Pardis Sabeti: Award-winning computational geneticist by day, indie rock singer by night
Courtesy of Pardis Sabeti
True
packard-foundation

Pardis Sabeti has had an obsession with math and logic from a young age. When she was little, her mother set up a makeshift classroom in their home where Sabeti's older sister, Parisa, taught her everything she learned in school. By the time she started school herself, Sabeti already had all of her math facts memorized, so she simply worked on answering faster than everyone else. "I already had the information," she told The Smithsonian, "so it just got me to focus on excellence."

Her math proficiency led to a defining moment in 7th grade math class, one that foreshadowed her bright academic future. "The teacher came in with a VHS tape of a video of an MIT 2.007 (then 2.70) competition," she told Upworthy. "It's a wild event where mechanical engineers build robots for head-to-head competition with other robots. I saw this and thought, 'What is this magical place?' It was my Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment. That's when MIT came into my consciousness."

After earning a National Merit Scholarship, Sabeti went on to MIT and earned a B.S. in biology with a perfect 5.0 GPA. (She was also class president and played on the varsity tennis team.) She won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where she earned a Masters and Doctorate in the field of evolutionary genetics. In 2006, she became the third woman to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard Medical School.


Sabeti says she didn't come from a family of doctors or scientists, but her family history did impact her choices. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and her family immigrated to the U.S. shortly before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. "I thought that if you like math and you're an immigrant, you'll become a doctor," she says.

As she advanced in her education, however, she realized she was more interested in medical research than in treating patients. Her graduate work included developing a breakthrough algorithm and tool for analyzing genetic factors in infectious diseases, helping scientists figure out humans adapt to microbes, and later how microbes themselves adapt and spread.

Sabeti went about her research in a somewhat backwards way, developing new tools to look at existing data rather than collecting new data and using established scientific tools to analyze it. She would eventually win several prestigious awards for her work — but not without going through the trials innovators often experience when they take a radically different approach.

"Everyone thought what I was trying to look for was a waste of time," Sabeti says. "It seemed as if the work was going to go nowhere. Most people have a hard time somewhere in their arc in graduate school, but my outlook looked quite bleak for some time."

But her hard work and unique approach has paid off. Her research and analysis of genetic factors in infectious diseases has earned her the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Natural Science, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, a National Institutes of Health New Innovator Award, as well as the honor of being named a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2014 and one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2015.

Courtesy of Pardis Sabeti

Much of Sabeti's success has come as a result of her field work in Africa. As an assistant professor at Harvard's Center for Systems Biology, Sabeti collaborated with the Irrua Specialist Teaching Hospital in Nigeria to study the deadly Lassa virus — a project that posed serious risks. "I had tremendous challenges," she says. "Universities are not always thrilled about having someone actively working with a deadly virus."

Being awarded a five-year, $875,000 Packard Fellowship helped make her field work possible. The fellowship, awarded to promising scientists in the dawn of their career, offers unrestricted funds for recipients to use at their own discretion. Sabeti says the exploratory funding Packard offers gives researchers the opportunity to go into areas that aren't traditionally funded, which is vital for innovation.

"The Packard Fellowship is the most generous junior faculty award," she says. "It allows you to be creative, to be curious. That kind of funding is invaluable and hard to come by. It allowed me to think boldly, differently — things that would have been difficult for a junior faculty to do otherwise."

"Packard is an organization who thinks about not only how to make science move, but for scientists to do so while also having a quality of life," she adds.

Some of Sabeti's funds went to helping the hospital in Irrua provide resources for all of their patients, providing more data for her research, which in turn helped doctors better diagnose and treat people. Christian Happi, director of the hospital's Infectious Diseases Laboratory, told The Smithsonian that Sabeti's work helped thousands of patients as he sung her praises. "Apart from being dedicated, generous with her time, generous with her knowledge, generous with everything, really," Happi said, "she just really wants to be involved. That type of generosity is a quality that not many people have."

Generosity, empathy, respect — these qualities, combined with fierce determination and drive, define Sabeti's approach to her work. She says one of her life goals is to train students to be good people as well as good scientists. As part of that effort, Sabeti has partnered with a middle school to create an outbreak simulation for students to figure out how to contain. "It's a full fledged, 200 person, massive outbreak," she says. "We simulated this by sending a virtual virus through bluetooth." The simulation, which includes an app and other technical materials, is being used in multiple schools.

Teaching students about infectious diseases is only one of Sabeti's passion projects. The remarkably well-rounded scientist also plays bass guitar and is the lead singer of an alternative rock band called Thousand Days. Before a near-fatal ATV accident in 2015 shattered her pelvis and knees, she enjoyed competitive tennis and volleyball and was a regular rollerblader.

