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Title:Pardis Sabeti receives the 2014 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

Rick Kinsel announces Pardis Sabeti a 2014 recipient of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, "our third prize goes to Iranian-born Pardis Sabeti. Pardis combines her knowledge of genetics, computational biology, and infectious diseases to develop algorithms that analyze the relationship between human genomes and the pathogens that infect them." "Doing the math" is second nature to Pardis Sabeti. She discovered her love for the subject under the preschool tutelage of her older sister, Parisa, which also gave her a two-year head start over her classmates. She's been ahead of the curve ever since—National Merit Scholar, graduation from MIT in biology with a perfect grade-point average, Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and summa cum laude distinction from Harvard Medical School. It was at Oxford, as part of her research into human genetic resistance to malaria that Dr. Sabeti worked to fine-tune an algorithm she had developed to identify more recent changes in the human genome. But her approach was considered offbeat, and for a time it seemed as if she was "going to go nowhere." Undeterred, she kept at it when she returned to Boston for med school, taking "a series of little steps" exploring neighborhoods of the human genome looking for rapid changes in a population's DNA, signals of the beneficial results of natural selection. Finally, one very early morning, she had a working model of her algorithm, which she then applied to a specific gene in some DNA samples. "The results," she recalls, "were beautiful." She'd found a trait that "had to be a result of natural selection—[one] that likely helped the population I was looking at cope with malaria better than others." Her discovery helps scientists understand how humans have evolved to become resistant to infectious diseases, and how the microbes underlying these diseases evolve to develop drug resistance. In turn, it is the hope that this information might help us to defeat these microbes and the resistance they develop. Her own resistance, to giving up, Dr. Sabeti attributes to her background as "a child of a revolution." On the run from the fundamentalist regime in 1978 Iran, she and her family left Tehran and arrived in the United States knowing neither the language nor the people, and started life over again. Throughout the years of turmoil, her parents remained strong and optimistic, and their example is what motivates her to "work hard and always maintain positivity in the face of all odds." Since that 3:00 a.m. revelation in 2002, Dr. Sabeti has continued to take on big challenges, notably the deadly Lassa fever virus. For this work, she went out into the field, a dangerous one five thousand miles away, to collect blood samples. At her core, though, she remains a computational scientist, and conducts her research in that vein at her lab at Harvard, where she's an Associate Professor. But now she also realizes that "what makes this work truly meaningful is its impact on human health." Dr. Sabeti's accomplishments have been widely recognized: by a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Award in the Biomedical Sciences, a Packard Foundation Award in Science and Engineering, an NIH Innovator Award, and the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for natural sciences, plus awards from NIAID and the Gates Foundation. She's a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a PopTech Science Fellow, and a National Geographic Explorer. And, by the way, she's also lead singer in an indie rock band, Thousand Days. It's a sideline she "picked up" while in grad school and now sees as a natural extension of her work. "Music, like science," she says, "is not only a creative pursuit, but connects us to others."


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