Pardis Sabeti’s large-scale detective work

2011 PopTech Science Fellow Pardis Sabeti is a musician and computational geneticist researching infectious disease, looking for patterns of natural selection that leave behind a footprint in our genomes. Those footprints can be detected by crunching through large genomic data sets and studying random living individuals who may possess genetic resistance to certain diseases.

In particular, Sabeti wants to better understand the deadly Lassa virus, which she believes has been around human populations for millenia. She tells the story of the Lassa virus during her PopTech presentation.

Sabeti and her team work out of the Sabeti Lab located within the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard. The team is comprised of graduate students with a range of math, bioengineering, computer science, and physics backgrounds, all with a deep interest in understanding biological questions.

The lab typically uses algorithm-based quantitative tools to research genes. Recently, they developed a tool called MINE, Maximal Information-based Nonparametric Exploration, which mines large-scale data sets looking for anything that has a strong relationship in the data regardless of the type of data.
They applied MINE to four data sets in different fields; global health, the human microbiome, genomics and major league baseball. Their findings, along with a link to download the tool, were published in Science last October. They knew they struck a chord when within the first two weeks of publishing the paper, there were 40,000 downloads and numerous inquires for collaborations from all types of businesses.

As comfortable as Sabeti is when it comes to analyzing data in her lab, she is equally comfortable working with people in rural clinics. As she explained in her PopTech talk, she arrived in Irrua, Nigeria to work with Lassa fever patients, providing on-site diagnostics and treatment. She noted, "It's amazing when you synergize the needs of local community and scientists how much more gets done. You can't fight a devastating disease without complete trust and commitment."

When not in a lab or medical clinic, Sabeti can be found playing with her alt rock band, Thousand Days. Their recently-released album, Radiate, is currently playing on 70 radio stations throughout the U.S. and charting on five.

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