Alexander Wilson, a statistical geneticist with poetic sensibilities, retires with a guitar in hand
teoP the Alchemist
“A poem about writing poetry and doing science, both are about making observations and reporting them. It's just that one uses adverbs and the other doesn't.”
- Alexander F. Wilson
like ancient elixirs,
with quicksilvered grace
"fox fire phrases in darkness,
bring unfound light to life."
bottled essence of emotion,
(lead or gold?)
tempest of creation
the philosophers' stone.
- Alexander F. Wilson
Alexander Wilson, Ph.D., appears over video chat on a brisk October afternoon, with a grandiose smile and a book-laden backdrop in his home office. Wearing a headset microphone, Dr. Wilson seems ready to discuss his decades of dedicated work in the field of genomics. But his booming laugh, joyous candor, deep self-awareness and generosity are truly striking.
Dr. Wilson officially retired from The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) in September 2020, yet he remains on as a scientist emeritus in its Computational and Statistical Genomics Branch, where he was co-chief for 14 years.
Animation displaying a line from one of Dr. Alexander Wilson's poems: "Fox fire phrases in darkness, bring unfound light to life." Credit: Ernesto Del Aguila III, NHGRI.
About Dr. Wilson
In his remarkable career, Dr. Wilson has celebrated the nature of patterns in all forms, whether in science or his own life. He is the first to say that he came across genomics through happenstance, after taking the time to figure out all the things he didn’t enjoy doing. It is an endearingly honest way to frame a lifetime spent expanding our knowledge of human diseases and disorders. The patterns of fate have followed him through a successful career in a challenging field, having led him to both the love of his life and his scientific haven.
Over 40 years, Dr. Wilson has expanded our understanding of various human diseases, including idiopathic scoliosis, a relatively common disorder that involves a lateral curvature of the spine of greater than 10 degrees, as well as craniosynostosis, a premature fusion of sutures in the skull.
Dr. Wilson also developed statistical methods that help identify critical genetic predictors for specific traits.
He started his foray into genomics when the term didn't even exist. After getting his B.A. in biology in 1975 from Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), Dr. Wilson received his Ph.D. in medical genetics with a biomathematics minor in 1980 from Indiana University.
In true polymath fashion, when he's not formulating mathematical formulae, Dr. Wilson practices other patterns, playing with the rhythms of language in poetry or matching measures in music.
Over the course of an hour across computer screens, Dr. Wilson talked to Dr. Prabarna Ganguly from the NHGRI Communications and Public Liaison Branch. He shared memories, some of which, according to him, aren't fit to print. His life’s story is peppered with gratitude for a well-lived adventure and a hope that the brightness in people isn’t flickered out by the difficulties of modern life.
He shares his journey from being a graduate student to joining NHGRI, finding what can only be compared to Walt Disney’s “Mathmagic Land” in genomics, and sprinkles some contemplations for the future of genomics.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Prabarna Ganguly: Why did you decide to pursue genomics, and what fascinated you about the field's statistical aspects?
Alexander Wilson: Back then the term genomics didn't even exist! It was all genetics. I had a topsy-turvy path in college. I was a pre-med for about a minute, took a lot of English courses but ultimately switched to biology. In a way, I ended up studying genetics almost by accident, by finding out lots of things I was not particularly eager to do [laughs].
I'm a terrible hypochondriac, so medicine was out of the question. Lab work wasn't my forte. But I liked the mathematical aspect of genetics, and that's how it all started.
Ganguly: You met your wife, Dr. Joan Bailey-Wilson, also co-chief of the Computational and Statistical Genomics Branch at NHGRI, in college?
Wilson: Yes, at the beginning of our senior year at Western Maryland. Dr. Jean Kerschner was both Joan and my honors project advisor. Dr. Kirschner was the one who told me that another student named Joan was applying to graduate schools in genetics and that I really ought to get in touch with her and compare notes. And she told Joan the same thing. One thing led to another, and we started dating, and the rest is history.
Ganguly: Over the course of your career, what are some of your most treasured accomplishments?
Wilson: Whole-genome screens are a way to identify which DNA differences, or markers, in the genome are linked to certain traits. But back in the day, these screens only had 39 markers. And we used to map one trait to one marker at a time. For example, if you wanted to know which genetic variations were associated with, let's say, congenital cataracts, you'd analyze it against one marker, then you'd analyze it against the next marker. As you can imagine, the process was thoroughly tedious and very time-consuming! But we did map things, my very first paper mapped a form of congenital cataracts to a region on chromosome 1.
My biggest accomplishments are probably related to methods development in genomics. I worked on developing a method that could look at multiple genomic markers simultaneously for a human trait and on methods to reduce identifying false positives. One of these methods, tiled regression, automated a way to add or remove genetic variables that help accurately predict certain traits or diseases. Probably the most original thing, and yet slightly esoteric work I've done, is formulating the equivalent of stepwise regression for genetic analysis for quantitative traits, a method called stepwise oligogenic analysis.
Ganguly: Do you remember any entertaining, fun moments during your time at NHGRI?
Wilson: Yes, but none that I can allow to be shared [laughs]. Let's say some of the NHGRI retreats were a good time, especially the talent shows.
Ganguly: Now that you have a little time on your hands, do you envision taking up any hobbies?
Wilson: I was a passable guitarist years ago. And I have always wanted to learn to play the cello, so I bought one and am trying out some classical music. It is a much more complicated instrument than it looks! I’m currently learning Al Petteway’s “Seven Swans” on guitar and “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Unger on the cello, but I’m just a few measures in for each.
Plus, I used to write poetry. In fact, I had a couple published in the NIH Catalyst in 1998. My best day at NIH was when Harold Varmus, the 14th NIH director, asked people to submit their poetry before Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky came on campus to give a lecture. A few of us did, and even though I think I missed the deadline, two of mine got featured, and all of us who contributed got to meet Pinsky! I know I'd like to say that my best day at NIH was something scientific, but no, that was it.
Ganguly: The 2020 NHGRI Strategic Vision laid out some bold predictions for genomics. What do you hope will come to fruition in the next decade?
Wilson: I hope that the field advances enough so that sequencing becomes routine. I hope we can start to try and tease out, in a practical way, genomic variants that are instrumental in causing common complex diseases such as heart diseases, etc., against the background of all the other variations in the genome.
Ganguly: Any parting advice to young professionals entering academia, especially in genomics?
Wilson: Having gone through two major economic downturns in the country during my career, I think the most important thing to remember is that life is topsy-turvy. There will be ups and downs but stick it out. You will come out on the other side, and you will be ok. There are so many talented young people getting discouraged because of a lack of jobs. Still, please remember that things will get better. So, don't give up.
Last updated: December 8, 2020