Ebola Warrior Dr. Pardis Sabeti

April 23rd, 2015 by Bita Milanian - Leave a Comment

With the devastating effects that Ebola has had in West Africa, I am glad to know there are scientific pioneers out there like Dr. Pardis Sabeti leading the charge against this fight and proud to profile her in my ongoing series sharing the accomplishments of inspiring people.

1Dr. Sabeti led a team that went to Africa as soon as the Ebola outbreak began and sequenced virus samples from infected patients. This ground-breaking in-depth use of real-time DNA sequencing in the middle of this deadly situation was the first time this has been done, and helped identify early on that the virus was being spread from human to human. This led to the infected patients being removed from the healthy population to help save lives, and helps the scientists to see what the virus looks like now and how we can adjust our medical techniques to go after it. For her amazing work in this area, she was just named as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People. She was also among the Ebola scientists named in December 2014 as TIME’s “Person of the Year.”

3827_102542333641_6979363_nI have had the pleasure of working with Dr. Sabeti as part of my non-profit volunteerism, and I am amazed at all this Associate Professor at Harvard, wife, rocker and all-around humanitarian has accomplished. Not only is she a deeply respected scientist, she is also a great speaker – and singer!

Here’s a short interview featuring Dr. Sabeti’s “science to music journey:

As a Rhodes Scholar studying at Oxford, Dr. Sabeti theorized that there was a way to pinpoint recent changes in the human genome as a vital data for developing cures. Many people did not believe in her approach, but she continued in her scientific pursuits using genetic recombination (“breaking and rejoining of DNA strands”) and an algorithm that she had developed while at Harvard Medical School to determine the specific gene variation in a neighborhood of genes that had recently come to prominence that were linked to malaria resistance. She became a superstar overnight and published a paper on her findings.

This breakthrough made it possible for the first “researchers (to) look for evidence of positive selection by testing common haplotypes (neighborhoods of genes) even if they didn’t have ‘prior knowledge of a specific variant or selective advantage.’” Applying this knowledge helps in identifying the ways diseases evolve, allowing researchers to get a few steps ahead of the human immune systems response and create new options in fighting diseases.

Eventually Dr. Sabeti and her colleagues amassed a huge amount of data and created a software application to “pore through the entire human genome” allowing them to identify gene variations that were under recent “selection pressure.” This led to identifying a gene pair that was related to the Lassa virus in West Africa, and inspired her to further study that deadly virus. As an Assistant professor at Harvard and with the help of a science and engineering fellowship from the Packard Foundation she set-up a collaboration with the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital in Nigeria to study and actively work with the Lassa virus. Her work there and the many samples taken helped lead to the discovery that it is likely that the Lassa and Ebola viruses have been around but overlooked for some time but have not effected everyone that has been exposed, and if the gene mutation can be identified to help humans resist the infection then hopefully treatments can be created against the Lassa virus.

Her work has led to saving many lives in Nigeria.

2While she is not in the field combatting deadly diseases, or singing and playing bass guitar in her band (Thousand Days), she serves as 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.

She runs the Sabeti Lab as part of the PAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard, and is an Institute Member if the Board Institute of Harvard and MIT.

Her lab is responsible for researching:

  • The development of “analytical methods to detect and investigate evolution in the genomes of humans and other species”
  • Examine “host and viral genetic factors driving disease susceptibility to the diseases in West Africa, Ebola Virus Disease and Lassa hemorrhagic fever
  • “Investigating the genomes of microbes, including Lassa virus, Ebola virus, Plasmodium falciparum malaria, Vibrio cholera, and Mycobacterioum tuberculosis to help in the development of intervention strategies”
  • “Determining the microbial cause of undiagnosed acute febrile illness”


We can never be humbled or grateful enough for visionaries and leaders like Dr. Sabeti particularly as the evolution and pace of infectious diseases continue to challenge the planet.

This “Anthem of Hope” video which features Dr. Sabeti and other Ebola researchers says it all:

We were born to radiate!


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