Pardis Sabeti, the Rollerblading Rock Star Scientist of Harvard

The recipient of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for natural sciences blazed a new view of how to treat infectious diseases via genetics

Pardis Sabeti's many talents range from music to genetics. (Ethan Hill)
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One Saturday night this past September, Sabeti, her family and members of her lab gathered at Lander’s house in Cambridge to celebrate her recent marriage to John Rinn, an assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard. (Lander had also gotten ordained by an online ministry so he could preside at the actual wedding a few weeks earlier.) Sabeti and Rinn, a specialist in RNA genetic material, met at the Broad, and their profiles seem to mirror each other: Sabeti’s a rock musician, Rinn’s an avid snowboarder who once thought about going pro; Mental Floss magazine named Sabeti one of “eight trailblazing scientists about to change your life” in 2007, Popular Science named Rinn one of the “ten young geniuses shaking up science today” in 2009; Sabeti’s initial approach to computational genomics was assumed to be a waste of time, as was Rinn’s early work on large intervening non-coding RNAs, or LINCs.

During the party, one of Sabeti’s students jumped into the middle of the room and started to dance to the Swedish pop star Robyn’s 2010 hit “Dancing on My Own.” A handful of other people jumped in, and then a few more. By the time “Starships” by the Trinidadian rapper Nicki Minaj and “Gangnam Style” had finished playing, it was clear that members of the Sabeti Lab had been meeting after-hours to rehearse. “It was awesome,” Sabeti said the next morning in a coffee shop in Boston’s Kenmore Square. “My mom joined in, Eric joined in—just incredible.”

It’s not surprising that people who work with Sabeti are so devoted to her. Dyann Wirth, the chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that Sabeti is “brilliant—one of the smartest people I know,” but it’s her dedication to the people she works with that makes her unique. “She’s inspirational,” Wirth says. “She sets the bar very high and at the same time treats people with tremendous respect. That’s very hard to do.”

So Sabeti’s legacy may be defined as much by shaping the careers of the people around her as by her world-class contributions to science. And that’d be just fine with her. “My kind of, like, life goal is to help train students to be good people as well as good scientists,” she says. “That would be my dream.”


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