Thomas Bird, MD
Professor, Neurology and Medical Genetics
University of Washington, Seattle
ASHG: If you could go back to when you
were a trainee, what is one piece of advice you would give
yourself for your current career?
Dr. Bird: When choosing projects to pursue, select those that
you find really interesting and that match your particular
talents. I initially tried to force myself to become a bench
laboratory neurochemist and that did not really fit with my
major interests or expertise. I was much happier and more
productive doing clinical research. This required a great
many collaborations, which fortunately were readily
available in my home institution (University of Washington),
which was large enough to have a "critical mass" of
outstanding investigators in numerous fields overlapping
with my interests.
ASHG: What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
Dr. Bird: I am a clinical physician at heart, so I greatly
enjoy working with patients and families that have unusual
and potentially important neurogenetic diseases. I like
thinking about how these families may enlighten us about
some basic biologic question, then gathering and assembling
the data from these families and finding collaborators
willing to pursue the questions at a more basic level.
Interacting with the collaborators is part of the fun.
Now, late in my career, I especially enjoy
helping young investigators start new projects and get
publications and grant funding.
I enjoy writing papers but not grant
applications. I am frustrated by "bean counters" and
constantly filling out monthly, quarterly, and annual forms.
IRBs have become too focused on small details and long forms
and actually slow research. Dealing with security and
encryption issues is also annoying.
ASHG: What do you
think the future holds for the field of genetics?
Dr. Bird: The
field is wide open. Genetics is now viewed as critical to
every aspect of medicine and biomedical science. This is a
good time to be involved in medical genetics. Cataloging and
interpreting the immense volume of data will be difficult.
Translating the information into clinically usable
approaches will be complicated and time consuming. The
public is impatient and investigators should not promise too
much too soon. The nature vs. nurture problem is very much
alive in the public's mind, making many people skeptical and
suspicious of genetics. We constantly need to emphasize that
it is not one or the other, but that genetics and the
environment are both important and interact at many levels.
Nevertheless, the future is bright and exciting. I feel very
fortunate to have been a small part of the "genetic
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