When Bad Things Happen to Good Scientists

A near-death experience in Montana altered life for genetic researcher Pardis Sabeti.

Talk about an explorer moment.

For Harvard professor Pardis Sabeti, life inextricably changed on July 17, 2015, the moment the all-terrain vehicle she was riding in careened off a Montana road. The incident nearly killed her, shattering Sabeti's pelvis and knees and causing a host of lingering medical issues for the woman regarded as a rock star of the science world for her work in disease-related genetic research.

Sabeti performs and records music with her band Thousand Days. Here, she plays music with research colleagues outside Nigeria's Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ERIC PHELAN, COURTESY PARDIS SABETI

Sixteen months to the day of the accident, Sabeti still has 40 metal plates and pins in her body from several postaccident surgeries, and suffers from chronic pain, vertigo, and bouts of respiratory inflammation.

"With that much hardware in your body and that much trauma, there’s a new normal you’re working with,’’ says Sabeti, a computational biologist and National Geographic emerging explorer. “I have chronic fatigue, and I feel like my brain at times is still foggy.”

The accident derailed a seemingly unstoppable force. The Tehran-born daughter of parents who fled the Iranian revolution in 1979, Sabeti was a math whiz as a kid, earning a National Merit Scholarship. At MIT, she graduated with a biology degree and perfect grade point average. She then won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where she studied human genetic resistance to infectious diseases. At Harvard Medical School, she earned her degree summa cum laude as a Soros Fellow. As she progressed through graduate and medical school, Sabeti developed a breakthrough algorithm and key evolutionary detective tool that helps crack genetic codes, allowing scientists to better understand how infectious diseases such as Lassa fever and Ebola adapt and spread.

Sabeti’s research has won a variety of accolades, including a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Natural Science, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, and an NIH New Innovator Award. In 2014, she was named one of Time magazine's Persons of the Year and made its list of the hundred most influential people in early 2015.

But she’s the antithesis of a nerdy lab rat. Pre-accident, her interests ranged from rollerblading and competitive volleyball to music—she's a writer, bassist, and lead singer for Boston-based alternative-rock band Thousand Days.

Sabeti, recuperating from a near-death accident in 2015, takes a break with her friend Christian Happi, director of the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCY SABETI, COURTESY PARDIS SABETI

Sylvia Blyden, Sierra Leone's Minister of Social Welfare, visits Sabeti during her rehabilitation.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCY SABETI, COURTESY PARDIS SABETI

These days, however, simple things like walking can be difficult. Sabeti’s daily regimen may include hours of physical rehab, stretching exercises, and massages. She still has lingering nightmares about the accident, which occurred when she was on a break at a tech conference near Bozeman. Bystanders encouraged her to talk and breath during the 45 minutes it took for rescuers to arrive, unsure if she would live, Sabeti says.

With the help of family, friends, colleagues, and therapists, her confidence facing the challenges of a protracted physical and emotional recovery remains steadfast. Massages have helped release traumatic memories. “I’d just cry and cry, until there was no more to cry,’’ says Sabeti, who's no stranger to tragedy. Her father was in a similar debilitating car accident when she was a child. And in 2014, when she was part of a West Africa research team responding to the Ebola outbreak, several friends and co-workers died after being infected.

Sabeti undergoes rigorous pool therapy sessions at Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation hospital.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCY SABETI, COURTESY PARDIS SABETI

Sabeti engages in stretching exercises with Bob Cooley (center), Rob O'Brien (left) and Zak Orne at the Genius of Flexibility center, core to her therapy work.
COURTESY PARDIS SABETI

Sabeti has returned to work at the Sabeti Lab, part of the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, but her outlook on life has been altered.

“I didn’t care for much about anything the past year except getting back my health,’’ she says. “There’s no way something like that doesn’t mess with you. In many ways, you’re handicapped. Everything is a project for me. My new adventure is just existing. It’s really a struggle.”

Sabeti last played with her band before the accident. The experience inspired her to write a song called "Breathe in, Breathe Out," one of several “aspirational" songs about the accident, she says. Other songs are "super dark" and voice the "deeply painful,'' she says. (Sabeti also has written an instrumental song, "Phoenix," airing on the October 26 premiere of the National Geographic Channel documentary Human Inferno.)

The career scientist says she didn’t care about science for a long time after the accident, but her passion is returning. “There is still a lot of genome sequencing work to be done on Ebola, and we’re just about to release the genome research we’ve been doing to sequence the Zika virus,’’ she says.

“I’m not who I was and it’s not a given that I will be. But with something like this, you become more grounded and whole. You’re a lot more vulnerable. I have a deeper level of empathy and perspective. And in terms of the depth of the human experience, I do feel like I’m more an explorer than I was before.”

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

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