Infectious melodies

Pardis Sabeti (FL & New College '97), a pioneering geneticist, has a second life as a singer and songwriter

By Joseph P. Kahn, Globe Staff  |  June 14, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - Seated at a recording-studio piano, Pardis Sabeti plays snatches of a tune she's been composing in her off-hours. Titled "Boston City Lights," it's a moody piece about love and loss, and it represents a tonal departure from the hard-edged sound of Thousand Days, the alt-rock band Sabeti fronts as lead singer and bass player.

Sabeti has been writing other songs lately with a folk or techno vibe, she says, "partly because they're a lot of fun and partly because I don't have much time to gig these days." Bouncing up from the piano, she heads back to the studio mixing board, where she's been polishing another track with engineer-producer Andy Hong.

Stating what seems rather obvious, Sabeti adds, "Ultimately my career is not going to be with a touring band, anyway. Writing songs and making videos is more the way I'd like to go."

Why obvious? Because Sabeti, 32, is better known - outside the local music scene, certainly - as one of the bright lights in the field of genetics research and evolutionary biology. An assistant professor at Harvard University and summa cum laude graduate of its medical school, Sabeti was recently hailed by CNN as one of "Eight Geniuses Who Will Change Your Life" and by the London Daily Telegraph as among the world's "top 100 living geniuses." She's also featured in an upcoming "NOVA science Now" series on young scientists of note.

The Iranian-born Sabeti, a Rhodes Scholar by way of MIT, is currently exploring the interplay between human evolution and infectious diseases, with the goal of developing more effective regimens to combat killers like malaria and Lassa fever. She travels to Africa at least twice a year to do fieldwork, supported by major grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

Back home, based at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Sabeti devotes much of her energies to mentoring young women gifted at science and math - and who think it's pretty cool to have a lab director who could be touring with Coldplay, all things considered.

"Some students are mission driven, but that's not what Pardis is about," says Nancy Oriol, Harvard Medical School's dean of students. "She's constantly putting out her hand to others. Because she enjoys what she's doing and shares that joy with colleagues so readily, she's become a real role model here."

Broad Institute director and genome pioneer Eric Lander calls Sabeti "nerdy" in the best sense. "For a scientist, that means taking enormous pleasure in scientific details," Lander says, "much the way Pardis takes enormous pleasure in her music. For her, part of being a scientist is recognizing the biggest impact she can have is training the next generation of scientists."

As seriously as she takes her roles as scientist and teacher, Sabeti admits the "genius" label provokes much well-deserved ribbing from her bandmates. "It's nice to be called that," she says, smiling. "But I take it with a large grain of salt."

Her story begins in Tehran, where Sabeti's father, a lawyer and businessman, once prospered under the late shah's regime. When that regime toppled in the late 1970s, her extended family abruptly fled to the United States, taking only what they could carry. Eventually they settled in Orlando, Fla., where Pardis and her older sister, Parisa, were schooled not only in American-style education but in pop culture.

"From the get-go I was very math obsessed, super high-strung," says Sabeti, who credits her mother with creating a rich home-learning environment. Parisa would go on to graduate from law school and a job with the Clinton Foundation in New York as director of inner-city development projects.

Although Sabeti never sang or played an instrument until grad school, she was an avid fan of bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana. In retrospect, she says, "I was training myself by listening so obsessively" to take up a songwriting as a creative sideline.

Her career path became clearer in ninth grade, after her father was badly injured in a car crash. The surgeon who supervised his recovery became a close family friend, and offered Sabeti a summer job in his office. By the time she finished high school, she was already pointed toward med school and to helping others on a global scale.

After MIT, Sabeti went to Oxford University, where she conducted experiments in population genetics, looking at genetic susceptibility to malaria. Studies undertaken there became the basis for a groundbreaking paper she and Lander co-published in 2002, appearing in the journal Nature. Basically, Sabeti and colleagues developed a method to find which mutations - like resistance to malaria - in the human genome have spread through populations and may be important to survival. One leading genome researcher called their findings among "the most exciting developments in the field in the past few years."

Rather than one "a-ha" moment, recalls Sabeti, the results described in the paper evolved from a sequence of technical mileposts. These in turn led up to the moment, late one night when, after plugging massive amounts of data into the algorithm she'd developed, Sabeti watched the numbers click into place on her computer screen. "Boom, boom, boom," she says, her eyes dancing. "It's a really exciting moment when you know something about the whole world that no one else does."

That success notwithstanding, she concedes that while at Oxford, "I was banging my head against the wall for months. I'm pretty bullheaded about finishing things, but I went through a difficult process of learning to become an independent thinker."

Asked if negative perceptions of women in science - a topic fiercely debated during Lawrence Summers' tenure as Harvard president - played any part in her protracted period of self-doubt, Sabeti admits they might have. Not at Harvard or MIT, she says, but to some extent at Oxford, where attitudes tended to be more old-fashioned.

Her development as a songwriter and musician, meanwhile, followed a parallel course of intense concentration and welcome relaxation.

"The more I'd pore over data, the more I'd find myself coming home and spitting out songs," says Sabeti. "It's not necessarily that the music guides me to the research. It's that when I'm thinking really deeply about my work, my mind goes in the direction of cranking out songs."

With time off for a postdoctoral fellowship, Sabeti graduated from Harvard Medical School in 2006. It was while she was still in med school that she went to a Boston club to hear Kat, a hard-rock group whose sound she dug. The boys in the band dug Sabeti, too, and invited her to sing lead vocals in a band they renamed Thousand Days. (Kat continues to perform separately.) Thousand Days has released three EPs so far, including "Headlight Waves." According to Sabeti, it has another 40 or so songs finished and album-ready. A Thousand Days compilation disc is being released later this month.

Sabeti plans to put out one more disc by this fall, a combination of her own stuff and the band's. She also hopes to record a song or two with Ricky Watters, the ex-NFL star and performing artist, who's become another family friend. And while she's at it, Sabeti has been teaching herself to play the drums.

"It's kind of silly," she explains, "but I've always wanted to be a drummer."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at