Pardis Sabeti on How Science Can Be Infectious

Pardis Sabeti

I’m Alan Alda, and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating.
Pardis: I was the kid who hung out with a math teacher and did like science problems for fun. I was the girl who played football at lunch with the boys I remember one time, a bunch of girls kind of gather around. They’re like, “So, we see you playing football.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” They’re like, “You know, girls don’t do that.” I was like, “Why wouldn’t you? It’s so fun, like I don’t get it, it’s really, really fun, like you should play.”I guess the one thing I say about growing up in a different culture is that you don’t know the rules of that culture and so, you break all the rules. I think that was great for me. I did get kind of picked on a lot, but not for being from a different country, but just for being strange.

Alan: What I love about your work and what I know of your work is that you take such a playful attitude to your work and yet that doesn’t diminish in any way the seriousness of what you’re doing. You’re doing one of the most serious things in the world. I think it’ll be really good to start with what your work is about because I just heard the term computational biologist not long ago, maybe three years ago. Most of the people I know don’t know what the term means. You’re a computational geneticist, so how would you describe in plain words what you do?
Pardis: I’m essentially what they call, another way of calling it as a data scientist. The data that I happen to look at is genetic data. Genetics has a lot of data because the genomes that make up human and other organisms has just a ton of data. There’s a long string of letters, millions and billions of letters long that you’re trying to mine, looking for patterns. I develop statistics and algorithms to allow you to interrogate all that information and look for important biology, things that increase your risk for certain diseases. There’s all sorts of question that you can ask by mining this huge data set.
Alan: Am I close if I say, you in particular have developed computer programs, algorithms that help you search through huge piles of data that would be difficult for a person to do with a naked eye and you find patterns with these algorithms? The patterns tell you something about how our bodies have changed in fighting off horrible diseases like Ebola or Lassa fever, am I close?
Pardis: Yeah that’s pretty spot-on and much more than I did, so yeah.
Alan: I’m just trying to get it, so I get it, but that’s interesting. What amazes me about you and I would imagine what may amaze everybody else is you made one of these really important breakthroughs in developing an algorithm that did that I think when you were about 26, right?
Pardis: Yeah, around that age. That’s right.
Alan: That’s I mean I was still figuring out how to tie me shoes.
Pardis: I was probably doing that as well, so I think scientists aren’t immune to still needing to grow up.
Alan: So how did you get involved in Ebola that’s on the other side of the world, what was your impetus to do that?
Pardis: That was all part of this kind of like I said exploration and scavenger hunt kind of a feel to it because essentially in one of the early scans I did of the human genome, I found one of the strongest signals of human adaptation to a virus called Lassa virus. I had gone to medical school and I never even really remember this virus and it turns out it’s like in one table in one book, but it’s not really talked about. Then, I thought, “How could this virus that I don’t even know about be the most powerful evolutionary pressure on human populations?” That took me to West Africa, where I started studying the disease.
Alan: When you say an incredible pressure on human, what do you mean?
Pardis: Well, there is a particular mutation that looks like it really rose in prevalence very, very fast in the West African population. That kind of suggests to you there was a real reason, a real advantage to having it.
Alan: Right, okay, I’m sorry I interrupted.
Pardis: No that’s-
Alan: You went to West Africa?
Pardis: Yes, then I had already been collaborating with folks in countries like Senegal and Nigeria. I connected with one of my colleagues in Nigeria, Christian Happi and set out to work with him on it. And as we were thinking about it more, we came to believe that a lot of these viruses were circulating, including Ebola. At that time, we were building up capacity to detect anything in these hospitals, where we were working. Just as we actually just garnered support to build up that surveillance capacity, they declared an Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which was right next door. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all share a border. We were pretty aware of the risk that the outbreak could pour into Sierra Leone and if so, we would see cases. My team immediately went out to Sierra Leone. We set up diagnostic capacity to detect Ebola, both in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, led by our teams there, our collaborators there. Basically, late May of 2014, the hospital identified the first case in Sierra Leone. But the problem was that by the time it came to the hospital, it wasn’t this one isolated case, it poured in. We had 14 cases and then, it started … Every week, it was like doubling the number of cases coming into the hospital. The outbreak sort of exploded when it came into Sierra Leone and overtook the hospital.
