Medical & Musical Journeys: An Interview with One of Time's Persons of the Year, Pardis Sabeti

Medical & Musical Journeys: An Interview with One of Time's Persons of the Year, Pardis Sabeti
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photo credit: Morgan Miller

A Conversation with Pardis Sabeti

Mike Ragogna: Pardis, congratulations for being one of Time’s Persons Of The Year. Your statistical research in the medical field and your recent work with Ebola is being celebrated not only in the field of medicine but also in entertainment since your pop group Thousand Days explores such topics from the creative perspective. There are many other important achievements as well, but we have to start somewhere. So for context, please would you catch us up on your family's history perhaps beginning with its immigration from Iran to the US, your eventual interest in the medical field, and where that led?

Pardis Sabeti: Thank you. It has been an eventful year, beginning with the amazing honors, ending in a hospital bed. But let me try to first give a few decades recap.

My family fled Iran in October 1978 as a result of the coming revolution when I was two years old. In the early days my entire family lived together in a very crowded house, where I shared a room with my sister, cousin, and grandmother, and we would all listen to my grandmother tell stories before bedtime. With the backdrop of devastation, I led in many ways an idyllic life for a child.

Over the years we settled into American life, and embraced it fully. But having come from a different culture, I didn’t know the boundaries of American culture. Which is that as a girl, you didn’t play football or soccer at lunch with the boys, and to be cool you didn’t get into math olympiad. I did all those things and escaped middle school, barely. From there, I went to college at MIT, graduate school at Oxford, medical school at Harvard, and now faculty at Harvard, mixing the many things I love like math, biology, medicine, public health, education, and even music.

MR: From your research and work behind the scenes, what is your perspective on the Ebola outbreak and where things stand now with the disease and its spread?

PS: The Ebola epidemic was the most frightening outbreak I have witnessed in my lifetime, and I believe it was necessary to react globally as strongly as we did. As soon as it hit Sierra Leone in May, my collaborators and I were calling congress members, going to the federal agencies, trying to prevent the devastation that happened in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where we work and beyond, and fearing the cataclysm ahead if Ebola was able to seed a megacity like Lagos of Calcutta. If anything, we needed to act far more quickly. And attention from all sides could have been more early and balanced, paying little heed as the virus spread through Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone compared to 24-hour coverage for a single case in the US.

MR: Have we had other recent pandemics, perhaps potentially more dangerous than Ebola, that didn’t get as much press?

PS: There are many viruses that are quietly breeding all over the world that are not getting the needed attention. Ebola itself was likely circulating for decades, even centuries undetected. My lab has been studying another deadly virus Lassa, that infects many thousands and causes deadly outbreaks throughout West Africa nearly every year. As well as babesia that is quietly infecting individuals throughout the Northeast US. I think the larger problem is that all of these get attention sporadically, and often when it is too late.

MR: How emotionally submersed in your medical work do you get? Does it get tricky separating your devotion to the field from your personal life?

PS: I am deeply immersed in my medical work and it can get very intense, but I believe that the connection and devotion is key. You can not work on diseases as devastating and deadly as Lassa and Ebola without complete trust and respect for the individuals with whom you work. My lab and colleagues are just extraordinary and we are a family.

MR: Are you concerned about the Zika virus and what does your research tell you about that disease?

PS: Yes. The concerning thing about Zika, and many viruses, is how very little we know about their prevalence and biology. We have way way too little data, and this is not helped by the fact that people continue to work in silos. My lab has set up operations to respond to Zika and other viruses through sequencing and analysis and are happy to help whomever and wherever is needed. With so much on the line and with the entire world descending on Brazil in the height of the summer, there is not a moment to lose.

MR: Might there be other emerging diseases or global concerns we should be focused on right now?

PS: Lassa, Ebola, avian influenza, cholera, polio, drug-resistant tuberculosis, monkeypox, the list is so very, very long. All of these microbes are mutating all of the time, and at any point mutations can occur that can turn a deadly disease into a global epidemic. We can not necessarily predict which spark will light, but we can create global surveillance systems to put out the fires as they start.

