Dr. Pardis Sabeti, 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. Institute Member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and a Howard Hughes Investigator.
March 28, 2022 – 3:30 pm – Zoom
Q & A
When did you know that you wanted to be what you are today?
In some ways, I’m still trying to figure that out. The moment I always point to, as embarrassing as it is, is watching the movie Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. And there’s a moment where Dustin Hoffman throws this virus to this Ebola-like virus on a lightbox and looks at the image of the virus and says something to the effect of it’s mutated, and at that moment I remember thinking, “That’s so cool, I want to do that.” So, I think that is a moment when I got a hit, but it easily could have just been a silly movie that I enjoyed. I’ve long loved science and I’ve long loved medicine, and this allows me to do both.
What is one of the most significant achievements or rewarding moments of your career?
I think the moments when I get the most excited are when I’m bringing a community together to work together. My most rewarding moments are when my students are doing really well, or when they’re doing something creative and fun together. To be honest, the Holiday Card my lab puts out every year fills me with joy– to know that they’re doing something creative, thoughtful, and collaborative together, even in the toughest times, is inspiring to see.
From a more serious standpoint, I think our choice to share data in the Ebola outbreak was something we were both happy and proud to do. I remember the moment when I had gone to Stephen Gire, the first author on the paper that would come from the data we generated on the Ebola genome, and said to him, “You know, Stephen, I have this feeling that we need to share this data. The publication doesn’t matter, we have friends on the front line. It’s your call because it’s your career, your life, and your paper on the line though, so ultimately it’s your decision.” And he said absolutely, so we did it.
I always had conflicted feelings about the fact that I got a lot of professional success on the back of such tragedy, and it’s still a conflicting feeling for me. I’m proud, however, that it was for the choice to not care about recognition and to put others before ourselves that we were recognized. That’s always what I’m striving for, and it always makes me happiest to support students and others in the broader community.
What advice do you have for students today who may be trying to figure out what they want to do or who want to pursue a career like yours?
My main advice is to really think about your True North– what wakes you up in the morning, what keeps you up at night, and what is intuitively obvious to you and only you. Once you find that thing, hang on to it; there are going to be so many external factors that will likely tell you that you should quit and that it’s hard, but there’s no job that is not hard. You have to find the job that you want to do even on the worst days, that feels like it’s for you, and, obviously, can be balanced and fit in with all the other pieces in your life. If it does, even if there are external factors driving you out of it, trust yourself and your own instinct about what you truly care about.
What skill have you relied on most frequently?
I’d probably say empathy. I think even all of my best scientific ideas, as well as the ways that I have to engage with students and the people around me, is with empathy. Even how we think about outbreak response is all about cooperation, collaboration, and support, so I think I’ve relied upon my care for other people the most. It’s sometimes gotten me into trouble when it’s not reciprocated, or I get myself in tough spots with people who don’t have the best intentions, but I think it leads me in the right direction, and whatever happens, at least I feel like I’ve lived the way I wanted to.
Was there one person who had the greatest impact on your career?
My parents have single-handedly had the greatest impact on my career. They’ve shaped who I am, what I believe in, and what I stand for.
Outside of that, it would be Eric Lander, 100%. I know that right now Eric is under a lot of fire himself, but even he himself has said that he can do better and be better, as we all can, and I think he will and he wants that. To be clear, I would not have a career, not just not a great career, but any career, if it wasn’t for Eric Lander. He was my undergraduate advisor at MIT, he saved me when my PhD was going south, he shaped me into who I am, and he believed in me through incredible professional battles where he had no business wasting his time supporting me. He really does care a lot, and like all of us is a complicated and flawed human, but I do believe that he is a very good human who has done right by a lot of people. I just have to be authentic about that, while also acknowledging that if he ever hurt anybody that’s 100% not okay, and it’s something that I think he will redeem himself. But you know, he’s a really unique and special person to whom I owe my career.
What are two things that people would be surprised to know about you?
Well, with Google these days, people know most things about me and I’m a pretty transparent character, but most people who meet me right off the bat don’t know that I have 36 steel plates and pins in my legs and that I’m essentially the $6 million man on the inside. I had a near-fatal crash and shattered my pelvis and knees.
The other thing is that I feel most alive when I’m exercising.
If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?
If I took a different career path, I think I would be writing for a comedy show. Writing for Saturday Night Live is a secret dream of mine!