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Spark of Science: Pardis Sabeti

The computational geneticist explains why she chose research over being a doctor.

During the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014, Pardis Sabeti led a team that sequenced virus genomes from infected…By Jordana Cepelewicz

During the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014, Pardis Sabeti led a team that sequenced virus genomes from infected patients, determining that the disease had most likely diverged from a strain in central Africa a decade earlier, and was transmitted through human contact, this time from a funeral in Guinea to Sierra Leone. Since then, Sabeti, a computational geneticist at Harvard University and the Broad Institute, has continued studying the genomes and evolution of a range of other microbes, looking for factors that play a role in epidemics in order to develop methods of intervention. “What an amazing and fulfilling life the life of a scientist can be,” she says.

Sabeti was born in Tehran, Iran. Her family fled the coming 1979 Iranian Revolution when she was 2 years old to settle in Florida, where she quickly developed a love for both mathematics and nature. Even so, she planned on becoming a doctor. “I didn’t ever intend to be a [research] scientist,” she says. That changed when, as an undergraduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she met Eric Lander, a mathematician and geneticist who helped pioneer the Human Genome Project, and the role model with whom she would work for the next 22 years. “I saw the way he was endlessly curious, with an extraordinary mission to change the world through science. He really showed me that science could have an impact on the lives of many, not just through the results it produces but through the communities it creates.”

Sabeti headed off for Oxford University to do graduate work in biological anthropology, before returning to the United States and attending Harvard Medical School. As she completed her medical degree, it became clear: She would become a research scientist, making her home in the field of computational genetics, a discipline marked by the convergence of all three of her academic interests—math, biology, and medicine.

In this week’s installment of Nautilus’s “Spark of Science” series, Sabeti tells us about how Lander, her scientific hero, inspired her to pursue this line of work.

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