If you want to join Pardis Sabeti’s lab, or collaborate with her on a scientific project, you have to be ready to keep up. Sabeti, an MD, PhD, and tenured professor in center for systems biology at Harvard, and a member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, solves big scientific problems in only one gear: fast forward.
For more than a decade, she has applied that sharp intelligence to improving the way infectious diseases are detected and tracked. She began her work studying Lassa virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever in west Africa. Combining that knowledge with her analysis of the human genome revealed a surprising reality: that “some of the biggest threats to our survival are from infectious diseases [that] left a footprint on our genomes.” Rather than being one-offs, she realized, so-called emerging disease outbreaks might not actually be new at all, but continued assaults from the microbial world. With each outbreak, pathogens like Lassa virus were getting better at infecting and spreading among people. “This work was calling to me that we should be paying attention to these pathogens,” Sabeti says.
When the Ebola outbreaks struck west Africa in 2014, Sabeti and her team developed a way to quickly sequence the genomes of viruses, and analyze them to determine where and how quickly they spread in a population. That real-time information was crucial to helping public health experts formulate the right guidelines for containing the spread of Ebola, such as noting that the strains were jumping predominantly from person to person and no longer from animals to people.
Sabeti and her team have continued that work in tracing the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, documenting the subtle way each new strain of the virus has shifted to evade people’s immune defenses and the protection generated by vaccines. Ebola and COVID-19 have confirmed that staying on top of any virus’s changes as they occur are critical to controlling it, she says. With the power of genetic sequencing, the battle against pathogens “is ours to lose now,” Sabeti says.
Sabeti and her team were championing real-time genetic sequencing long before it was accepted in the scientific world. “I find myself oftentimes in a place where I see and say things that people react to strongly until they become intuitive,” she says. Some of this, she attributes to gender bias. “It’s a constant battle. Every day I’m reminded that I’m not supposed to be here, that I’m a nobody, impertinent — all kinds of things,” she says. “I was told when COVID-19 hit to ‘Sit this one out.’ I’ve had things taken away from me and given to men with less experience. But what motivates me are the women and underrepresented minorities in science who work with me. I’m here to give them cover, which is why even in my worst moments, I stay.”
Now that COVID-19 has proven the value of genetic sequencing to understanding infectious disease outbreaks, Sabeti is already on to the next thing. After a serious car accident shattered her pelvis and both knees, she became keenly interested in the connection between brain and body, and how healing occurs. She is now trying to find a way to apply machine learning to understand the pathways between genes, the brain, and the body. It’s a nascent field, but as always, Sabeti is several steps ahead of the pack.
“Some of the most interesting things happening in understanding the world today are happening outside of conventional science,” she says. “I can use the same tool set of genomic sequencing and a few other different skills. I need to understand it.”
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