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Bruce Weir, pioneer in statistical genetics and forensic science

Bruce Weir
Bruce Weir

His statistical methods are used around the world and across multiple disciplines to characterize the structure of natural populations, interpret matching DNA forensic profiles, and locate human disease genes.

Throughout Bruce Weir's remarkable 58-year career, he has established himself as one of the foremost statistical researchers in genomics and forensic science.

“It's been exciting being part of the genomics revolution and being able to develop and apply mathematical and statistical methods to fascinating data,” said Weir reflecting on his career.

Weir retired from the University of Washington in August, but leaves a lasting legacy through the many biostatisticians, forensic specialists, and data scientists he has mentored and trained along the way. 

“Bruce realized early on in his career that genetic data held the answers to many unanswered questions based in DNA,” said Bioinformatics researcher and Provost at Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute Rebecca Doerge who trained with Weir early in her career and considers him a significant influence.

“The theory and methods that he and his colleagues have developed over the past half a century have paved the way, not only for my own career but for multiple generations of scientists working across both the boundaries of disciplines and species. The impact of his work is boundless.”

Leadership and fostering innovation at UW

Weir arrived at UW in 2006 and served as chair of the Department of Biostatistics until 2014.  

Bruce Weir

Professor, UW Biostatistics
Director, Institute of Public Health Genetics
Director, Genetic Analysis Center

Proudest Achievements

  • Acclaimed Summer Institutes, four conferences offering training in statistical genetics, statistics and modeling in infectious diseases, statistics for clinical & epidemiological research, and statistics in Big Data
  • Leadership of the UW Institute of Public Health Genetics
  • Fostering junior faculty

He was instrumental in founding and growing a number of influential programs during his tenure, as well as recruiting new faculty who were the best and the brightest.

Weir considers one of his proudest achievements to be bringing the acclaimed Summer Institute in Statistical Genetics to UW and expanding it beyond genetics to include institutes in Statistics and Modeling in Infectious Diseases, Statistics for Clinical & Epidemiological Research, and Statistics in Big Data.

Over the years, the Summer Institutes have trained over 10,000 researchers worldwide. Weir believed that the department was a natural home for this kind of work.

“We are strongly immersed in the research at UW. We develop the theory, we see the problems in managing and interpreting data so we’re aware of the issues, and we publish papers and describe analyzing the data. We’re well-positioned to lead,” said Weir.

Bruce Weir teaching in lecture hall, Summer Institute of Statistical Genetics, UW
Weir co-teaching with colleague Jérôme Goudet at the 2019 Summer Institute in Statistics Genetics (SISG), an annual conference he founded at NC State, then later brought to the UW. Photo credit: Lori Tiede

“I’m really proud of the fact that the Institutes draw third generation students whose advisors came before them, and their advisor’s advisor came. We’ve seen this several times now.”

Mentoring junior statisticians

"The strength of the core faculty in the Biostatistics department is a considerable credit to Bruce," said Ken Rice, a professor of biostatistics and the UW Biostatistics Graduate Program Director.

"Bruce was always clear that we should hire the strongest minds, regardless of their length of training as we might have preferred," said Rice.  "Bruce would always foster and support those strong minds through their junior years, and beyond."

Even before arriving at UW, Weir mentored and provided support to rising statisticians.

"In the eighties when I first met Bruce, there were few people who believed in interdisciplinary statistical genetics research, and even fewer who believed a young woman in statistical genetics could or should succeed," said Doerge.

"Bruce believed in both the research and me when most people didn’t, and for that I am forever grateful.”

Group photo of Bruce Weir and colleagures at StatGen Symposium 2023
Weir with colleagues at the 2023 Statistical Genetics Symposium held in his honor in July 2023.  Left to right: Timothy Thornton, Rebecca Doerge, Weir, Matt Conomos, Ali Shojaie. Photo credit: Lori Tiede

Weir also directed the UW Institute of Public Health Genetics where he continued to mentor and guide researchers and scientists in the statistical genetics field.

Genotyping research and TOPMed

Sharon Browning, a UW research professor in biostatistics who has worked with Weir, credits him with a "think big" approach that created an exceptionally rich environment for research in statistical genetics at UW. 

Weir founded the UW Genetic Analysis Center (GAC), which has provided genetic analysis for a number of large NIH-funded genotyping endeavors.

He served as co-lead of the data coordinating center for the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine (TOPMed) program, the largest whole-genome sequencing project in the world which managed the genomic data of 150,000 participants from more than 80 studies.

Browning noted the significant influence of Weir's leadership on her own work.

"Bruce has deeply influenced my research direction. The GAC's role in the genetic analysis of the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos led me to become interested in the special analysis needs of data from individuals with admixed ancestry (ancestry from several distinct populations), and that led to my group's recent development of a new statistical tool for studying ancestry," said Browning.

Shaping how U.S. courts use DNA evidence

Weir has distinguished himself in the area of DNA forensics. While he may be best known by the general public for testifying at the O.J. Simpson murder trial in 1995, his impact on the field has been monumental.

He developed statistical tests of the frequency of genetic profiles that are now the standard for evaluating DNA evidence in forensic cases. He spearheaded reforms to the national guidelines on forensic DNA analyses, was instrumental in achieving acceptance of DNA evidence in courtrooms and co-authored the definitive textbook on statistical inference in forensics.

“His work in this area is fundamental and is greatly responsible for how the courts in the United States, as well as the rest of the world, treat the statistical issues concerning DNA evidence,” according to Weir's nominators when he was elected as Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

What's ahead for Weir and statistical genetics

Though Weir is retiring from UW, he is not slowing down.

He is moving back to New Zealand where he will continue collaborating on projects through adjunct appointments at Auckland, Massey and Otago universities, and with forensic scientists at the Institute for Environmental and Scientific Research, a New Zealand Crown Research Institute.

As to the future of statistical genetics, Weir expects big data and artificial intelligence (AI) methods will change the way we approach genetic data, and how we use the information to predict health status in humans and economic value in domesticated plants and animals.

"I hope for general understanding of the nature of human evolution and our shared ancestry,” said Weir.