Published: May 13, 2024

A distinguished professor emeritus of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, Wood helped transform CU Boulder into a nationally ranked hub of biomedical science, improved science education and appeared on the debut album of folk legend Joan Baez

William Barry Wood III, who loved science, music, poetry and education in equal parts, and was a distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at the University of Colorado Boulder, passed away on May 9 in Boulder. He was 86.

Bill Wood came to CU Boulder in 1978, leaving a professorship at Caltech to serve as MCDB department chair. He continued in this department as teacher, researcher and administrator until his retirement in 2008. “His clear-thinking mind and kind heart helped to make MCDB a nationally ranked department of modern biomedical science,” said Richard McIntosh, another chair of the CU Boulder department.

In 1972, following important discoveries early in his career, Wood at age 34 became one of the youngest researchers ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Later, Wood also emerged as a pioneer in the shifting field of science education. His innovations contributed important ideas and methods for improving the teaching of science at all levels.

William Wood

William Barry Wood III was a distinguished professor emeritus in the CU Boulder Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

Bill’s German-born wife, the late Renate H. Wood, became a distinguished Boulder poet, and their sons, Oliver and Christopher, have gained international musical recognition as The Wood Brothers. Wood himself was a masterful guitar player, songwriter and folk musician throughout his life.

In high school, he played in a group with John Hartford, who went on to an impressive career as a revered banjo musician. While still an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1950s, Bill teamed with Joan Baez on her historic first recording, “Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square.”

The young scientist earned his PhD in 1963 from Stanford University. As a graduate student there, working with Paul Berg in the Department of Biochemistry, Wood learned important skills for the study of macromolecules, such as nucleic acids and proteins. As a young professor at Caltech, he collaborated with Robert Edgar, a geneticist, to study the formation of a virus that infects bacterial cells, known as a “bacteriophage” (for bacteria eater).

Edgar had previously treated samples of T4 bacteriophages with radiation and chemicals that damaged their DNA, making mutations in many different genes. Most of these mutant phages could still infect bacteria, but those bacteria failed to assemble new infective phages as a result of the mutant gene.

Notably, when bacterial cells were simultaneously infected by two phages that were mutant in different genes, infective phages were produced. Thus, the different viral genomes could complement each other, with each providing a functional copy of the gene that was mutant in the other.

Wood invented a method by which one took two populations of bacteria, each infected with a different mutant phage, and broke up the cells in each population to make two samples of bacterial cell cytoplasm, filled with whatever each mutant phage could make. 

When these samples were mixed, the materials from one infected population could complement the materials from the other infected population, enabling infective phages to form outside of living bacterial cells. This process became known as “in vitro” (in glass) complementation, because the mutant phages complemented each other without a living cell to help. 

This innovation allowed Wood and others to learn by biochemistry and electron microscopy which parts of phage T4 were made by the products of each phage gene. With this information, they could put together a pathway for phage assembly from the protein products of the individual phage genes. 

In vitro complementation became an important tool in the hands of many scientists studying virus formation. This valuable contribution helped biologists in the 1960s and ‘70s to elucidate the formation of complex viruses and to significantly combat virus infections.

In the mid-1970s, Wood felt he had contributed what he could to the study of bacterial viruses. His experience combining genetics and biochemistry in the study of hard biological problems led him to seek a new project in an area more complex than the assembly of a virus. One such challenging subject at the time was the problem of how animals develop from a fertilized egg into their adult form.

A distinguished English scientist, Sydney Brenner, had recently introduced the study of a small round worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, into the field of developmental biology. This tiny animal, only 1 millimeter long, lives in rotting fruit. It can be fed on bacteria in the laboratory, and it grows to adulthood in just three days, making it easy, cheap and fast to study. 

Several young scientists had already gone to Brenner’s lab to learn how to study C. elegans and brought their projects back to labs in the United States. One of these scientists was David Hirsh, who was on the faculty at MCDB in Boulder, so Wood arranged to do a sabbatical in Hirsh’s lab. 

During that year, Wood worked with Hirsh and several of his students to make numerous mutant strains of worms. They identified several that inactivated genes important for the early stages in worm development. Particularly informative were their temperature-sensitive mutants, which developed well when grown at temperatures as low as 60o, but displayed interesting developmental defects when grown at elevated temperatures closer to 85o

These mutants identify genes whose products are needed for normal development. Therefore, they have subsequently been studied by numerous labs to elucidate key players and pathways in development.

Excited by his research experience in Boulder, Wood considered setting up a lab at Caltech to study worm development. But the CU Boulder MCDB department was seeking a chair who could lead the department in valuable new directions. Several enthusiastic members of the department flew to Pasadena, unannounced, and convinced Wood to move his work and his family to Colorado.

