Brothers David (left) and Bernardo Sabatini, now both HHMI investigators, say they never felt
serious sibling rivalry – except maybe in the swimming pool.

Photograph courtesy of the Sabatini family

Science in Their Blood

When the Sabatini family gathers around the Thanksgiving table, the conversation inevitably turns to science.

When the Sabatini family gathers around the Thanksgiving table, the conversation inevitably turns to science. Brothers David and Bernardo, both M.D., Ph.D. scientists, are HHMI investigators. Their father, David Domingo Sabatini, chaired the Department of Cell Biology at New York University for 39 years.

“It leaves some people out of the conversation, even though most of our extended family are M.D.s,” says David.

“There can be lots of rolling of the eyes.” Bernardo adds, “It just kind of happens naturally.”

It was also natural that the brothers, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina, both became scientists. “We lived science as kids,” says David, older than Bernardo by less than 2 years. “Our dad is very gregarious and curious and loves to talk about ideas in general and about science and biology. Our mother, Zulema Sabatini, is also an M.D. and did some significant research early on, working with DNA.” And yet, neither pressured them, David says. “We were encouraged to do what we loved and to find things that were satisfying.” Although, he adds, there may have been some subtle steering. “At one point I wanted to be an architect, and I remember being told I would end up designing bathrooms for condos and subdivisions,” he laughs.

We joked that if neither of us got it—or both did—it would be great.

David Sabatini

Despite being close in age, the brothers say they never felt intense sibling rivalry. “There was some when we were a lot younger—a year apart in a very small school, both on the swim team,” says Bernardo.

“It was a very lopsided competition,” interjects David with a chuckle. “Bernardo was the type of kid who, everything he did, it went well. I was the type of kid who, everything I did, did not go well.”

But any envy had long evaporated by the time the two vied for HHMI investigator positions in 2008. Neither fretted too much, figuring that since their research differs it would be hard for the committee to pick one over the other. Bernardo is a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and David, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is looking at the mechanisms that regulate cell growth. He focuses on the mTOR pathway.

"We joked that if neither of us got it—or both did—it would be great,” David says. Just one Sabatini being chosen was not worth considering. “I was actually traveling in Israel without email access when the decisions came down. Bernardo called me to say that he had received it. I asked him to call my assistant; so he knew before I did that I too had been selected.”

The brothers haven’t yet published a paper together, but they are working on a couple of collaborations. “Right now, we’re both trying to convince the other to figure out what the mTOR pathway really does in neurons,” says Bernardo.

Adds David, “At some point, I would like to publish a paper with Bernardo. I think it would be fun.” David just coauthored a paper with his father, who helped with the electron microscopy work.

The brothers both recall an open-ended childhood that gave them the freedom to explore and experiment. “We’re of the generation that didn’t have the Internet; we didn’t have a lot of scheduled activities. In the summers, I remember being bored,” says David. “We had to find ways to entertain ourselves, and that often led to building things, blowing them up, stuff like that.”

Bernardo adds, “Nowadays, we’d probably get arrested—we did like large explosions.”

David says, “In retrospect, I think that kind of freedom is probably very good for kids—if you survive, that is.”

Scientist Profile

Harvard Medical School
Biophysics, Neuroscience
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
Cell Biology, Cancer Biology