From Medscape via Broad: Women in Stem- “Outbreaks, Evolution, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: Topol Talks to Pardis Sabeti”

Broad Institute

Broad Institute



May 10, 2017
Eric J. Topol, MD

Pardis Sabeti

Eric J. Topol, MD: Hello. I am Eric Topol, editor-in-chief of Medscape. I have the special privilege of having a conversation with Pardis Sabeti. She is an extraordinary scientist and physician at the Broad Institute at Harvard Medical School and MIT. We are going to talk about the arc of her life and career, beginning when she moved here at age 2 from Tehran.

Pardis Sabeti, MD, DPhil: Yes. We came to the United States around the time of the Iranian revolution and had refugee status here. Then we moved to Hawaii, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida, and we settled in Florida.

Dr Topol: At one point you were not sure whether you were going to own a flower shop, be a novelist, or become a doctor. Is that right?

Dr Sabeti: That was when I was about 6 years old. I liked flowers a lot, so I thought, “This seems like the life.” As a kid, I liked to write. As an immigrant and as a child of revolution, my dad amused himself by saying, “You can be anything you want to be in the world: a lawyer or a doctor.” My sister became a lawyer and I became a doctor, but neither of us practice.

Dr Topol: Music has been a big part of your life. When did that become rooted?

Dr Sabeti: That was not until graduate school. I have liked music my whole life and played a little piano as a kid. I went to concerts all the time. That was how I enjoyed spending my time. When I was in grad school, I had two American friends and we were in England together. They would play “fantasy band” all the time and make up band names and that kind of stuff. One night I said, “Why do you keep fantasy-banding? Why not just start a band?” They said they at least had to have a rhythm section, so the next day I bought a bass and that started my journey.

Dr Topol: These days, you are a lead singer and writer for a rock band. How often do you get involved with that?

Dr Sabeti: It wanes and waxes. It’s not very conducive to faculty life. I dropped it for a while and then I had an accident and picked it up again. Music is great, because every once in a while your soul just wants to speak and you have an opportunity to do it. It’s pretty sporadic, but I have been writing some music recently.

Dr Topol: Somehow or other, you landed at MIT.

Dr Sabeti: In the 6th grade, the idea of going to MIT got sparked. My math teacher showed us a 270 competition: The MIT mechanical engineering department has a contest in which everyone builds robots that compete against each other. I saw that video as a kid and thought, “I need to be there.” I was locked onto MIT as my dream school since then.

Dr Topol: You also became a Rhodes Scholar and went to Oxford.

Dr Sabeti: It was a bizarre experience right after college to be in this wonderland that was Oxford, and a lot of existential crises happened right after college. It was a very informative and great experience.

Dr Topol: Were you already starting to get into the whole selection, mutation, and evolutionary biology by then?

Dr Sabeti: No. I think that is what made that happen. I had gone to MIT and I loved all the engineering, but I still thought that I was supposed to be a doctor. I had intended to go to medical school, but I got this scholarship on a lark. I was planning to go to medical school when I came back. Along the way, somehow, I ended up getting a PhD. It was an interesting experience there. They had a shorter PhD track. That was when I started doing that work, and it changed the direction of my life.

In the Middle of an Outbreak

Dr Topol: And then you went to medical school—a big commitment. When you started your career, did you know that you were going to be leading the charge to do genomic epidemiology of Ebola and Zika?

Dr Sabeti: Definitely not. Because I never intended to be a scientist, I didn’t have a very specific path for what I wanted to do. I feel like I am on a scavenger hunt; I don’t know exactly where it’s going, but this path has captured my attention for some time.

Dr Topol: This is quite a hunt. Just what you did with Ebola—you were named a Time “Person of the Year” in 2014 and one of the 100 most influential people in the world. You went to West Africa with folks in your lab, and many other people you work with, to try to get the knowledge that was needed to titrate the horrendous Ebola epidemic. Can you tell us about that?

Dr Sabeti: Sure. For one thing, I am just a bit player. At the end of the day, the Ebola fighters were recognized for the work that we all did collectively. I was privileged to be one of the people who were named as an example, but it was a collective effort. To us, the seemingly small part that we played was that we naturally come from the genomics world—I cut my teeth on the Human Genome Project—where sharing data and an open feeling about science was just a given.

This is an outbreak that we found ourselves in the middle of because it came to the site where we were working in Africa. As we were trying to do what we could to help our collaborators and partners there, and to get attention, we started publishing science on this. We started releasing our data to the lab. What was interesting is that we decided we didn’t care about getting recognition; we just wanted to get the data out to the world. Paradoxically, that is what got us attention. It was apparently unusual to share data openly as soon as you generated it. It became a call to the community.

