Shirley Wu, product science director at 23andMe, leads the team that creates genetic health risk reports for the personal genomics company. The Mountain View, Calif., company last month won Food and Drug Administration approval to sell its reports to US consumers willing to spit in a tube and mail a saliva sample to 23andMe labs to learn whether they’re at risk of developing conditions ranging from a blood-clotting disorder to Alzheimer’s. The reports cost $199, but 23andMe also sells $99 reports that provide only ancestry information. Wu, 34, who grew up in Princeton Junction, N.J., joined 23andMe in 2009 after graduating from Brown University and earning a PhD from Stanford University. She spoke with Globe reporter Robert Weisman during a recent visit to Boston.
1. When it comes to genetic health data, Wu is pro-choice. She believes the information extracted from the tests her team develops can help people. But she recognizes the sensitive nature of the reports, especially when it comes to screening for risks of neurodegenerative diseases. (She has taken 23andMe’s test herself but says her findings are private.)
“We offer consumers the choice every step of the way. We provide a lot of information prior to purchase and throughout the whole process of what these reports might and might not tell them and where they can get additional resources so they can make an informed decision. They can decide whether they want health reports at all [or just ancestry reports]. And then additionally, for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s they have to make another decision if they want to receive those specific reports. . . . We obviously believe this information can be very impactful and valuable to people, but we also believe it’s the consumers’ choice. We think they have a right to this information, but we respect their decision whether it’s right for them.”
2. Wu earned her PhD in biomedical informatics. When she learned some colleagues in her graduate program were the founding scientists at 23andMe, she eagerly joined them.
“What they were doing was very interesting. I wanted to do something that combined my interest in being connected to the science but also communicating science to other people. They were able to provide a role that combined those interests. Biomedical informatics is a very interdisciplinary field. It uses computational techniques such as computer science and statistics to study biological questions, applying the concepts of big data and engineering to some of the questions facing biology and medicine today. So it was totally up my alley.”
3. Growing up, Wu couldn’t decide what field she wanted to pursue because she gravitated to multiple interests, from nature and astronomy to marine biology and writing.
“I think I was interested in everything. I was especially interested in nature and biology in the world around me. I was always interested in being outside, interacting with the outside world. I would go to summer camp, where you would look at pond water under a microscope and see all the little things swimming inside. That was really fascinating to me.”
4. Wu plays many sports but has had one favorite since she was young.
“My best sport is ultimate Frisbee. I’ve been playing since I was 13 and have competed at the high school level, the college level, the club level. I’ve had the privilege of going to national- and international-level competitions. But I try to dabble in everything. So I’ve played in just about every 23andMe company sports team that there’s been — softball, tennis, soccer. And we have an ultimate Frisbee team now that I’m helping run called the Spitballers. It’s been a ton of fun. We play against Facebook teams, we play against Apple.”
5. In addition to her husband, software engineer Chris Doyle, and their 2-year-old daughter, Wu has a dog, two cats, five chickens, and a vegetable garden. (The names of three of the chickens are nods to rappers: Missy Omelette, Notorious EGG, and Tupac.)
“I really enjoy nature and being outside, and I try to find a way to make that a part of my everyday life at home.”Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.