Alan: Is that when you lost several of your colleagues to Ebola?
Pardis: Yeah, it was a little bit later, but essentially at that point, essentially the hospital became really overwhelmed. We were asked not to work there anymore because they would consider us research scientists. A lot of international aid came in and in that time, just with this explosion of cases that came in, essentially the virus kind of moved through the hospital staff, where some hospital staff became infected in another part of the hospital. Then, suddenly a lot of the staff became infected and a number of our colleagues died in that process and as a lot of the care workers were at the highest risk and over the course, [inaudible 01:18:53] hundreds of care workers perished.
Alan: In all the work you did combating or trying to understand Ebola, did it lead to your being able to hold back Ebola?
Pardis: I think that my group just tried to be part of a collective to help stem the tide. I think one of the big things we did was to release this large amount of data to the web with 99 genomes first and then, hundreds later of the virus itself. That’s where you got the Obama saying, “The virus is mutating,” people understanding that this thing is a volatile situation. It was transmitting from human to human. I’d like to think that it helped in some ways to activate people, but also we got a lot of people developing diagnostics and other therapies and vaccines using the data we made available. I think it was all part of the larger collective, but it was moving people to release data quickly to be able to all move as fast as possible. With the kind of data that we’ve generated, we can help move better diagnostics forward and better vaccines forward, which is why we believe genomic data is really important because that is the blueprint of the virus. That’s what it uses to do everything it needs to do and how we can pick it up and stop it and understand how it’s transmitting.
Alan: When you went to West Africa, I heard you tell a story in an interview that was charming when you woke up one morning and you heard singing in the hotel, tell about that.
Pardis: Yeah, so I was on one of my first trips to Irua, which is a small village in West Africa, where Lassa is known to be circulating. We were just there in this very charming little hotel. I fall asleep and it’s 6 o’clock in the morning, I sort of awoke to this just unbelievable, this melody coming into my room. Yeah, first I thought I was dreaming. Then, I was just like, “What is it?” It was very transcendent. I went into the lobby of the hotel and all of the staff had were gathered in a circle. They were singing and it was honestly the most beautiful music I think I’ve ever heard live in my life. It was just stunning.
Alan: When you went to the lab, they were doing the same thing?
Pardis: Yeah, so I think there they gather like a little bit before eight and so, I got to kind of see all the different groups gathering and singing and starting the day that way.
Alan: That’s so interesting. What does it do for the people who work together do you think? Why do they do it?
Pardis: Well, I mean they do it because it’s sort of their tradition and music is very much part of their culture in how they interact with each other, but I think that it’s so important because particularly like when I think about the lab, just how heavy the work is that they have to do every day, where they’re diagnosing and are regularly identifying cases of Lassa virus, which has very high fatality rates. I remember a story that they once told me, where it’s just like a certain day in the office, like you might have two or three people that you’re fight. It’s so core to us to develop strength and sit and have purpose and meaning. Also, just this kind of partnership with each other. When you sing together, you really recognize the humanity of the other people that you’re working with too. It’s so beautiful and so important.
Alan: Allied with that is this amazing thing about you, you’re not only a rock star as a scientist, you’re an actual rock star as a musician.
Pardis: That would be extreme, but I do rock music, if that’s what you mean, yes.
Alan: Well, you have an indie group, a band called what?
Pardis: Thousand Days.
Alan: How did you get the name Thousand Days? Where did it come from?
Pardis: It’s like the one name that came up when we were forming a band that nobody hated. That’s probably a terrible way to come up with a band name, but it was literally like every … Yeah, I had all these kind of girly names that they’re like, “No.” They had their sort of a metal band before and they had a lot of names I just couldn’t live with.
Alan: Well, it sounds like the mutation that survived.
Pardis: It is true and sometimes, it’s the one that just slips through, but there’s a lyric line in one of our songs that says, “The drizzle of a Thousand Days will drown me out.”