MR: Speaking of global concerns, how big a part does climate change play into disease origins and global distribution versus their “normal” creation and outbreak cycles?

PS: Climate change can impact the global distribution of the vectors like mosquitos that carry deadly microbes such as Zika and malaria. Whenever the environment changes dramatically it can create problems.

MR: Where does the US stand with regards to the challenges of future viral outbreaks?

PS: We are more prepared than we were before Ebola, but there is still a very long way to go. We still do not have tests for Zika or Lassa in most states in the country. And most of us still do not know what is infecting us when we get a cold. New technologies and policies can transform diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases, but it requires concerted effort and sustained support, particularly with the growing risk of bioterrorism and suicide biobombers. Imagine if the index case does not want to be found.

MR: Let’s also talk about your musical group Thousand Days that meshes aspects of your work with human stories, concepts like love, etc. in its recordings. Is that intentional or did it evolve naturally?

PS: Music has always been a beautiful outlet for me, and I follow it where it takes me. The songs usually come to me, some in my darkest times, like the morning my grandmother passed, and some with a whimsical thought in the practice space with the guys. It is evolving, but like the evolution I study in my work, it moves in all directions.

MR: For some background, when did your interest in music begin and what groups, artists, songs, and albums influence you?

PS: I always loved music, but a defining moment was in 7 grade playing on a tennis team with girls in high school. One of them had New Order Substance on in her car one day. It was like bam, wow, explosions. I ran out and bought the album and never looked back. Some of the other bands I just loved growing up were Depeche Mode, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, the Pixies, Operation Ivy, and Souxie and the Banshees. And so many more.

MR: How did Thousand Days form?

PS: One night in medical school in Boston, I went out to see a good friend Charles perform with his band. In that same line up was Kat, one of the best bands I had ever seen perform live, let alone in such a small venue. I started talking to the lead singer and guitarist Bob Katsiaficas after the show. At the time I had been making a lot of videos and offered to make him one. At the same time I shared some of the tunes I had written. He liked my music so much, he asked me to come on as the lead singer of his band. And that was the genesis of Thousand Days.

MR: Please can you take us on a little tour of the group’s new EP such as its creative process--the songs, production, and other mile markers?

PS: Many years ago, while on a trip to West Africa to study deadly infectious diseases, I learned that the amazing women that work in our lab there had beautiful voices. As they visited the US on one of their early trips we recorded our first song together, a reimagined version of our Thousand Days’ rock song “Headlight Waves,” and from there the seed of Small Joys was sewn. We decided that year after year we would write and record music together. In particular, the many songs would feature the inimitable Philomena Ehiane from Nigeria, one of the most beautiful vocalists and brilliant scientists on earth.

This album has been recorded over many years through our work on Lassa fever, the Ebola epidemic, the Time recognition, my life-altering accident, and the death of a loved one from cancer, and each of the five songs was born from one of these major life events.

MR: Are there any anecdotes about the project that you could share, embarrassing or otherwise?

PS: Most of the songs have quite intense origins. "One Truth" emerged one Sunday afternoon in July 2014 amidst the Ebola outbreak. Bob and I sat with women from Nigeria and Senegal in one of the darkest hours of our lives. In a period of two weeks, we had learned that three beloved colleagues from Sierra Leone had contracted, then died of Ebola, and another colleague had diagnosed the first case of Ebola in Lagos, Nigeria, with a population of over 20 million. It was a moment of great despair on the precipice of the potentially cataclysmic. But as we sat there together in our seemingly forsaken temporary state on this earth, we emerged with “One Truth,” that ‘I’m alive and so are you, we are here, we are the proof’ and we would strive in this fight together always in our small time on earth.

“Around the World” was born, oddly enough, from the Time 100 Most Influential gala last year. I was inspired by a powerful speech by Obiageli Ezekwesili of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement about the 219 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria in 2014. A few weeks later Bob sent me an amazing dark instrumental track he had written, and we set it to Oby’s extraordinary speech in solidarity with the taken girls, and it went from there.

