Researcher in the spotlight: Greg Webster, MD, MPH
At What Age Did You Become Interested in Science?
I started studying electrophysiology (the way the body uses electricity) at age 19. Dr. Robert Maue, Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Dartmouth College, took a chance on me as an undergraduate student. He told me to study a channel in cells that passes electrically charged sodium atoms. Many years later, I am still studying these same issues, now in people, families and populations.
What Appealed to You Most About It?
The body uses electricity to do its fastest and most important work. The electrical system of the heart was developed long before creatures crawled out of the salty muck and on to the land. The fact that it still goes wrong and doctors can help families address these problems is one of the most interesting and exciting parts of medicine.
Are There Particular Patients or Patient Families Who Left a Lasting Impression on You?
There are many. Kate and Jim Murray, Chicagoland residents who support this work, are good examples. They have been pursuing answers to their family’s cardiac rhythm condition for over a decade. We still don’t know everything about risk in their family, but as we learn more layers of information, they continue to ask “What’s next?” for all at-risk families. The relentless focus on improvement keeps all of us pointed toward our goals.
When You Look Ahead, What Do You See as the Biggest Changes in Your Field?
In the last 20 years, we have discovered amazing instances where single genetic mutations cause well-defined diseases. More of these will be found. However, we are pivoting toward an era where complex interactions between many genes and the environment is going to have more weight than just one genetic change. We will soon be able to use genetics as part of complex risk analysis. Up until now, we focused on clear genetic abnormalities – the fly that doesn’t belong in the soup. We are only now developing the tools to define everyone’s complex genetic “soup” and determine how to guide clinical decisions on the basis of that information.
If I wasn’t a physician-scientist, I would be a physician. Or a scientist. I don’t mind ditching the hyphen, but I wouldn’t want to leave this job.