Alan: How do you fit the music in to all of this extremely time-consuming work you do? I don’t see how you can do it. I do understand how you were attracted to both, science and music at the same time because I couldn’t agree more with something I read, you said that, “People don’t realize how creative science is and at the same time, how rigorous music is and all art is rigorous and all science is creative.” You don’t have to prove that a song is better than another song the way you do in science that one idea is more workable than another, but it still has to be rigorous. Not every color will do in a painting. Not every note will do in a song. Then, you have an interpretation, which is immeasurable, incalculable. There is this similarity to the two of them. I think you pick up on that and kind of use that similarity.
Pardis: So when you asked me before about this idea of how do I do both, I mean I’m a scientist that’s my sort of like … That’s the main thing I know that I can contribute to the world and that’s where I kind of come from. As a musician, I have this different perspective. I wrote a song during the Ebola outbreak that was like a very specific kind of perspective. But the way I kind of put it together is just, it’s not … I usually do music in my free time as a way of downloading and processing and almost getting yourself stronger for the science that you do. I also find that when I’m being my most creative scientifically, when I’m in a really deep process of developing something, it’s when I’ll sort of wake up in the morning and have a new melody in my head. It’s almost as if the creative process of the brain starts doing both things simultaneously. I’ll literally come up with random songs in the moments where I’m the most focused on science, some of my best work. It’s a beautiful way to be able to give voice to the things that are deeply aspirational and deeply frightening at the same time. It’s been really important for me as well, just the same way that those musicians, their souls are fed before they work on Lassa virus in the field, my soul is fed by doing music.
Alan: You have one or two albums with some of the people from your labs that you’ve worked with or how did you draw in those singers?
Pardis: Yeah, we have a summer program here in Boston, where we’ve had 76 scientists come from six different countries. One of the things that we kind of incorporated into that is that we sing together, the way they sing in their home countries in West Africa. Actually, I guess over two of the years, I booked studio time and we recorded music. It was with the different folks from the West African countries that we work with while they are here in the United States.
Alan: I’ve heard just a little bit of that and it really is lovely-
Pardis: Oh, thank you.


Alan: Was your life, your own personal life a conjunction of being in two worlds at the same time? I know your family came from Tehran. Were you born in Florida when they moved to Florida or were you born in Tehran?
Pardis: I was born in Tehran, yeah.
Alan: You came to the States when you were what, about three?
Pardis: Nearly three, yeah.
Alan: You grew up as an American kid, but did you still have a sense of or were you informed by people around you that you were different?
Pardis: No, my parents really wanted us to … I mean I spoke Farsi at home and I still speak Farsi with my family and with my son. We definitely took kind of full throttle to the American way of being. The only thing kind of that stuck out about me is I had a weird name, but then people just made fun of it and I became [inaudible 00:49:23] phrase and [inaudible 00:49:24].
Alan: What do you mean?
Pardis: I just had a lot of nicknames, like so a lot of crazy nicknames. I didn’t feel that sense of an outsider.
Alan: It’s funny, I grew up in the show business family and I always felt I was an outsider in my own culture.
Pardis: I mean I was certainly an outsider more because I like math and didn’t realize that it wasn’t okay that girls play football, but like I guess the one thing I say about growing up in a different culture is that you don’t know the rules of that culture and so, you break all the rules. I think that was great for me. I did get kind of picked on a lot, but not for being from a different country, but just for being strange. I mean I was the kid who hung out with a math teacher. I mean I was really quite and did like science problems for fun. I was the girl who played football at lunch with the boys when all the other people were just like, “Why are you doing that?” I remember one time, a bunch of girls kind of gather around. They’re like, “So, we see you playing football.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” They’re like, “You know, girls don’t do that.” I was like, “Why wouldn’t you? It’s so fun, like I don’t get it, it’s really, really fun, like you should play.” That was it. I don’t know. That was-
Alan: That’s amazing. How old were you at that point in that conversation?
Pardis: I think I must have been seventh grade, so I probably like 12, yeah 12-13.
Alan: So interesting that you had the sense of yourself talk about having your own voice, you knew who you were, so you could say, “Well that’s great, why don’t you do it? It’s fun.”
Pardis: Yeah, again, I wasn’t that adaptive to the environment, but yes, I mean I …
Alan: Did the girls shun you a little bit?
Pardis: Yeah, the funny thing is a lot of them are my best friends now and we joke about it because they’re like, “We were mean to you.” I’m like, “Yeah, you know,”
Alan: How lucky you were that you had the strength to withstand other girls coming up to you and telling you, “You should be more stereotypically girly, you shouldn’t play football.” People probably regarded you as an odd person for being a girl who liked math and not just like it, you were really sharp at it.
Pardis: I think it wasn’t so much a girl doing math. It was like literally anybody excited about math-
Alan: Anybody.
Pardis: … didn’t make sense. I’m going to be honest, I was really excited about math, like really excited. Yeah.


