Harvard biologists go ‘Gangnam Style’ for the holidays

The Harvard scientists of Pardis Sabeti’s laboratory reenacted the popular video for their card.
The Harvard scientists of Pardis Sabeti’s laboratory reenacted the popular video for their card.
Sabeti Laboratory

The tradition began back in 2008, when holiday cards began arriving from Pardis Sabeti’s friends; they were settling down, getting married, starting families, and sending the photographic evidence. She wasn’t married then, but Sabeti felt like she, too, was starting a family. “I felt like the proud mom of a growing, amazing new lab,” she wrote in an e-mail.

So the systems biology professor at Harvard University decided to send out a lab holiday card. That first year, she went to Kmart and bought holiday sweaters and other festive garb. She and her students and postdoctorals then took a photo to share with friends and colleagues.

In the years since, Sabeti’s laboratory has tackled big problems in biology and medicine, devising new kinds of statistical tools to analyze large datasets, and studying Lassa fever. As the lab has grown, so have its holiday card ambitions, with 2010 bringing scientists in lab coats floating underwater, and 2011 triggering a re-creation of the Italian Renaissance painting “The School of Athens .” This year, the lab strayed from classical inspiration to something a bit more contemporary: the Sabeti lab, Gangnam style. More than two dozen scientists are caught in mid-galloping horse dance, reenacting scenes from the popular video made by South Korean pop star Psy.

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Scientists tend to spend a lot of time at work, and individual labs often develop their own internal culture. Students, postdoctoral researchers, and their faculty leaders set a tone, keeping traditions and doing activities that help the group cohere outside of the usual lab meetings, experiments, and manuscript writing. This manifests in different ways: Maybe the scientists label the machines they use each day after their favorite cartoon pigs, have annual lab retreats far away from their incubators and microscopes, or play in an intense summer volleyball league.

Sabeti is sensitive to the fact that biomedical research is facing tight funding, and spending time on a holiday card might seem like a frivolity.

“The card is built on the energy and creativity of the students and not on big expenses,” Sabeti wrote. “While there is a funding crisis, there is also as importantly a crisis in morale in labs across the country and in the way people perceive science. I love this card because it shows the amazing esprit of a life in science, and I wish more labs would share the joy of science with the world.”