From the President’s Desk: David L. Nelson, PhD
December 2018

Deepti Gurdasani, MD, PhD, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (courtesy Dr. Gurdasani)

David L. Nelson, 2018 President

Approaching my final month as President of ASHG, I started reflecting on the past year, as well as the several years I’ve spent as part of the Society’s leadership and my more than 30 years as a member. Paralleling the field of human genetics, ASHG has evolved and grown tremendously – from about 1,000 members when I joined in the late 1980s to nearly 8,000 today.

Throughout that time, I have been fortunate to interact with geneticists from around the world who share my excitement for the science, to build collegial relationships that have enhanced my life and work, and to serve our community through several roles. I joined ASHG as a young faculty member, but many of my contemporaries joined as trainees and benefited greatly from that early experience and exposure. If you’re passionate about human genetics, you’ll benefit from being able to rub shoulders with people who share that passion – and the earlier you start, the better.

Serving the Community Enhances Your Career

My first leadership role in ASHG was as Secretary (2004-09), a position appointed by the Board of Directors. With Diana Bianchi, I served as co-Chair of the 2011 International Congress of Human Genetics Program Committee, a delightful position involving all the international human genetics societies. I very much enjoyed working as editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Human Genetics (2012-17) and especially as your President this year.

Not everyone gets to serve their scientific community the way I have – such positions are limited in number, and we are all increasingly pulled in many directions. There are, however, many opportunities to engage with the Society and volunteer your time for specific, short-term projects like judging DNA Day essays; as well as year-round roles on committees and advisory groups. Volunteering with ASHG gives you a chance to use your expertise to help colleagues, as well as gain knowledge of new areas and network with other members through service activities.

Mapping the Future of the Society and Field

Human genetics is in a phase of exciting, unprecedented growth, and with that comes some rethinking of who we are and what we do. As genetics continues to diffuse out into most aspects of medical practice, for example, every subspecialty will benefit, and there will be training needed to help medical providers make use of research findings in a timely, practical, and scalable way.

Similarly, human genetics research continues to grow and diversify, and subdiscipline-specific groups and meetings are popping up more often. A particular strength of our society, however, is to stay general: to identify and fulfill the needs we all share, with resources and programs that are useful across subdisciplines and career levels. Interaction across fields is an important source of collaboration, common approaches, and scientific inspiration, and facilitating that interaction is a role ASHG continues to play well.

With all this in mind, we are entering a period of strategic planning over the next several months, and we welcome your ideas and input. A member survey deployed earlier this year forms the basis for much of our planned discussion on how we can continue to provide value to you, our members, as well as to the wider genetic and scientific communities. We have expanded many member offerings in recent years, notably those for trainees and early-career geneticists, but there are certainly ways we can connect members more effectively, as well as promote diversity and inclusion.

In parallel, AJHG will be embarking on its own strategic planning process. Along with the ASHG Annual Meeting, the journal is a pillar of our Society and a key benefit of membership.

Recognizing Our Growing Impact on the World

As we have seen in the past few weeks, human genetics is increasingly in the public conversation, with growing potential to influence the lives and health of ordinary people. Our work as geneticists helps to explain that influence – and possibly even drive it through therapeutic approaches – and it is important for us to maintain compassion for patients throughout the research process as well as in considering the very real societal ramifications of our findings.

As our field’s influence grows, so does our responsibility for carrying out rigorous science that adheres to the highest ethical principles. ASHG will continue its efforts to represent members in the social, advocacy and political arenas, providing timely analyses of new developments such as germline genome editing, and responding to controversies where appropriate, such as the reported use of genome editing in babies and flawed attempts to link genetics with racial supremacy. Our remarkably talented, diverse and international membership allows ASHG to consider all aspects of these issues, from the technical to the political. I believe that we are the group that is best informed and positioned to lead scientific and public discussions of these complicated issues.

I look forward to assisting incoming President Les Biesecker and the Board of Directors through the next year as past-President, and to helping incorporate our members’ ever-creative suggestions for improvements to the Society. It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve you.