Alan: One of the things you do, I’ve read, is you spend a good amount of time each year working up a good Christmas card, where folks from the lab collaborate on that. That is part of the fun that you introduce into the work?
Pardis: Yeah that card has become, yeah it has taken on a real life of its own. It started my first year as I was starting a faculty and at that point, I didn’t have family, a family of my own. A lot of my friends had gone off and they had kids. They were sending all these photos of their kids for the holidays. I thought, “Well, I don’t have kids, but I do have this lab and they’re kind of like a family.” I went to Kmart and bought a bunch of kind of the ugly sweaters and like a menorah and all sorts of multicultural items, holiday items. We took this ridiculous card and then that became a tradition. Over time, I just have really talented people in my lab, who’ve taken it up an octave, like essentially every time. We have celebrity guest appearances. We’d love to get you in a card.
Alan: I’d love to be in, thank you.
Pardis: [inaudible 00:16:38] will be great.
Alan: This reminds me of my friend in Israel, [inaudible 00:16:44], who is also a computational biologist. You know [inaudible 00:16:48]?
Pardis: I do, yeah. He’s musician as well.
Alan: Yeah, he’s a wonderful guy and he himself is an improviser and goes out every week with a troupe of improvisers. He introduces this element of human contact into his lab I think once a week when somebody is designated to present their work to the rest of the people in the lab. They don’t talk about the work at all for the first 15 or 20 minutes. They only are allowed to talk about how their week is gone or their mothers or their pets or something personal in their daily lives. Then, when they talk about the work, he says the response, what would ordinarily be hostile criticism or aggressive pushback is more collaborative. The questions are more positive and leading somewhere. Does that sound familiar to you?
Pardis: 00:17:56 Yeah that’s a lovely idea and definitely, I mean that resonates for sure. Well the holiday card, each year the new people in the lab are the ones that do it, kind of get them connected into the lab [inaudible 00:18:16] to everyone there and also have a project that they all work on together and bond through. It’s a great training because they do have this other experience with each other that’s sort of fun and playful. I often also talk about the fact that right before the Ebola outbreak hit, my lab had done a retreat down in my parents’ place in Florida, and spent many days kind of all piled into a relatively small house for that many people, camping in tents and this kind of very kind of goofy environment. We were so bonded through that and we had done so many of these team-building exercises that when we came back in just a couple weeks later, we were getting Ebola hit. We had to like move into action. It was really natural for everyone to just team up as partners and move. We moved so quickly and I don’t think we would have ever done that if we hadn’t just had that experience together.
Alan: I found that to be true in so many different kinds of situations. When I directed movies, sometimes, the most important part of any rehearsal period I had was not rehearsing the scenes, but going out to dinner together and finding out who we were as people. Then, I read an interview with Kurosawa, the Japanese director, who said exactly the same thing. It must be universal that if we can make human contact with one another, the work we have to do together runs more smoothly. We know who we’re working with, who we’re collaborating with.
Pardis: Yeah and we care about them and sort of their narrative and who they are and what they want to be. Yeah that all hits home. My lab is quite ridiculously like in love with each other. Even I had a very bad accident, was gone for four months I think I was stranded on the west-
Alan: You have 36 plates in your body now or something like that?
Pardis: Six plates and 30 kind of very giant rods, yeah, if you look at-
Alan: Oh, my God. What happened to you? What was the accident?
Pardis: I was just at a conference, a scientific conference in Montana. I was on a convoy of vehicles that were going around like where the area was, where the conference was and I was a passenger on a vehicle that clipped the curve and went over a cliff. I was catapulted onto boulders. I give a lot of explanation because I’m like, “Even though my work is very risky, I’m like a very non-risk taker, I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t do any thrill-seeking activity. I was literally just on this random convoy that happened to go over a cliff.”
