Pardis Sabeti, M.D., Ph.D.
Company: Sherlock Biosciences
Knowing resiliency is important to Pardis Sabeti.
As a professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, and head of her laboratory at the university’s Center for Systems Biology, Sabeti’s work has focused on how pathogens evolve and adapt to human beings—including the protean, volatile and fatal diseases affecting West Africa, such as the Ebola and Lassa hemorrhagic viruses and malaria.
A computational geneticist herself, as well as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, she has worked to understand how genomic factors in both the host and the invaders contribute to infections, resistance and transmission.
In 2014, at the height of the worst Ebola virus outbreak in history, Sabeti served as co-corresponding author of a paper that traced the disease back to its potential origins in central Africa and used changes in the virus’ DNA to track its person-to-person spread from Guinea into Sierra Leone. For their work, Sabeti and others were collectively recognized as Time magazine’s person of the year, under the headline “The Ebola Fighters.”
With an average mortality rate of 78%, Ebola kills faster than most people can study it. Meanwhile, its genetic mutations impact the effectiveness of treatment targets, as well as the potential of diagnostics and vaccines.
But resiliency means not only overcoming from without—to Sabeti, it’s something to be cultivated from within. In 2015, she was a passenger on an ATV that went off a cliff in Montana, which landed her in the hospital with several broken bones and subsequent surgeries.
“When I talk about resiliency, … I think it starts by facing the devastating facts of what's going on for you,” Sabeti said. “When bad things happen, I sit with it—I sit with how bad it is, at first, and then I come to terms with how this is my life, and it’s what I have to deal with. And then I become an expert in that thing. This is my only gig.”
Sabeti said that part of her comes from her family, which left Iran during the 1979 revolution to start from scratch as refugees in a new country. Moreover, her father survived a similarly devastating accident: a head-on collision, after another car came over the median.
“And so we both were minding our own business, and the world came at us,” Sabeti said. “In every way, I learned a lot of my resilience from my parents.”
But how do you maintain that in the face of setbacks? Turn it into a science project.
Growing up, Sabeti loved math, and she believed that her interest in science meant she should become a doctor. But when she reached MIT for her undergraduate degree, she found that what she really enjoyed was coming up with hypotheses, testing them and putting that research out into the world.
“I'm a scientist, and as a scientist you have to become an expert in whatever you do,” she said. That includes life projects—nearly everything ranging from personal recovery, to helping others, to garnering support for your research.
It can be difficult for women in science, Sabeti said, when the criteria for selection and funding become more subjective than objective—something based more on personal persuasion and connections than a clear read of the facts and capabilities involved. It can be so difficult, in fact, that Sabeti almost left the field entirely, early in her career.
“My qualifying exam was three old white men interrogating me, and by the end, they decided that I should drop out of the Ph.D. program and never do science again,” Sabeti said. “If I'd listened to those three men, I would have dropped out of science at 22. They really thought everything I said was ridiculous and stupid. And it ended up being the basis of a Nature paper.”
But that was no quick or easy jaunt. In the interim, her biology mentor, Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute at Harvard and MIT, helped get her excited about pursuing science and genetics.
“He's really good at charging you up and taking a circumstance that other people would get really demoralized by and turning it to ‘Yay, this is going to be fun,’” she said. “I sometimes joke that I made my career just trying to impress Eric Lander.”
Now, Sabeti’s next fun project is trying to figure out how to raise money for the work. That involves taking different approaches, hard and soft, and learning along the way. “I’m treating it like science—'Let’s try this, and see how that goes, or let’s try that’—I’m trying every angle. And once I get one that works, I’ll let you know.”
Knowing where there’s a real knowledge gap can be a driving force, so it’s not surprising that one of Sabeti’s new ventures involves signing on to a diagnostics company.
Sherlock Biosciences aims to use CRISPR-based technology to parse samples for DNA sequences that appear in different viruses, such as Zika—and not just within the controlled confines of a lab. The company’s INSPECTR test platform is designed to be paper-based, instrument-free and shelf-stable, and capable of being used anywhere in the world. And sticking with the gumshoe theme, Sabeti says Sherlock’s upcoming work will be dubbed Carmen, after the infamously elusive Carmen Sandiego.
“With diagnostics and infectious disease, it’s a place where your impact is getting people information in real time so they can make real decisions,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that the faster you find what you have, the more you can save across the board—for the world and for the individual.”