Pardis Sabeti pulls a BMW SUV into the breezeway at Harvard’s Northwest Laboratory, an airy, minimalist structure of smooth concrete, tropical hardwood, and lots and lots of glass. The 36-year-old hyperkinetic physician and geneticist renowned for her computational approach to studying evolution and public health directs a 22-member laboratory that occupies prestigious top-floor space in this citadel of science. On this Sunday afternoon in October, she is meeting two of her graduate students to work on, of all things, a holiday greeting card. (The tradition began in 2008 when she bought everyone cheesy holiday sweaters from Kmart for a group photo; last year’s card featured a full-blown re-enactment of Raphael’s famous Vatican fresco The School of Athens, depicting the accumulation of knowledge through reason.) Daniel Park, 33, is already in the passenger seat of Sabeti’s car when Dustin Griesemer, a 24-year-old MD-PhD candidate, climbs into the back. Sabeti, wearing modishly rectangular eyeglasses and brown knee-high boots, starts the five-mile drive to Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park.
Twenty minutes later, Sabeti, Park and Griesemer are snaking between packs of grade-schoolers to check out a pit called the Foam Zone. They sit down at a metal table near the snack bar and Griesemer explains why this year’s card should play off the viral music video “Gangnam Style.” Sabeti takes out her phone and watches on YouTube as an impeccably dressed South Korean rapper named Psy dances in horse stables, saunas, buses, motorboats and subways. The group is in agreement: A “Gangnam Style” homage will be impressive even if lab members aren’t hurtling through the air. The trampoline park will have to wait for another time.
With that settled, they head back to Harvard Square, and the conversation in the car segues to music, as it often does with Sabeti. Besides being an award-winning scientist, she’s the lead singer and bass player in the indie rock band Thousand Days, which has released four albums. “I have no innate sense of flux or flow or spatial cadence,” she says, explaining why the melodies in Thousand Days songs “go all over the place.” (Still, the band, which can sound like a spikier, more energetic version of 10,000 Maniacs, received an honorable mention in a Billboard World Song Competition.) “I have no sense of structure.”
What she unquestionably does have is a fierce determination to succeed. Her single-mindedness has led to a groundbreaking tool to determine whether a specific variation of a given gene is widespread in a population as a result of having been favored by natural selection. And her recent work to understand the genetic factors that influence individual human responses to diseases like malaria, as well as her genetic analyses of pathogens to pinpoint potential weaknesses, could potentially lead to new approaches to treating, and perhaps eradicating, deadly scourges. Beyond that, Sabeti says she wants to show the world that the best way to produce top-flight scientific work is to nurture researchers’ humanity and empathy—and have fun.
Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, a genomics research center affiliated with MIT and Harvard, has known Sabeti since the late 1990s, when she was an undergraduate advisee at MIT. “She had this boundless optimism that she could make [MIT] a better place,” he says. And so, along with being class president, playing varsity tennis, serving as a teaching assistant and publishing original research, Sabeti started MIT’s Freshman Leadership Program. The five-day curriculum—focusing on “inclusivity, empowerment, value defining and leadership skill building”—is still going strong.
“She was able to create this just through sheer force of will,” Lander says. “She has this force of will and a caring about making the world a better place, really fixing the world.”
Pardis Sabeti was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1975, where her father, Parviz, was a high-ranking official in the shah’s government. Two years later, on the cusp of the Iranian revolution, the Sabeti family fled to the United States, eventually settling in Florida. “My father took one of the toughest jobs in the government because he cared about his nation more than himself,” Pardis says. “His courage and conviction have always driven me to want to make a difference.”
In the early 1980s, Pardis’ mother, Nancy, bought some old textbooks, a chalkboard and a couple of school chairs and set up a makeshift summer school in the family’s home for Pardis and her sister, Parisa, who is two years older. Parisa, assigned the role of teacher, put together lesson plans and gave out report cards; Pardis directed the “performing arts” and helped run phys ed. The wide-eyed, toothy Sabeti sisters undoubtedly made for a cute tableau, but the work they were doing was intense and focused. “She would teach me everything that she had learned the year before in school,” Pardis says. When September rolled around, Sabeti was almost two years ahead of her classmates.
It was during those years that Sabeti first discovered her love for mathematics. “My sister taught me addition and subtraction and multiplication and division,” she says, “so by the time I got to school, I knew it all, and when we’d do the times tables, I was just focused on doing it faster than anybody else. I already had the information, so it just got me to focus on excellence.”