A Scientist Whose Music Gives Comfort
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Over the past few years, my blog has highlighted a wide range of Creative Minds from across biomedical research. But creative minds come in many forms, and, for a change of pace, I’d like to kick back this August and highlight some talented scientists who are also doing amazing things in the arts, from abstract painting to salsa dancing to rock’n’roll.
My first post introduces you to Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and one of Time Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year for her work to contain the last major Ebola outbreak in West Africa. When she’s not in the lab studying viruses, Sabeti is the hard-driving voice of the indie rock band Thousand Days that has been rocking Boston for more than a decade.
In addition to Sabeti as lead singer, Thousand Days showcases the talents of Bob Katsiaficas on guitar, Matt Hayden on drums, and David Rand, a bass player who’s also a professor of management and cognitive science at MIT. Thousand Days has released a few albums and is unique among rock bands for weaving in aspects of Sabeti’s research and the human stories involved in containing deadly viral outbreaks. I featured the band’s song “One Truth” on this blog a few years ago for its inspiring message about the Ebola outbreak. I even had the chance to join the band and the MIT Logarhythms for a performance of that song as the finale to a lecture I gave at MIT in 2014.
The song in the video that accompanies this blog, “With You,” is a powerful ballad that delves into territory that most artists might shy away from: people with cancer. Sabeti wrote the music for “With You” three years ago from a hospital bed following a near-death plunge over a cliff as a passenger on an all-terrain vehicle. The accident caused life-threatening injuries, shattering her pelvis and both of her knees. As Sabeti underwent extensive surgeries that placed 36 stainless steel rods in her body to repair her bones, she spent four months in a bed or wheelchair before beginning the long process of learning to walk again. She had a lot of time to ponder her mortality and all the wonderful people in her life.
One was her uncle by marriage, Michael Vylonis. He was in the hospital in Florida with advanced metastatic prostate cancer. As the two talked over the phone from their hospital beds, Sabeti played her 70-year-old uncle, a gifted singer and guitarist, the instrumental portion of the song that would later become, “With You.” When her uncle died, Sabeti was still too frail to attend his funeral. So, as a tribute to him, she decided to go ahead and pen some lyrics that reflected his love of nature–lyrics that Sabeti’s sister read at the funeral.
Not long after writing the song, Sabeti found out that one of her closest friends, Janet Sollod, had advanced metastatic breast cancer. Sabeti asked Sollod to come appear in the video for “With You.” Sollod, a pediatrician who’d battled her cancer for over a decade, jumped at the offer. For Sabeti, the video became a deeply personal celebration of her friend’s wonderful life. When Sollod died, Sabeti dedicated the song not only to Uncle Mike, but “all those who we have lost from cancer.”
Since releasing the video last year, Sabeti has continued to rebound from her injuries. She’s back at work in the lab studying viruses and looking for better ways to prevent or treat the infections they cause. But her music is always there, too. She calls it “a gift” that’s helped her through a lot of hard work and hard times.
With extensive and ongoing physical therapy, Sabeti is now thriving. While her bandmates are now busy parenting, the trio still gets together to play. They’re performing less often, but, Sabeti says, they may well get back at it again.
In the meantime, she continues to write and record music. Most recently, she put out an album called “Small Joys” with a number of scientist/colleagues in West Africa. The album features the song “With You.”
Thousand Days (Broadjam.com)
Video: Days Go By (Pardis Sabeti and Thousand Days)
Video: Neda (Pardis Sabeti and Thousand Days)
Sabeti Lab (Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute