A Special Day for UC Davis Distinguished Professor Walter Leal

A Special Day for UC Davis Distinguished Professor Walter Leal

Today (April 30) was a special day for entomologist Walter Soares Leal.

“I got two phone calls almost simultaneously on my two cell phones, so I thought this could not be a prank, but I am still in disbelief,” said Leal, a UC Davis distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and former professor and chair of the Department of Entomology (now Entomology and Nematology)

The caller: The National Academy of Sciences (NAS)

The message: You've been elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the highest honor a scientist can achieve. 

"Members are elected to the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research,” a spokesperson related. “Membership is a widely accepted mark of excellence in science and is considered one of the highest honors that a scientist can receive. Current NAS membership totals approximately 2,400 members and 500 international members, of which approximately 190 have received Nobel prizes."

“As they say, many deserving and few lucky ones," Leal commented. "Bruce Hammock told me many years ago that when he was elected to NAS, he looked around and saw many deserving colleagues. Now I understand that feeling very well. It is a tremendous and humbling honor. I hope an imposter syndrome does not kick in.”

Hammock, a UC Davis distinguished professor who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology, was elected a NAS member in 1999.

They are the only UC Davis entomologists who are NAS members.

Hammock, who has known Leal for more than two decades,  said that Leal richly deserves the award. “The instant that I saw Walter's resume (in 2000), I knew that we had to have him at UC Davis. However, when I read his letters of recommendation, I found that I had underestimated him:  Leal is the elevator bunny on high, he is a full-time teacher, a full-time scientist, and is engaged in multiple projects that make the university community a better place, all at the same time. He makes original and creative contributions to basic science while immediately applying it to the agriculture and human health-- then on the side he works to improve all aspects of university life.  That has been my experience with Walter who always has time to discuss his science as well as mine and leaves time to be a dear friend on the side.” 

Leal: World Leader in His Field
Leal, a native of Brazil and educated in Brazil, Japan and the United States, joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology in 2000. In 2013, he accepted a position with the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. "Walter is an internationally recognized entomologist and a world leader in his field for his groundbreaking and transformative research in insect olfaction and chemical ecology,” Hammock said. “He is truly a renaissance man. 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."

Leal solves entomological problems spanning agriculture, human health, and welfare. He translates pheromone technology to agriculturists and serves as a principal investigator for the  Pacific Southwest Regional Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases (affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).  He holds more than 20 patents. 

“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. In researching 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.”

May Berenbaum, professor and head, Department of Entomology, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, National Medical of Science Laureate, NAS member, and editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, earlier wrote that “Dr. Leal is indisputably a world leader in the field of insect chemical ecology whose work over the course of his long and distinguished career has transformed basic knowledge of insect olfactory mechanisms and inspired innovative practical applications for sustainable management of insects of importance in agriculture and human health. He has contributed significantly to the current understanding of the structure and function of every component of olfaction, including receptors, binding proteins, and degrading enzymes, revising classic paradigms along the way. No textbook and no course on insect chemical communication could be considered complete without  mentioning his landmark research achievements.”

'Just Like in a Honey Bee Colony'
Leal recently was named the 2024 recipient of the UC Davis Academic Senate's Distinguished Research Award, and will present a lecture on “Just Like in a Honey Bee Colony--It Takes a Team in the UC Davis Hive to Win an Award” at the Academic Senate's Faculty Distinguished Research Award Lecture Lunch on Tuesday, May 7 from noon to 1 p.m. in the UC Davis Conference Center. 

Leal is the first UC Davis faculty member to receive the Academic Senate's trifecta of awards:  outstanding teaching, public service, and research.  Leal received the Academic Senate's 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and the 2022 Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award. 

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). He was elected a trustee of the Royal Entomological Society in February 2024. 

Leal holds a Ph.D. in applied biochemistry from the University of Tsukuba, Japan, with subsequent postdoctoral training in entomology and chemical ecology at the National Institute of Sericultural and Entomological Science (NISES) and Cornell University, respectively. He was the first non-Japanese person to earn tenure at Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries.