfect grade-point average, Rhodes Scholar to Oxford, and summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School.
At Oxford, as part of her research into human genetic resistance to malaria, Sabeti worked to fine-tune an algorithm she had developed to identify more recent changes in the human genome. But her approach was considered offbeat, and for a time it seemed as if she was “going to go nowhere.” Undeterred, she kept at it when she returned to Boston for med school, taking “a series of little steps“ exploring neighborhoods of the human genome looking for rapid changes in a population’s DNA, signals of the beneficial results of natural selection.
Finally, one very early morning, she had a working model of her algorithm, which she then applied to a specific gene in some DNA samples. “The results,” she recalls, “were beautiful.” She’d found a trait that “had to be a result of natural selection—[one] that likely helped the population I was looking at cope with malaria better than others.” Her discovery helps scientists understand how humans have evolved to become resistant to infectious diseases, and how the microbes underlying these diseases evolve to develop drug resistance. In turn, it is the hope that this information might help us to defeat these microbes and the resistance they develop.
Her own resistance, to giving up, Dr. Sabeti attributes to her background as “a child of a revolution.” On the run from the fundamentalist regime in 1978 Iran, she and her family left Tehran and arrived in the United States knowing neither the language nor the people, and started life over again. Throughout the years of turmoil, her parents remained strong and optimistic, and their example is what motivates her to “work hard and always maintain positivity in the face of all odds.”
Since that 3:00 a.m. revelation in 2002, Dr. Sabeti has continued to take on big challenges, notably the deadly Lassa fever virus. For this work, she went out into the field, a dangerous one five thousand miles away, to collect blood samples. At her core, though, she remains a computational scientist, and conducts her research in that vein at her lab at Harvard, where she’s an Associate Professor. But now she also realizes that “what makes this work truly meaningful is its impact on human health.”
Dr. Sabeti’s accomplishments have been widely recognized: by a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, a Packard Foundation Award in Science and Engineering, an NIH Innovator Award, and the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for natural sciences, plus awards from NIAID and the Gates Foundation. She’s a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a PopTech Science Fellow, and a National Geographic Explorer.
And, by the way, she’s also lead singer in an indie rock band, Thousand Days. It’s a sideline she “picked up” while in grad school and now sees as a natural extension of her work. “Music, like science,” she says, “is not only a creative pursuit, but connects us to others.”
So, just in case you think this is all PR because we lifted of the Vilcek site, here is a video of Pardis singing, for real. This will make you realize that you are a slacker and have thrown away the best years of your life and if you are not over 7 years old, you may have a shot at redeeming yourself. All you have to do is get cracking with the music lessons, the math, the biology, and the conditioner. You can’t get hair like that without good conditioner.