THE BLOG

Our Precious Resource: Immigrants

06/25/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Jun 25, 2016

When Pardis Sabeti rollerblades to her lab at Harvard on a warm spring day, she may come up with a discovery that saves lives before she puts on her skates to go home that night. It's happened before and at the rate she's going, it's likely to happen again. The 39-year-old Iranian immigrant -- who settled in Florida with her family at the age of two -- already has a distinguished resume as a researcher and disease-fighter.

She's a scientist of the moment, who was a member of the team fighting Ebola in Africa only last year: as a group, Time magazine singled them out as its Person of the Year in 2013. Last year, Time followed up by including her on its list of the "100 Most Influential People." The media flocks to her. She has been profiled by Smithsonian and NOVA. She has won six and seven-figure grants for her work from the National Institutes of Health, Gates Foundation, Packard Foundation and most recently the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the most prestigious in science.

Her genetic research led to a fundamental discovery about how to identify and analyze the most recent genetic mutations governing immunity to disease -- offering tools now commonly used by researchers around the world. She described for PBS the exhilaration of that eureka moment: "It's the thrill of discovery. It's a wonderful, wonderful scavenger hunt, when you get to the end."

After doing her undergraduate work at M.I.T., she continued to Oxford, on a Rhodes scholarship, which wound up being a three-year sojourn for a Ph.D. She returned to America and connected with the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans as she started her studies at Harvard Medical School. The program selects 30 applicants who are immigrants or the children of immigrants for up to $90,000 to cover education costs and expenses over two years. Around 1,000 candidates apply. Only 30 are selected.

"I wanted to be able to have enough money to do what I needed to do."

That's precisely what she got. As a result, she could stay up all night chasing the truth rather than rest up for another day job. So she was still poring over data at 3 a.m., trying to find a way to determine the newest genetic mutations indispensable for human survival. It wasn't exactly a matter of picking a needle from a haystack, but rather knowing how to decipher the meaning of the haystack's shape around the needle: how to read the configuration of the genome for its significance. She realized a particular mutation was a recent one when, in all of her samples of DNA taken from individuals in a population, it was surrounded by the same genetic structure, from sample to sample. Nothing else around it had had the time to mutate randomly in its vicinity, as it would have around an older mutation. She was the first to realize how to locate the new kids on the genetic block. It was her eureka moment. Identifying what was significant in the genetic structure of people who were resistant to highly infectious viruses. She began with work on malaria, then Lassa fever, which led to work on another hemorrhagic disease, Ebola.

Essentially, if her work ever saves lives in an epidemic -- and it undoubtedly already has -- she believes the survivors will have, in part, the Soros Fellowship to thank.

My lab and I develop statistics that allow the genome to pinpoint the important mutations that occurred in human history. This led us to Lassa fever. Lassa is on the list of emerging diseases, but we found a signal that seemed to say it's an ancient force. (We're investigating whether) so-called emerging diseases like Ebola and Lassa fever... are not new diseases but just new detections of diseases that have been here for millennia.

The upshot of her research over the past decade is that she can see a way toward preventing outbreaks by being able to identify precisely where a particular virus is lurking -- regardless of current symptoms. She recently proposed a program to do that with the Africa Center of Excellence in Genomics and Infectious Diseases. "If these viruses are circulating... we can put in... an early warning system for the next outbreak. We are a small group and it took years to get funding, but we now have it."

And what made it all possible was her arrival in America as a child, and the welcoming help of others who nurtured her along the way, including the Soros Fellowship. Her life demonstrates how immigrants can be one of our most valuable resources, and, in this case, a resource we can share with the world.

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.