MR: Every good book has a climax. What are the EP’s biggest moments or highlights from your perspective?

PS: Personally, one of the most climactic moments for me is the opening moments of our first song on the EP, "Breathe In." Bob and I had been working on a song based on a beautiful line by Sarah Dan Jones that I would play and improvise on for many years with my singing teacher Jeannie Gagne. “When I breath in, I breathe in peace, when I breathe out, I breathe out love.” The lyrics and melodies for this and another song were still unfinished when on July 17 2015, I was in a near fatal crash in Montana. A vehicle I was a passenger on clipped a curb and went over a cliff, careening what could have been hundreds of feet into a ravine. The driver quickly shifted the vehicle to a set of trees catapulting me onto boulders. I shattered my pelvis and knees and hit my head, and was found cradling the rock like a rag doll to stop from falling further down. In the hour it took for the firemen to arrive, and the hour it took them to get me off the mountainside, I sang Sarah Dan’s hymn to keep the pain at bay as I came in and out of consciousness. All the while the other individuals on the same drive tried to keep me speaking and breathing to let them know I was not going to die.

I was flown to Seattle and went on to have four surgeries in seven days, and woke each morning in the days and weeks after with horrible nightmares of being catapulted on the rocks, feeling the bone crushing feeling again and again. But one morning, I awoke from one of these dreams with a vision of Sarah Dan’s song that would start as I hit the rocks, and go on as I lay there trying to stay alive, watching a vision of myself in technicolor lean down and pick up a flower, then walk away.

MR: How do you juggle your musical and medical careers? I imagine it gets challenging, right?

PS: Music and science are creative enterprises in my mind, and in that way linked. I find that same sense of discovery and quest, as I try to put together the chords and melody and lyrics of a song with all its parts as I do in trying to formulate a scientific idea and bring a research study together. They both require creativity and rigor. People tend to underestimate the creativity needed in science and the rigor needed in songwriting. In both you have to start with an open canvas and use your creativity to come up with an idea to pursue, and with both to get to a completed result, there is a painstaking effort of taming each piece and making it rigorous before it can be released into the world. And in both, there are wonderful opportunities to collaborate with others to make the projects better. Particularly now as I collaborate with the female scientists with whom I work, the two are deeply intertwined. There are still not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do, but I love and need both so much, I make it work.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

PS: If you love it, keep going. The first song I ever wrote was terrible, “Alexander Supertramp,” based on the book Into the Wild I had just been reading. I still remember playing it for my bandmates Taylor and Bruce in Oxford at the time. They sat there in silence and then awkwardly walked out of my dorm room. I never asked what they were thinking, but they probably laughed their heads off in the hallway. The second and the third songs I wrote weren’t much better, but one day you finally say, "Yeah, that is all right."

MR: What was the best advice you were ever given, musical and medical?

PS: Breathe in, breathe out, from Sarah Dan Jones. That keeps me going these days.

MR: With the release of the EP, how heavily will you be touring and have you plotted out a direction for the group’s future? Any hints about that for the rest of us?

PS: Since my accident 6 months ago, my days consist of four to six hours of rehabilitation of all kinds, cognitive, physical, resistance flexibility, pool, massage, and beyond. Walking is still a mental challenge, so I can’t see myself jumping around on a stage anytime soon. But I do hope to go back in the studio. Bob also wrote some amazing hard rock instrumentals and I have some super dark songs about the accident that I would love to record. You have to give a voice to all your inner thoughts. And Philomena is coming back to Boston this summer, so we are also busy writing for Small Joys part two.

MR: So what do your parents think of all of your over-achieving? And how did they—and you—react to all that Time magazine attention?

PS: They have always been supportive and were thrilled. But I think after the year I have had, they just want me to stay in one piece.

MR: Any other thoughts you can share?

PS: My head is empty, you may have worn my concussive brain out.

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