Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pardis Sabeti, Cool Super Scientist

Sometimes you read about someone who has so many accomplishments it's hard to figure when they have time to sleep. Pardis Sabeti is one of those people. The profile of the 32-year old biological anthropologist in the April 25 issue of Science was pretty amazing:

In some ways she is the stereotypical driven genius scientist. She attended top schools: undergrad at MIT, Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University, graduation from Harvard Medical School with summa cum laude honors (presented to the "single most deserving student among a graduating class and is not automatically awarded every year"). Her research on the evolution of resistance to tropical diseases in affected human populations may eventually result in better vaccines and therapies. She is a nerd at heart. As she told Science:
"Even though I am gregarious, I interact more with [scientific] papers than with people. Deep down, I am just a math geek."
Sabeti, who moved to Florida with her family from Iran in 1979, attributes her academic success to her mother:
"My mother crated a summer camp in our house, where she would teach the children and make us do book reports. And my sister, who is 2 years older than me, would teach me and my cousin what she had learned in school."
But she also has a creative side. When she has time she writes music and performs with her band, Thousand Days. And she is making videos:
With support from the MIT Council for the Arts and a women-in-science program sponsored by L’Oreal, Dr. Sabeti is planning a series of music videos featuring Boston-based science luminaries such as Dr. Lander and artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky.
[. . .]
The videos, which Dr. Sabeti would like to distribute online, will use pop culture to show that science is cool. Her hope is that young viewers will want to learn more about the people in the videos.

You can see one of them when she is profiled on NOVA, scheduled to air in July.

For more about her research and her thoughts on women in science, check out the video below of her talk at Seed Magazine's Inspiration Festival in 2006:

She starts talking about women in science - particularly the L'Oreal Women in Science program - at about 14:44.

And the sleep thing? When Science spoke to Sabeti she was managing "only 2 hours of sleep each night, most of them inside a crumpled blue sleeping bag she keeps under a desk . . ."

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Jenny F. Scientist said...

I read the piece in Science when it came out, and while I admire Dr. Sabeti's accomplishments, I really didn't like the bit about sleeping under her desk. It seems to perpetuate the idea that to be a successful scientist, one must give up normal life and sacrifice all for lab. Good for her if she loves her work so much, but I really believe that at least personally she may not be such a good example.

Peggy K said...

The way I felt when I read her story was that she is so far outside the norm - in terms of both the number and types of projects she is working on, both inside and outside of science - that there was no way that she could really be held up as an example of what is "expected" of a scientist. That may be me bringing my own biases into play though.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what is wrong with you women? Instead of being like, wow look how powerfully strong, and smart this woman is, you talk down to her method. The point is, she was willing to sacrifice for what she believed in. No one is saying YOU have to sleep only 2 hours a night to be a good scientist. Hopefully, you can be so smart and great that you can accomplish what she did and still get your 8 hours of sleep. The point is, she at times needed to juggle no sleep. I've done it, tons of people have done it. Its not fun, but sometimes thats what you got to do. You know its really surprising that women take other women's successes so negatively...

Peggy K said...

I don't think people are talking down about her at all. It's just that the Science article seems to be glorifying her sleepless lifestyle. I doubt anyone who has a degree in science - especially an advanced degree - is unfamiliar with all-nighters. However, there is a common stereotype that "hard core" scientists can get by with little sleep, minimal social lives, etc. In some labs there is a kind of oneupmanship as to who can work the most hours (what, you're going home at 9pm?) - an attitude that is obviously not conducive to having a family or much of a life at all. This article perpetuates that stereotype, so, while what she's done is obviously fantastic, it's important to remember that it's not reasonable to expect all scientists to emulate her work ethic.

Anonymous said...

The BWF article can be found here:

The link above is pre-CMS.

Peggy K said...

Russ: thanks for the updated link!