Courtesy of Pardis Sabeti

And she brings that energy and creativity into her lab. The Sabeti Lab at Harvard creates an elaborate holiday card every year to highlight her team and the work they're doing, hoping to share the joy of science and inspire young scientists. "We get to show there's this very creative and different life you can have," Sabeti says. In fact, that's what she wants aspiring scientists — especially female scientists — to realize.

"Much of what people see of science is a culture created by men many decades ago," she says. She wants to help everyone see that they can have a rewarding life in the sciences, to "see that they can be themselves, that they can do hardcore technical work that advances the field, while just being who we are."

Images courtesy of Letters of Love
True

When Grace Berbig was 7 years old, her mom was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the body’s blood-forming tissues. Being so young, Grace didn’t know what cancer was or why her mother was suddenly living in the hospital. But she did know this: that while her mom was in the hospital, she would always be assured that her family was thinking of her, supporting her and loving her every step of her journey.

Nearly every day, Grace and her two younger sisters would hand-make cards and fill them with drawings and messages of love, which their mother would hang all over the walls of her hospital room. These cherished letters brought immeasurable peace and joy to their mom during her sickness. Sadly, when Grace was just 10 years old, her mother lost her battle with cancer.“

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Losing my mom put the world in a completely different perspective for me,” Grace says. “I realized that you never know when someone could leave you, so you have to love the people you love with your whole heart, every day.”

Grace’s father was instrumental in helping in the healing process of his daughters. “I distinctly remember my dad constantly reminding my two little sisters, Bella and Sophie, and I that happiness is a choice, and it was now our job to turn this heartbreaking event in our life into something positive.”

When she got to high school, Grace became involved in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and a handful of other organizations. But she never felt like she was doing enough.

“I wanted to create an opportunity for people to help beyond donating money, and one that anyone could be a part of, no matter their financial status.”

In October 2018, Grace started Letters of Love, a club at her high school in Long Lake, Minnesota, to emotionally support children battling cancer and other serious illnesses through letter-writing and craft-making.


Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Much to her surprise, more than 100 students showed up for the first club meeting. From then on, Letters of Love grew so fast that during her senior year in high school, Grace had to start a GoFundMe to help cover the cost of card-making materials.

Speaking about her nonprofit today, Grace says, “I can’t find enough words to explain how blessed I feel to have this organization. Beyond the amount of kids and families we are able to support, it allows me to feel so much closer and more connected to my mom.”

Since its inception, Letters of Love has grown to more than 25 clubs with more than 1,000 members providing emotional support to more than 60,000 patients in children’s hospitals around the world. And in the process it has become a full-time job for Grace.

“I do everything from training volunteers and club ambassadors, paying bills, designing merchandise, preparing financial predictions and overviews, applying for grants, to going through each and every card ensuring they are appropriate to send out to hospitals.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

In addition to running Letters of Love, Grace and her small team must also contend with the emotions inherent in their line of work.

“There have been many, many tears cried,” she says. “Working to support children who are battling cancer and other serious and sometimes chronic illnesses can absolutely be extremely difficult mentally. I feel so blessed to be an organization that focuses solely on bringing joy to these children, though. We do everything we can to simply put a smile on their face, and ensure they know that they are so loved, so strong, and so supported by people all around the world.”

Image courtesy of Letters of Love

Letters of Love has been particularly instrumental in offering emotional support to children who have been unable to see friends and family due to COVID-19. A video campaign in the summer of 2021 even saw members of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild offer short videos of hope and encouragement to affected children.

Grace is currently taking a gap year before she starts college so she can focus on growing Letters of Love as well as to work on various related projects, including the publication of a children’s book.

“The goal of the book is to teach children the immense impact that small acts of kindness can have, how to treat their peers who may be diagnosed with disabilities or illness, and how they are never too young to change the world,” she says.

Since she was 10, Grace has kept memories of her mother close to her, as a source of love and inspiration in her life and in the work she does with Letters of Love.

Image courtesy of Grace Berbig

“When I lost my mom, I felt like a section of my heart went with her, so ever since, I have been filling that piece with love and compassion towards others. Her smile and joy were infectious, and I try to mirror that in myself and touch people’s hearts as she did.”

For more information visit Letters of Love.

Please donate to Grace’s GoFundMe and help Letters of Love to expand, publish a children’s book and continue to reach more children in hospitals around the world.

This article originally appeared on November 11, 2015


Remember those beloved Richard Scarry books from when you were a kid?

Like a lot of people, I grew up reading them. And now, I read them to my kids.

The best!

If that doesn't ring a bell, perhaps this character from the "Busytown" series will. Classic!

Image via

Scarry was an incredibly prolific children's author and illustrator. He created over 250 books during his career. His books were loved across the world — over 100 million were sold in many languages.

But here's something you may not have known about these classics: They've been slowly changing over the years.

Don't panic! They've been changing in a good way.

