Brian Shirts, MD, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. He has been a member of ASHG since 2004.
ASHG: Tell us about your position and how it fits into your institution and its goals.
Brian: I am Assistant Professor of Laboratory Medicine at the University of Washington. Being in a clinical department means part of my job is doing clinical genetic testing in patients. Since I am at a university, the other part of my job is teaching and doing research.
In order to have this position, I did medical school and doctoral training in human genetics. Then I did specialty training to be board certified in Clinical Pathology and Molecular Genetic Pathology. When I started graduate training, I did not know that the position I currently have existed. When I first met a physician who specialized in genetic diagnosis, I quickly realized, “That is what I wanted to do all along!”
Working at a university, I need to be on the cutting edge of clinical genetic diagnostics. I specialize in hereditary cancer testing and understanding the health effects of extremely rare genetic variants. When I say “extremely rare”, I mean genetic variants that I may see for the first time when I look at the results of a patient receiving clinical genetic testing, or a variant that may have only been seen in one or two other people in the world. In cancer risk genes, these variants are usually inherited and clustered in families, so I like to call them family-specific variants.
I am lucky because my research interests and my clinical work go well together. I spend over half of my time doing research and developing translational applications that will allow myself and others to apply my research discoveries to clinical diagnostics.
ASHG: How do you keep up with the latest in genetics science and use this in your work?
Dr. Shirts: I try to attend the ASHG Annual Meeting and the Association for Molecular Pathology meeting as often as I can, as I think these are the best forums for the latest in genetics science and genetic diagnostics, respectively. I also read several journals and go to journal club presentations as often as I can.
ASHG: What are your favorite genetics websites?
Dr. Shirts: I have to give a plug for my website on family studies for rare variant classification: findmyvariant.org. Some of my other favorite genetics websites for non-geneticists are: Genetics Home Reference, Learn.Genetics, my46, and Genetic Alliance.
ASHG: What are you currently reading/thinking about?
Dr. Shirts: I am always thinking about how to apply population genetics principles to clinical diagnostics. For something completely different, I like to read the best books that my kids are reading. I am currently reading “Mr. and Mrs. Bunny–Detectives Extraordinaire!” by Polly Horvath.
ASHG: What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your superpower?
Dr. Shirts: When I go to church, others tell me that I have an extraordinary talent for asking appropriate yet thought provoking questions during Sunday School. Being an outspoken scientist in a faith community can be difficult to navigate, but communicating with people from different backgrounds is a really important skill to develop.