Alan: An innocent bystander.
Pardis: I was a passenger. Yeah, I was just kind of hanging out. Anyway, so of all the things I do that was sort of just this random scientific conferences, one of their tech conference.
Alan: That must have held back your work for quite a while.
Pardis: It did, but my lab was amazing about just all banding together, becoming even stronger. They’re a very resilient organization, so we definitely obviously took a hit, but they did a great job.
Alan: Do you find, have you found in that work and in work in your lab that women scientists have an extra bit of work to do to be able to be themselves, to be authentically who they are and to display the authority that they have by virtue of their experience and work, so that they’re not considered by a stereotypical thinking male in the lab that if they’re too authoritarian, they’re tough to get along with or if they’re too gentle, they don’t know much and they are pushover. Am I saying this in a way that sounds familiar to you?
Pardis: It does sound very familiar to me. It doesn’t sound that familiar to me in my own lab. I have a lot of alpha females, so I’ve got a lot of … I love it. We create an environment, where they feel very comfortable, but a lot of the leadership positions in my lab are women and they’re awesome in what they do. They’re assertive and they’re finding their own voice. People often say, “It’s a man’s world,” and I’m like, “It’s not really a man’s world even.” Sometimes, it’s sort of like … I have, something I probably shouldn’t say in a podcast, but like a different way of saying it, but it’s a not-so-nice person’s world sometimes. Fill-in-the-blank of any way you describe a not-so-nice person, but I try to help both the men and the women in my lab find their own voice and find the way that they describe things. I feel like there are a lot of really nice guys out there, who aren’t able to present in the same way. I do try to build up people in my lab, but I do it on both sides. I think it comes down to personality. More broadly, my lab is its own ecosystem and you imagine the people that come to work with a female PI have a certain mindset and a certain way of going. I do try to prepare them for the outside world in which people won’t be so open to the way like we approach the world.
Alan: Yeah that sounds like an important question because the outside world is very often directly opposed to the idea of play and openness. I mean the very idea that I read that you collected all your data in your early work on Ebola and made it available to scientists around the world, you were very open about that. Am I right about that?
Pardis: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Alan: That already is a departure.
Pardis: Yeah, it’s a departure in that field, which is surprising actually because in the larger … Eric Lander, who you know is my longtime adviser and he’s driven by the sense of enabling science and making things open. I come from a history of that. To me, it wasn’t even almost a question that you should share and particularly in an event, where there’s so much on the line and there are so many lives at stake, it’s unconscionable not to, to not to try to move as quickly as possible. What’s interesting is that during that point in time, during the outbreak, as you might imagine or you might not think about, but that you could imagine is that there’s a lot of politics, there’s a lot at stake, a lot of money to be made, a lot of careers to be made during an outbreak. Shockingly, a lot of times that’s more of a strong motivator than to fight off this terrible thing that’s happening. I remember during that time, being like, everyone’s so concerned that we’re going to do something and get our data out and to be successful. That’s not what it’s about, so I asked the first author [inaudible 00:34:41], I said, “Look, my instinct is just to share this with the world, like this is not what we’re doing it for. Is that okay with you?” He was like, “Absolutely.” I mean he was on the same page. We just released it to the world. The kind of irony of it is that I got a lot of recognition on the back of this sort of tragic event, but all the recognition I got was for not caring about recognition and releasing the data.
