People who study mollusks are malacologists. If you spend your life studying moss (and, yes, there are people who do), you’re a bryologist. Gelotologists study laughter, while condorologists study, you guessed it, condors. But what do you call someone who makes a study of people who study?
We call her Alie Ward, the preternaturally inquisitive, never boring host of Ologies. On every episode of her weekly podcast, the 44-year-old Eagle Rock resident interviews an expert laboring in a scientific field you have probably never heard of. The result: strangely transfixing shows about the ins and outs of, say, timepieces or sewer rats, alongside deep dives into the lives and geeky loves of some of the world’s most dedicated—albeit hyperfocused—scientists. “One of my favorite parts of doing the show is finding the experts,” says Ward. “Every time I connect with one, it feels like a crush texted me back. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, I got an email back from the rat guy.’ ”
Ward’s obsession with all things scientific began when she got a toy microscope for Christmas at the age of nine. “I’m the youngest of three girls, and I think my parents really rolled the dice hoping for a boy,” she says. She went on to study biology and film at San Francisco State. “I was really torn between wanting to be a scientist and wanting to do something creative,” she says.
After graduation, she moved to L.A., where she’s pursued various passions, working as an actress (Nash Bridges), illustrator (L.A. Weekly), food show host (Tripping Out with Alie & Georgia on the Cooking Channel), and science journalist on shows like the CW’s Did I Mention Invention? and CBS’s The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca. For the last show, she recently received her second Daytime Emmy, but it’s Ologies that’s gained her the most fervent of fans.
Ward first came up with the idea for the podcast in 2002, when she was searching the internet to see if there was a science of curiosity—“curiology,” maybe? As it turns out, curiology is actually the study of writing with pictures, but the quest led her to an online list of “ologies” posted on a Geocities website. “I was like, ‘Nephology is the study of clouds,’ ” she says. “ ‘Who gets to study clouds?!’ I thought it was fascinating. Because for every one of these ologies, there is at least one person who has dedicated their life to this. Who are they? Why do they love it? What do they know that we don’t?”
The podcast launched in 2017 and has since become wildly popular among scientists, doctoral candidates, and amateur science geeks, with more than 110,000 followers on Instagram. “The community of ‘ologites,’ as they call themselves, are so fucking cool,” Ward says. “And they’re the kind of smart that’s not like an elitist intellectual but just really curious about the world.” The show recently crossed the 50-million-downloads threshold, and is usually among the top three science podcasts on Apple.
“Why would someone want to listen to an hour and 15 minutes about snails?” she asks. “But, then, before you know it, they’re thinking, ‘Wow, it’s so weird that every snail I see in California is here because of the Gold Rush.’ Or, ‘Gosh, it’s so weird to think that all these slugs are hermaphroditic and that snails shoot love darts at each other.’ ”
Although Ward makes the gig look easy, it’s anything but. It’s a rare interviewer who can pull compelling stories out of scientists without the whole thing lapsing into jargon, let alone make a 90-minute exploration of “urban rodentology” sing. “One of the things that opens people up is asking them when they first got interested in something, and taking them in that wayback machine and connecting them to their passion,” she says.
Many guests are locals, like the Natural History Museum’s Jann Vendetti, the ologist devoted to snails and slugs, and Mindy Romero, a political sociologist at USC. Guests are also often women and scientists of color. “We have a lot of images of white guys in lab coats, and that’s not who scientists are,” she says. “It’s not who scientists can be. I think that’s part of my mission, too: to quietly disrupt the imagery of a scientist.”
After four years and more than 130 shows, Ward is nowhere near running out of ologies or ologists. She’s still hoping to do episodes on bats, pinnipeds (aka seals), skunks—and the singular scientists who study them.
“I love giving people a window into appreciating life on planet Earth,” she says, “in a way that just makes everyday life more interesting.”
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.