Austin’s Spencer Wells is one of the most respected names in population genetics. In 2005, he launched the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, which uses DNA samples to map the history of human migration and is widely credited with kickstarting the consumer genomics industry. While the adjunct professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin isn’t an epidemiologist, pandemics and emerging diseases have played outsized roles in his research on population genetics.
The Lubbock-raised scientist enrolled at UT–Austin when he was just sixteen years old and earned his Ph.D. in biology at Harvard University. His 2002 book, The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, shows how genetic data can trace human migrations over the past fifty thousand years. Wells is also the creator of Insitome, a company that provides genetic tests and serves as a storytelling platform for ancestry stories. Outside of science, he’s a co-owner of the legendary Austin blues club Antone’s, which until Friday’s cancellation of South by Southwest was set to be an official festival venue.
On Monday morning, Wells called into the National Podcast of Texas from the Indonesian island of Java. Among our discussion points:
- Friday’s decision by the city of Austin to cancel SXSW
- The process of balancing public health against the economic impact of public health decisions
- What population genetics and DNA can teach us about our ability to adapt to emerging diseases
- Singapore’s use of contract tracing—the process of identifying people who may have come into contact with an infected person by tracking their movements—and privacy concerns about it
- Methods epidemiologists might have to temper the impact of COVID-19 even before a vaccine is ready
- What he’s seen on this Asian trip and the weird limbo he’s in, unsure when it’ll be safe for him to return to Austin