Alan: That’s great.
Pardis: [inaudible 00:35:06] fitting and I hope that like while it’s sad to me that the natural instinct isn’t there to do the right thing, it’s nice that when the right thing is actually recognized because that means that other people might do the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons.
Alan: You know, this is interesting in and of itself, but at a deeper level, I find it really fascinating, the question of your ability to make breakthroughs and inroads with a genetic analysis of the human response to Ebola for instance. Yet, you talk about being open and open to the world, open to possibility, open to change.
Pardis: My career actually has taken a lot of different turns because I feel there’s not one problem I’m trying to solve. I’m interested in a lot of different things. One thing I am actually interested in even scientifically right now is different ways of thought, like kind of I may move a little bit into cognitive sciences. I’m excited about thinking about that more about thinking about truly understanding how people come at the world in very different ways and then, how to help them become their best selves.
Alan: At what point do you say, “I’ve got a flag planted firmly in the field I’m in,” and leave yourself open to exploring something that may have a dead end at the other end of it? At what point, do you take that risk? What do you go through when you take a risk like that? It’s one thing to be open, it’s another thing to be reckless. You don’t seem reckless.
Pardis: I t’s interesting because I have a lab and so that decision-making is not just me. For me, it’s really just what interests me and what do I think I can add value to the world. For my students, it’s what can give them good projects and where can we go. Like I’m still invested in outbreaks and responding to outbreaks, but at the same time, there’s a lot of people who are now doing it more and more. I think we had a contribution ad and the question is can I add more? I have a lot of ideas still and we’re trying to get support to do it, but when you talk about those issues, there’s a lot of people have gotten [inaudible 00:59:33] just have gotten a lot more support to me to do the things that I’d like to do. So I’m like, “Well, if I don’t really even have support to do the work I’m doing, then what would I be doing exactly?” I have a feeling I’m never going to be one of those people that gets like a lot of money to go after an idea. If that’s going to be the case and that’s okay, I’m not an empire builder. Then, I’d rather do things that are like off the beaten track that nobody else cares about.
Pardis: I think every time I’ve gone into a field, everybody’s escaping. In fact, actually like right now-
Alan: Everybody is getting of the field and you get in.
Pardis: Yeah and now, I’m like, “Okay, now I’m ready, I’m ready to go, this is my time.”
Alan: Well, you’re led by what interests you. That’s to me the same thing as being playful, something that like a cat, her attention is caught by the ball of yarn. It seems important to unravel the ball. I recognize that as the fun of existence is solving problems that seem trivial and they often turn out to be very important.
Pardis: The thing is it’s like is it really just a ball of yarn or is there something at the end of it?
Alan: Is there some voice in the back of your head telling you, “This ball of yarn has gold in it?”
Pardis: Yeah, I think that. So far, it’s guided me very, very well. When an idea just sticks with me and I can’t shake it, I have to kind of figure out what’s driving that. I feel as if I trust my own instinct as to where it’s going to kind of get me.
Alan: That confidence you have that sounds so important to your work because if you keep attacking problems that other people have thought were already solved and they’re not worth going into further. You go further and deeper and you find something of value at a deeper level that takes the same kind of confidence that it took to play football as a kid with the boys when the girls were telling you, “Girls don’t do that.” It was a good-natured [inaudible 01:02:14] the way you described it. You weren’t waving a flag or making a movement. You were just saying, “No, I like it, I’m going to keep doing it and it’s okay if you object to it.”

