Dr. William “Leo” Smith is an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Associate Curator of the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. He received his B.S. in Biology from the University of California, San Diego and his M.S. in Biology from Villanova University. Afterwards, Leo attended Columbia University where he earned a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Leo was awarded a Learner-Gray Postdoctoral Fellowship to conduct research at the American Museum of Natural History. He also worked at the Field Museum in Chicago for about five years before joining the faculty at the University of Kansas. Leo is here with us today to talk about his research and tell us all about his experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:19)
When he’s not working, Leo spends much of his time hanging out with his family. They like to get outside as much as possible to enjoy the natural world through hiking, photography, geocaching, and playing Pokémon Go together.
The Scientific Side (4:05)
Leo collects fishes from all over the world and studies them in the lab. He is interested in understanding the evolution and diversity of fishes across space and time. The development of bioluminescence (the ability to produce and emit light) and also venom are two traits of fishes that he has been investigating.
A Dose of Motivation (5:29)
You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference.” -Steve Jobs
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:49)
During his early childhood in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Leo spent a lot of his free time playing soccer. When his doctors said he could no longer play soccer competitively, Leo remembers going to a pet store with his dad to pick up some fish. Leo’s dad had always kept saltwater fish, and Leo’s interest in them grew over time. In high school, Leo worked at a few pet stores and eventually opened an aquarium maintenance company. He happened to choose the University of California San Diego for college, and it is one of the only colleges that owns and operates its own aquarium. Leo volunteered at the aquarium there and decided that this might be a good job for him to pursue long-term. However, the other staff members suspected that his true interests weren’t in daily fish maintenance, and they nudged Leo into the collections where he met an influential and inspirational scientist who got him excited about research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:28)
Right when Leo was offered a job at the Field Museum, he was awarded two different National Science Foundation grants working with different collaborators. The grants were both investigating aspects of how all fishes were related to each other. There was some overlap in the grants, and he was the only one who was included on both proposals. This complicated things because both sides were concerned he would share confidential information with the other side, and Leo was worried people were thinking about this too. As a result, communications were somewhat limited, and this made it hard for Leo to work on either of the projects. Through this tricky situation, Leo learned the importance of trusting and being open with colleagues.
A Shining Success! (24:46)
Leo has been fascinated with bioluminescence in fishes since he was in graduate school, and he has been working since 2004 to determine how many times bioluminescence evolved in fishes. This question has been challenging to address without knowing much about how different groups of fishes are related to each other. With recent advances in our understanding of the tree of life of how fishes are related, it is now possible to address many exciting questions in the field. Last year, Leo and his colleagues finally solved the number of times bioluminescence evolved in fishes, and the publication of this paper coincided with Leo being awarded tenure at the University of Kansas.
Book Recommendations (31:33)
Man of the House: The Life and Political Memoirs of Speaker Tip O’Neill by Tip O-Neill
Most Treasured Travel (33:54)
As part of his work, Leo collects samples of fishes on deep sea fishing expeditions. On these trips, he is on a boat with his team in the Pacific Ocean far from any coasts. Leo often volunteers to take the night shift, and it is an amazing experience to be awake at 3:00 am in the middle the ocean feeling completely disconnected from the rest of the world. The only lights you can see are coming from the boat, the stars, and the moon. On one trip off the coast of California, they pulled up a net full of mud and heard the unmistakable sound of metal hitting the deck of the boat. They had stumbled upon a cache of discarded WWII bullets and parts of old torpedoes!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:14)
Leo is a creative person, particularly with visual media, and he enjoys sneaking inside jokes into projects, papers, and presentations. He and his colleagues published a book together, and Leo had the honor of designing the cover. They planned to incorporate an image of DNA in the cover design, and it just so happens that one of Leo’s best friends and co-authors on this book has a name that only includes the first letters of base pairs of DNA. They were delighted when they were able to bury his name within the DNA sequence on the book cover. Leo also has fun making videos within his lab and creating movie trailers for field work they’ve done. Engaging in these creative activities is a nice departure from the typical lab work they do every day.
Advice For Us All (41:52)
Life is only going to get more complicated, so you shouldn’t keep putting off major events in your life. Within an academic science career, there is a lot of flexibility that you can leverage to stimulate your creativity and manage the other parts of your life. Also, scientists generally don’t make a lot of exciting discoveries staring at computer screens. It helps to go outside and see the natural world. Engaging with the world and feeding your curiosity can improve your science. Don’t lose sight of the reason you fell in love with your research.
Leo is an evolutionary biologist interested in the phylogenetics of fishes and systematic theory. His research focuses on the large-scale phenomena that have shaped the history and diversification of fishes at various scales and in both geographic space and geologic time. Leo and his colleagues use a combination of phylogenetic trees, field collections, and focused anatomical, morphometric, and genomic analyses to understand the evolution and diversification of freshwater or marine fishes. Currently, research in Leo’s lab is examining the higher-level relationships of spiny-rayed fishes, the interplay of diversification and character evolution, the biogeography of Madagascar and Gondwana, the evolution of venom and venom genomes, as well as bioluminescence, biofluorescence, and character evolution in the deep-sea.