Keep Reading Show less
Images courtesy of AFutureSuperhero and Friends and Balance Dance Project
True

The day was scorching hot, but the weather wasn’t going to stop a Star Wars Stormtrooper from handing out school supplies to a long line of eager children. “You guys don’t have anything illegal back there - any droids or anything?” the Stormtrooper asks, making sure he was safe from enemies before handing over a colorful backpack to a smiling boy.

The man inside the costume is Yuri Williams, founder of AFutureSuperhero And Friends, a Los Angeles nonprofit that uplifts and inspires marginalized people with small acts of kindness.

Yuri’s organization is one of four inaugural grant winners from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, a joint initiative between Upworthy and GoFundMe that celebrates kindness and everyday actions inspired by the best of humanity. This year, the Upworthy Kindness Fund is giving $100,000 to grassroots changemakers across the world.

To apply, campaign organizers simply tell Upworthy how their kindness project is making a difference. Between now and the end of 2021, each accepted individual or organization will receive $500 towards an existing GoFundMe and a shout-out on Upworthy.

Meet the first four winners:

1: Balance Dance Project: This studio aims to bring accessible dance to all in the Sacramento, CA area. Lead fundraiser Miranda Macias says many dancers spend hours a day at Balance practicing contemporary, lyrical, hip-hop, and ballet. Balance started a GoFundMe to raise money to cover tuition for dancers from low-income communities, buy dance team uniforms, and update its facility. The $500 contribution from the Kindness Fund nudged Balance closer to its $5,000 goal.

2: Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team: In Los Angeles, middle school teacher James Pike is introducing his students to the field of robotics via a Lego-building team dedicated to solving real-world problems.

James started a GoFundMe to crowdfund supplies for his students’ team ahead of the First Lego League, a school-against-school matchup that includes robotics competitions. The team, James explained, needed help to cover half the cost of the pricey $4,000 robotics kit. Thanks to help from the Upworthy Kindness Fund and the generosity of the Citizens of the World Middle School community, the team exceeded its initial fundraising goal.

Citizens of the World Mar Vista Robotics Team video update youtu.be

3: Black Fluidity Tattoo Club: Kiara Mills and Tann Parker want to fix a big problem in the tattoo industry: there are too few Black tattoo artists. To tackle the issue, the duo founded the Black Fluidity Tattoo Club to inspire and support Black tattooers. While the Brooklyn organization is open to any Black person, Kiara and Tann specifically want to encourage dark-skinned artists to train in an affirming space among people with similar identities.

To make room for newcomers, the club recently moved into a larger studio with a third station for apprentices or guest artists. Unlike a traditional fundraiser that supports the organization exclusively, Black Fluidity Tattoo Club will distribute proceeds from GoFundMe directly to emerging Black tattoo artists who are starting their own businesses. The small grants, supported in part with a $500 contribution from the Upworthy Kindness Fund, will go towards artists’ equipment, supplies, furnishings, and other start-up costs.

4: AFutureSuperhero And Friends’ “Hope For The Holidays”: Founder Yuri Williams is fundraising for a holiday trip to spread cheer to people in need across all fifty states.

Along with collaborator Rodney Smith Jr., Yuri will be handing out gifts to children, adults, and animals dressed as a Star Wars’ Stormtrooper, Spiderman, Deadpool, and other movie or comic book characters. Starting this month, the crew will be visiting children with disabilities or serious illnesses, bringing leashes and toys to animal shelters for people taking home a new pet, and spreading blessings to unhoused people—all while in superhero costume. This will be the third time Yuri and his nonprofit have taken this journey.

AFutureSuperhero started a GoFundMe in July to cover the cost of gifts as well as travel expenses like hotels and rental cars. To help the nonprofit reach its $15,000 goal, the Upworthy Kindness Fund contributed $500 towards this good cause.

Think you qualify for the fund? Tell us how you’re bringing kindness to your community. Grants will be awarded on a rolling basis from now through the end of 2021. For questions and more information, please check out our FAQ's and the Kindness Toolkit for resources on how to start your own kindness fundraiser.

Images from Denver Animal Shelter's Facebook page.

Imagine rummaging through secondhand finds in your local thrift store, only to find that some items include a bonus feline at no extra charge.

Montequlla the orange tabby had somehow not gotten the memo that he and his family were moving. As they dropped off furniture, including a big recliner chair, to the Denver Arc Thrift Store on New Year’s Eve, they had no idea that poor little Montequlla was tucked away inside.

Luckily, the staff began to notice the chair meowing.

Keep Reading Show less

Emily Vondy's mom fail.

Sometimes, we have to just laugh at our failures.

“Here’s a little story to allow all the moms of littles out there to maybe feel a little better about yourself,” Emily Vondy told her 1.3 million TikTok followers.

In a TikTok video that has now garnered more than 500,000 views, Vondy shared perhaps one of the most hilarious “mom fail” stories of all time: forgetting her son’s actual birthdate.
Keep Reading Show less