Alan: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m getting looks from the control room that I’m out of control.
Pardis: Okay, I may be responsible partly for that at least.
Alan: We usually end these conversations with seven quick questions that invite seven quick answers. Are you up for that?
Pardis: Yeah, I love it.
Alan: They’re roughly about communicating and relating. First question, what do you wish you really understood?
Pardis: Okay, wish I really understood our place in the universe. I always say that that’s something that science and religion shares that ultimately we’re all trying to figure out our place in the universe, but I actually want to know what is after this. I think it’s just a big question that everybody has and everyone tries to get at it in a different way. I’ve actually sat with friends and tried to see if we could bridge metaphysics and get to the answer somehow, but I think it’s going to be a hard problem, but I’m still working on it. I really wish we understood what is this life that we’re in and what is on the other side of it.
Alan: That’s a rich answer. You’ve already given more thought to that than most people I ask. Number two, what do you wish other people understood about you?
Pardis: Gosh, I mean …
Alan: Doesn’t sound like you care what other people think about you.
Pardis: Yeah, I know and that’s terrible. I know I should, I should care. Well, I’m trying to think, I’m very transparent, so I kind of say everything. I guess that I come in peace, I mean well, I’m excited I’m here to help. I think that’s what I’m always trying to convey, but there’s probably things that I still need to understand about what drives me, what motivates me in my unconscious that I would then want to then convey once I get it.
Alan: Well, I think you’re ready for the next question, which is what is the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Pardis: These are up there, these are different.
Alan: All right, how do you stop a compulsive talker?
Pardis: Wow, okay, this one might be the strangest question I’ve ever gotten, if I had to say.
Alan: I think they’re going to [inaudible 01:06:35] that same rating.
Pardis: Okay, they’re going to go [inaudible 01:06:37]. Each time, I’ll be like, “This is the most …”
Alan: I mean what do you do when you’re confronted with, we all are confronted with impulsive talkers.
Pardis: It’s funny actually.
Alan: How do you typically handle it?
Pardis: I mean I got to usually go with it. Now, I often go with it because I’m interested in just human nature, I actually enjoy like figuring out where they’re trying to go with it, what are they trying to convey and what are they doing. I find myself absorbed in everything about them and what they’re doing. Yes, I mean at some point, I’ll then have to go and that’ll just end it, but-
Alan: That’s interesting, I find myself reacting to them with curiosity and that kind of begins to make it a two-way street. Why do you feel that way, well that’s interesting, how did that come about? All of a sudden, we’re talking about something that’s more shared by us.
Pardis: Yeah.
Alan: Okay, here’s the next question, is there any one for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Pardis: No, I have a deep, deep amount of empathy for everyone and it’s wild. I mean I remember when I was in medical school and I was on a psych rotation. We were talking to a schizophrenic patient. They were talking about the voices in their head telling them to kill people. I just felt so much pain for them and it made me walk away and say like, “I don’t understand what is volition, what is responsibility?” I remember thinking that day, “Oh my God, I’d rather be killed by a serial killer than be a serial killer and how awful must that existence be?” It’s not that I wouldn’t stop a serial killer from inflecting more pain, but I have a deep, deep amount of empathy for them. I think that’s something we collectively … I feel like the health of every person on the planet is sort of our health and it’s important to figure that out.
Alan: Okay, how do you like to deliver bad news, in person, on the phone or by carrier pigeon?
Pardis: It really depends on the type of bad news. I mean generally, I like to do it in person, but sometimes, I’ll do it in an email, so the person has time to absorb it and take it in. I try to think about it from the perspective of how would I want this information myself. I don’t want to put people on the spot. I’ll think about like what is the best way for them? I’ll always be open to meet with whoever it is after it, but I try to just think through it. It’s very different, depending on the circumstance.
Alan: Okay, last question, what, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Pardis: Why are we getting so like … This is getting heavy. Have I ended friendships? I mean obviously I’ve ended relationships. I’m one of these people that’s like best friends with all my exes because I find it really hard to totally cut out somebody in your life, who knows you in some way, but you have to set boundaries around. If there’s something that’s like where there’s true misbehavior, you have to set boundaries around what you can take and what you can’t take, but I try to always like leave an opening for people. There’s definitely people who I have decreased my time with or put boundaries around how I interact with them, but I don’t necessarily ever say like, “And you’re done.” I think redemption is a really important concept that we as a society are not that good with. I look for a true redemption of the situation. If there can be one, I’m open to it.
Alan: Well, you’re a deeply interesting person. The deeper we got into the questions, the more interesting you got.
Pardis: Okay, great.
Alan: I really appreciate you diving in there.
Pardis: Thank you.
Alan: It was really fun talking with you Pardis.
Pardis: Yeah, it was really fun talking to you. Thank you so much for doing this. Yeah, I’ve been excited about this ever since we started talking about it.
Alan: Oh, great, thank you.
Pardis: All right, thank you.
Alan: Bye bye.
Pardis: Bye.
This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

For more information about the Alda Center, please visit

Pardis Sabeti is a tremendously accomplished person – she has been a Rhodes Scholar, she was named one of Time Magazines People of the Year for her work on the Ebola virus, she has been awarded numerous fellowships – too many to mention here!! — , and she now serves as the 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.

And – if that’s not enough … you’ll also find her nurturing her multi-faceted creative side as the lead singer and co-song writer of the rock band Thousand Days.

For more information about Pardis and her work, please visit:

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

You can subscribe to our podcast for free at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

For more details about Clear + Vivid, and to sign up for my newsletter, please visit

You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram at “Clear and Vivid” and I’m on Twitter @alanalda.

Thanks for listening. Bye bye!