In Boulder, Wood quickly assembled an excellent lab of his own, and he also organized the hiring of superior scientists engaged in the same process of using genetic manipulation to study complex biological problems.

At the time, experts were debating whether the developmental fates of individual cells in early embryos are determined by internal factors that are packaged into those cells or determined by external cues from neighboring cells. Wood’s group found compelling evidence for both internal factors and external cues, a finding that has been borne out across organisms. 

Wood’s lab discovered a new type of organelle that is not bounded by a membrane. These organelles, called "P granules” in worms, are examples of internal factors that are delivered to particular cells in early embryos and are critical for the normal development of those cells. P granules are the founding members of an ever-growing list of liquid-like condensates that serve diverse roles across organisms. 

Finally, Wood himself studied how an organism develops its left-right axis, which in worms becomes apparent when embryos have only six cells. He documented that one-cell embryos already show signs of knowing their left side from their right. From then on, his Colorado license plate read WORMS1.

Singing with Joan Baez

The eldest of five children, Wood grew up in St. Louis, where his father, a renowned physician and medical researcher, taught at Washington University. In 1955, Dr. W. Barry Wood moved his family to Baltimore, when he became the head of the Johns Hopkins Medical School. The elder Wood had been an All-American quarterback at Harvard and a nationally ranked tennis player. Coming from an athletic family, Wood won the Maryland State Junior Tennis Championship at age 17 and played on Harvard’s varsity tennis team.

While an undergraduate chemistry major at Harvard, Wood also devoted time to music, playing his guitar in a group called The Raunch Hands and hosting a weekly program on the campus radio station. There he met singer Joan Baez, then in her first year of college. In 1959, Bill and Ted Alevizos teamed with the future folk legend to make a record now renowned as her debut album. The next year, Joan produced her first solo album, “Joan Baez,” while Bill opted for a career in science.

In an interview conducted at Stanford in 2015, Wood reflected on that early fork in the road. He recalled with a modest smile his parting with Joan Baez: “It was very clear which of us should go to grad school at Stanford and which of us should go to the Newport Folk Festival and become a star.” Pausing, he added: “I have to say, with all due respect to the scientists, that was the most fun I ever had, singing with Joan Baez.”

Wood’s parents were both educators, and throughout his career Wood was interested in finding ways to teach that would help students at all levels learn science efficiently and well. “When my kids started school in the 1970s, I got interested in what they were going to experience, and I was impressed by a book called 'How Children Fail' by John Holt," Wood said. "His message was that for kids to learn, they need to be doing things, not just listening to a teacher. That was my introduction to active learning.”

Textbooks were focused on memorizing pathways, names of enzymes and so on, and I wanted to try to put some life into it.”

Toward the end of his career, Wood turned his full attention to research on science education. In harmony with work spearheaded by Bruce Alberts from the National Academy of Sciences and by Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman in the Department of Physics at CU Boulder, Wood helped to develop a “questions” approach to teaching, suitable for any science pedagogy. 

To challenge and assist college-level science teachers, he worked with Dr. Jo Handelsman, who later became a science advisor for President Barak Obama. The pair started the National Institutes of Undergraduate Education in Biology. Now known as NIST, this thriving organization has had far-reaching effects, helping to train thousands of faculty, especially at R1 institutions, how to teach actively.

“Textbooks were focused on memorizing pathways, names of enzymes and so on, and I wanted to try to put some life into it,” Wood said. With “active learning,” lectures become participatory events, and students retain more than when they are simply spoken to. The amount of material presented is reduced, but the amount students retained is greater.

This approach has been adopted widely, and it follows the Chinese principle of instruction, stated as a motto in Wood’s first biochemistry book: “I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand.” In 2016, the Genetics Society of America gave Wood its Elizabeth W. Jones Award for Excellence in Education, calling him “a pioneer in the reform of science teaching.”

The Society cited Wood’s role in the development of the influential National Academies Summer Institutes for Undergraduate Education in Biology and his service as editor-in-chief of CBE-Life Sciences Education, published by the American Society for Cell Biology. “Bill is not only an excellent educator himself,” states Rachelle M. Spell of Emory University, “he helped start a revolution across STEM teaching.”

In 2018, Jenny Knight, an associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at CU Boulder, served as president of the Society for the Advancement of Biology Education (SABER). That year, SABER instituted the Bill Wood Graduate Student Talk Award, which was very dear to Wood’s heart. According to Knight, who knew Wood as her mentor and colleague, he had “a passion for supporting the next generation of researchers.”

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