Pardis Sabeti: Decoding the Ebola Genome

Computational biologist and medical evolutionary geneticist Pardis Sabeti is renowned for having developed ground-breaking algorithms to sequence the human genome - and help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Head of a lab at Harvard University, Dr Sabeti works with huge data sets to understand the genetic evolution of some of the world’s deadliest viruses, from malaria to cholera, Lassa fever to Ebola. This remarkable woman scientist is recognized for having sequenced the Ebola genome from the outbreak in 2014.

An early start in academic excellence

Passionate about maths as a young child; “I just didn’t know there was a job in math at the time”, Sabeti got an educational head-start at school spending summers playing pupil to her sister, two years her senior. “I already had the information, so it just got me to focus on excellence,” she has said. That focus and academic lead continued with Sabeti excelling at some of the world’s most-reputed institutions. Today, this high-accomplished scientist holds an undergraduate degree in biology from MIT, a D.Phil in biological anthropology and an MsC in Human Biology from Oxford, which she conducted as a Rhodes Scholar, plus a medical degree from Harvard Medical School from where she graduated summa cum laude in 2006. 

On the trail of Ebola

Pooling that brilliance in biology, medicine, and maths, Sabeti’s expertise lies in developing new computational approaches to full-length genome sequencing. Her research has contributed valuable insights into understanding how viruses mutate in order to better diagnose, treat, vaccinate and contain them. “Essentially what we are doing is reading out the virus’ genome to find out what is the organism at play, and what we are dealing with at any point in time,” she told TIME Magazine when named one of its 2014 ‘Person of the Year’ as a leading Ebola scientist. Time magazine recognized Sabeti again this year, by including her in their list "TIME 100: The Most Influential People in the World."

Championing open outbreak data

Trailblazing outside the laboratory’s walls, alongside her colleagues, Sabeti has been a vocal champion of the need to pool global brainpower and data – calling for clear protocols to encourage researchers to share without jeopardizing their own research goals. By publishing the Ebola genomes sequenced by the Sabeti Lab and the Broad Institute in real time for anyone to access, Sabeti’s hope is “that not only researchers, but also the general public will be able to engage with this data in order to find associations that could help to better understand the prognosis of the Ebola virus disease.” 

From research to rock

A talented singer and composer, Dr Sabeti has somehow found time to record five albums as lead singer and bass player of the rock band Thousand Days, earning her the accolade “rock star scientist.” Finding a way to put a love for music to the service of research, last year she composed “One Truth” a song written for those working against and lost to Ebola. The song was sung alongside six other Ebola researchers from West Africa, in special memory of esteemed colleagues Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan and nurses Mbalu Fonnie and Alex Moigboi, who were among the 30 healthcare workers claimed by the epidemic at Kenema Government Hospital, Sierra Leone. Sabeti’s optimism is palpable in this powerful message to everyone watching the music video: 

We hope that we let our world not be defined by the destruction of one virus, but illuminated by billions of hearts and minds together ‘in this fight always'.

Dr. Pardis Sabeti is an Associate Professor at the Center for Systems Biology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University and the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the Harvard School of Public Health, and a Senior Associate Member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. 

Follow Dr Sabeti on Twitter on her personal account, and on her labs' account

Photo credit: Kris Krüg for PopTech, CC BY-SA 2.0

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