Good Things Come in Threes

Congratulations to UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal, the recipient of the Academic Senate's highly competitive 2024 Distinguished Faculty Research Award. 

That makes three. Good things come in threes. 

Leal is the first UC Davis faculty member to win all three of the Academic Senate's most coveted awards: in research, teaching, and public service.  In 2020, the Academic Senate awarded him the Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and in 2022 Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award.

Leal, a member of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology since 2013 and former professor and chair of the Department of Entomology, commented: "Faculty at land-grant universities, like the University of California, have three hats labeled Teaching, Service, and Research. A significant challenge is to budget time to wear them equally and avoid the temptation to emphasize one part of the job over others. It is gratifying to be recognized by my peers as excelling in all areas. The Academic Senate Faculty Distinguished Research Award is particularly humbling because more than 3000 eligible faculty excel in all research areas on this campus. Why me? Because of my students, postdoctoral scholars, visiting scholars, collaborators, and colleagues. They deserve most of the credit for this honor. I accept it on their behalf. It is a team effort, like in a honey bee colony.”

“Dr. Leal is an internationally recognized entomologist and a world leader in his field for his groundbreaking and transformative research in insect olfaction and chemical ecology,” said nominator UC Davis distinguished professor Bruce Hammock of the Department of Entomology and Nematology. Hammock has known Leal for more than two decades.

"Walter is truly a renaissance man," wrote Hammock.  "He chaired our entomology department from 2006 to 2008, and under his tenure, our department was ranked No. 1 in the country. I've long admired (1) his rigorous fundamental research programs supported by National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture, and other agencies, (2) how he tackles and solves multiple challenging problems in insect olfaction and chemical ecology, (3) his grasp of how to organize and moderate highly successful worldwide research webinars (4) his generosity in helping other succeed and (4) his finely honed sense of humor."

“Walter has been exceptionally conscientious, active, and generous in professional service at UC Davis,” Hammock pointed out. “In August of 2021, he achieved a ‘first' for international science communication when he organized and led the extraordinary virtual conference ‘Insect Olfaction and Taste in 24 Hours Around the Globe.' I especially applaud him for elucidating the mode of action of the insect repellent DEET, developed in 1946 and known as ‘the gold standard of
repellents.' Its mode of action remained an enigma for six decades until Walter's discovery. Inresearching the neurons in mosquito antennae sensitive to DEET, he isolated the first DEET-sensitive odorant receptor, paving the way for the development of better repellents.”

Leal is a newly elected trustee of the Royal Entomological Society, the 13-member council that governs the 190-year-old international organization. He is the first UC Davis scientist to be elected a trustee. And he's chair of the Council of the International Congresses of Entomology, the body that ensures the continuity of the international congresses of entomology. He co-chaired the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, which drew 6,682 registrants from 102 countries to Orlando, Fla.

Among Leal's many honors:  Fellow of the Entomological Society of America (2009), American Association for the Advancement of Science (2005), and the National Academy of Inventors (2019).

A native of Brazil, Leal joined the UC Davis entomology faculty in 2000, after serving as the head of the Laboratory of Chemical Prospecting, National Institute of Sericultural and Entomological Science (NISES), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, Japan. In 2013, he accepted a position as professor of biochemistry, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. (See news story)

Frankly, we don't know how Leal does it all. He not only excels at research, teaching and public service, but he is widely known as "The UC Davis Ambassador," organizing campus-wide celebrations for faculty transitioning to emeriti.

As an aside, two UC Davis entomology faculty members scored two, but not three, of the Academic Senate's coveted awards. Bruce Hammock received the Distinguished Faculty Research Award in 2001, and the Distinguished Teaching Award (graduate student/professional category) in 2008. UC distinguished professor of entomology, James R. Carey, took home the Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award (undergraduate student category) in 2014 and the Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award in 2015.

Six other entomology faculty members have received Academic Senate awards:

  • UC Davis distinguished professor Jay Rosenheim, Distinguished Teaching Award (undergraduate student category) in 2011
  • UC Davis distinguished professor Lynn Kimsey (now emerita), Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award in 2016
  • UC Davis distinguished professor Frank Zalom, Distinguished Scholarly Public Service in 2017 
  • UC Davis professor and now department chair Joanna Chiu, Distinguished Teaching Award (graduate/professional category) in 2022
  • UC Davis distinguished professor Diane Ullman, Distinguished Teaching Award (undergraduate category) in 2022

And the latest to join the winner's circle: Professor Louie Yang won the Distinguished Teaching Award (undergraduate category), announced today. More on this amazing teacher and mentor is pending.