Dr Topol: You were putting your lives on the line to do this work. What was that like?

Dr Sabeti: To be honest, as a scientist, that is the risk you take. We were working on Lassa fever for some time. I have been quarantined before. We take risks, but they are very measured, calculated risks. Fundamentally, in all cases, it was the clinicians who became infected. We saw that across the board in the outbreak. As the researchers, we work in a very contained environment and we can isolate things very well. We are really in the service of the clinicians. We take risks, but for us, there was more risk of being in a car crash than being infected with Ebola. We were honored to be there to support them.

Dr Topol: More recently, you have been involved with the Zika virus story. Where do we stand with that?

Dr Sabeti: Zika is different. Ebola was a rapidly escalating outbreak. It was one of those viruses that can transmit from human to human with very acute infections and a very high fatality rate. It was a frightening event. Zika is less fatal. It does not transmit as easily. It usually involves mosquitoes. But it is a more challenging virus to battle; it’s more widespread, and mosquitoes are hard to manage. The virus hides itself a little at low concentrations in the blood for short periods of time, so the diagnosis is challenging. But it becomes really important because of the effects it can have on pregnancy and on children born to mothers who have Zika. Zika causes a visceral reaction in all of us because it affects a vulnerable population that we all care about.

Please Play With Our Data

Dr Topol: In 2015 you gave a TED Talk on how we are going to deal with the next deadly virus. Can you summarize what you talked about at the time?

Dr Sabeti: That was in the middle of the Ebola outbreak. I had been asked to give a talk at TEDWomen. I just discussed what was on my mind at the time. I had not really thought out exactly what the message would be, and I did not know, necessarily, that it would be posted online. In fact, I sang during my talk. It was good in the room, but they wanted to cut it out and make it the right length [for TED Talks online]. I just had fun with it. The message was about outbreaks and how frightening they are. But it’s a war that we can win—but that we win by collaboration. It is very different from other types of threats to humanity. That was what I felt—the power of human capacity and love to overcome these kinds of challenges.

See the full article here .

You can Help Stamp Out EBOLA.

This WCG project runs at Scripps Institute


Outsmart Ebola Together

Visit World Community Grid (WCG). Download and install the BOINC software on which it runs. Attach to the Outsmart Ebola Together project. This will allow WCG to use your computer’s free CPU cycles to process computational data for the project.

While you are at WCG and BOINC, check out the other very worthwhile projects running on this software. All project results are “open source”, free for the use of scientists world while to advance health and other issues of mankind.


There is a new project at World Community Grid [WCG] called OpenZika.
Zika depiction. Image copyright John Liebler,
Rutgers Open Zika

WCG runs on your home computer or tablet on software from Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing [BOINC]. Many other scientific projects run on BOINC software.Visit WCG or BOINC, download and install the software, then at WCG attach to the OpenZika project. You will be joining tens of thousands of other “crunchers” processing computational data and saving the scientists literally thousands of hours of work at no real cost to you.

This project is directed by Dr. Alexander Perryman a senior researcher in the Freundlich lab, with extensive training in developing and applying computational methods in drug discovery and in the biochemical mechanisms of multi-drug-resistance in infectious diseases.

Dr. Alex Perryman, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School

He is a member of the Center for Emerging & Re-emerging Pathogens, in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology, and Neuroscience, at the Rutgers University, New Jersey Medical School. Previously, he was a Research Associate in Prof. Arthur J. Olson’s lab at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), where he ran the day-to-day operations of the FightAIDS@Home project, the largest computational drug discovery project devoted to HIV/AIDS, which also runs on WCG. While in the Olson lab, he also designed, led, and ran the largest computational drug discovery project ever performed against malaria, the GO Fight Against Malaria project, also on WCG.

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This generation has a historic opportunity and responsibility to transform medicine by using systematic approaches in the biological sciences to dramatically accelerate the understanding and treatment of disease.
To fulfill this mission, we need new kinds of research institutions, with a deeply collaborative spirit across disciplines and organizations, and having the capacity to tackle ambitious challenges.

The Broad Institute is essentially an “experiment” in a new way of doing science, empowering this generation of researchers to:

Act nimbly. Encouraging creativity often means moving quickly, and taking risks on new approaches and structures that often defy conventional wisdom.
Work boldly. Meeting the biomedical challenges of this generation requires the capacity to mount projects at any scale — from a single individual to teams of hundreds of scientists.
Share openly. Seizing scientific opportunities requires creating methods, tools and massive data sets — and making them available to the entire scientific community to rapidly accelerate biomedical advancement.
Reach globally. Biomedicine should address the medical challenges of the entire world, not just advanced economies, and include scientists in developing countries as equal partners whose knowledge and experience are critical to driving progress.

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