On July 1, Geoffrey Baird, MD, PhD, became chair of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology.
A longtime UW Medicine employee and laboratory medicine expert, Baird’s accomplishments are wide ranging — and he doesn’t intend on stopping any time soon.
Learn about Baird’s work, his path to laboratory medicine and what he’s planning next.
A self-proclaimed chemistry nerd from the start
For Baird, pathology is the family business. His father was a pathologist who specialized in hematopathology, the study of diseases in our blood and cells, so Baird grew up discussing medical research at the dinner table. (He once told his teacher during show and tell that his dad killed rats for a living — leaving out key details about cancer research and clinical trials.)
Despite this family background in pathology, Baird took a circuitous route to laboratory medicine.
He started studying chemistry in college but soon realized he wanted to not only conduct research but also apply it. He went on to study biochemistry, molecular biology and medicine, as well as work for the University of Washington in a research lab, in clinical programs and as director of educational programs.
In laboratory medicine, he found a home.
“In my specialty — lab medicine — we are the ones testing your glucose, enzymes and stuff like that,” Baird says. “Laboratory Medicine is where you get to apply chemistry.”
A leader in the COVID-19 response
While scientists in laboratory medicine often work behind the scenes, Baird and the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology Virology Division’s heroic efforts were brought center stage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UW Virology team had been keeping an eye on the coronavirus back in late 2019, so when the first case in the U.S. occurred in Seattle, they were ready to lead the nation’s response.
“I remember asking Alex Greninger, one of our virologists, back then, ‘Is this the bad one?’ and he said ‘Yes,’” Baird says. “It was unlike anything I ever imagined I’d be doing or had done.”
As one of only two labs with an approved COVID-19 test in Washington state at the start of the pandemic, Baird and his team went into high gear. In the first week of March 2020, the Virology Lab tested between 500 and 600 samples a day. Meanwhile, Baird was making calls to device manufacturers to make sure the lab had the necessary materials to continue conducting testing.
In the months since, the lab has completed more than 2.5 million COVID-19 tests, including those from King County and around Washington state.
“We started very manually and overtime moved to a more automated, efficient process,” Baird says. “In the beginning, it was, ‘How the hell do we do anything?’ and then rapidly things moved to, ‘How do we do it the best?’”
Over a year after the first known infection was found in Seattle, Baird characterizes the team’s approach as a defensive crouch. The team is deploying mobile testing vans to make testing more accessible and recently put in a bid to conduct the entirety of local K-12 testing.
All the while, Baird is keeping an eye on changes in the pandemic, like the delta variant, and working to maintain adequate resources and personnel to match the ever-fluctuating demand for COVID-19 tests.
“As the city is dismantling their COVID-19 testing sites, the state is really relying on us,” Baird says. “We want to make sure there is a safety net if it’s needed.”
A secret musician
A lesser-known fact about Baird? When he’s not leading the field of lab medicine, he enjoys making music. Here too he excels, playing a range of instruments from guitar and piano to violin and most brass instruments.
“One of the things I’ve been doing since COVID is playing a lot of music to stay sane,” he says.
One such piece was a song he wrote and sang for Advancement purposes about the benefits of laboratory medicine. (Yes, a video exists. No, we’re not able to share it.)
An advocate for lab medicine
At his core, Baird is a proponent of lab medicine with a deep-seated belief that the field can continue to bolster public health.
“We’re at an obvious turning point in our profession with the eyes of the world on lab testing this last year in a way they never have been before. It’s turned out what we do is really important for society right now, but I maintain it’s really important for society all the time,” Baird says.
In his new role, Baird has big plans to help the department continue to be a resource for our region. Along with conducting COVID-19 and other tests, he hopes to deepen the department’s sense of community, expand services and become the trusted resource for laboratory medicine questions.
“We’re one of the biggest programs in the country,” he says. “The goal is to be the biggest and most dominant program in the upper left corner of the U.S. We want to become the department of choice, where people can go to find the answers.”