We are in a golden age of podcasts – almost everyone has their favorite podcast to listen to on their daily walks, long drives, or at the end of the workday to zone out or have a good laugh. It can also be said that we are in a golden age of science, where every day, gifted minds all over the world are putting out amazing new discoveries. The Big Biology podcast brilliantly combines the two. It seeks to tell the stories of scientists tackling some of the biggest unanswered questions in biology, and in a way that makes it accessible to anyone. The podcast, started in 2018 by Dr. Art Woods (’98 UW Zoology alum) and colleague Dr. Marty Martin, is a vehicle to share some of the fascinating news in biology to a wide audience.
Art is currently Professor and Program Director of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Montana. He studied biology during his undergraduate years at Stanford, which later led him to the Zoology (now Biology) PhD program at the University of Washington – but biology wasn’t always his path. He originally intended to study physics during his undergrad but took his first physics class and realized that it wasn’t for him. It wasn’t until he took biology classes with friends that he said it finally “clicked.”
While at Stanford, Art was fortunate enough to have an undergraduate advisor who got him into doing research on insects. He says that his experience with undergraduate research “made all the difference” and eventually set him on his path toward his current career as a professor and biologist. “I had a number of really close friends that also were really into biology research and they were doing their own projects and getting into labs. The culture was, ‘Don’t just hear about this stuff – go do it,’” said Art.
Art completed his senior honors thesis at Stanford and with the help of his undergraduate advisor, he started exploring the possibility of graduate school and identifying people and places that would be a good fit. He eventually joined Joel Kingsolver’s lab at the University of Washington, where his research focused on the ecology and physiology of Manduca sexta. Art looks back fondly at his time at the UW and says, “The grad culture at the UW is possibly the best I’ve ever seen. All of these ultra-interested and capable people rubbing elbows in very close proximity, and there’s a lot of energy to be derived from that. That showed up in a lot of ways – a lot of student participation in seminar talks…it felt like a really fertile environment for learning biology.”
Nowadays, besides his work at the University of Montana, Art is co-hosting the Big Biology podcast, which is currently on its third season. The modern wonders of the internet and Zoom allow for Art, who resides in Missoula, and co-host Marty, in Tampa, Florida, to interview their guests wherever they are in the world – and then the audio is edited by their producer, Ruth. They invite leading scientists in their field to discuss topics that they really love – ranging from functional, organismal biology to the examination of the modern synthesis of evolution.
Here are some of Art’s favorite Big Biology episodes:
- Ep 9: Information, Aliens, and the Origin of Life – What is life? How did life arise from non-life? What did life look like at its origin? Tune into this podcast to hear Art and Marty talk with Sara Walker, an expert in astrobiology and theoretical physics at Arizona State University. They discuss how life might have arisen on Earth and why biologists and physicists should work together to find a theory of life. Her ideas could help decide what to do about artificial intelligence (SPOILER: The robots will take over, but it’s going to be OK). They might also help us find life on other planets.
- Ep 33: Magic Puzzle Box – What is Maxwell's demon, and what is its role in biology? How do molecular demons underpin life? Does life really defy entropy? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and the Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science. His recent book, "The Demon in the Machine," tackles Schrodinger's big question "What is life?," arguing that information is the key that distinguishes living from non-living things.
- Ep 39: Bioelectric Computation – How do animals construct tissues, organs, and limbs in the right places during development? How do some animals manage to regenerate missing body parts? On this episode of Big Biology, we talk with Michael Levin, a biologist at Tufts University who studies how electric fields inside animals guide cells during development and regeneration. His work shows that electric fields play fundamental roles in structuring body plans and, in some species, can even be inherited across generations.
- Ep 49: The Vital Question: The Chemistry of Early Life – How did life originate on Earth? Why is it that eukaryotes but not bacteria or archaea evolved large size and complicated body forms? How likely is it that life has arisen independently elsewhere in the universe? On this episode, we talk with Nick Lane, a biochemist and professor at University College London, about his 2015 book The Vital Question. Nick argues that protolife arose in alkaline hydrothermal vents deep in the early Earth’s oceans. The key early event was the evolution of metabolism powered by proton gradients. In other words, metabolism came first, and all of the rest of traits we think of as universal to life -- DNA, RNA, proteins, transcription, and translation -- came later. He also invokes an energetic perspective on the origin of eukaryotes, arguing that the acquisition of mitochondria distributed energy production through the cell volume, provided vastly more energy per gene, and allowed the dramatic expansion of eukaryotic genomes that in turn support the astonishing diversity of eukaryotic forms we see today.
Visit the Big Biology podcast website for more information and how to listen.