UC Davis Chemical Ecologist Walter Leal wins major award

Chemical Ecologist Walter Leal, professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, is the 2008 winner of a major award from the Entomological Society of America (ESA): the Recognition Award in Insect Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology.

Leal, former chair of the Department of Entomology, received the honor for his innovative and creative research involving insect communication. His lab recently discovered the mode of action for the mosquito repellent, DEET.

Leal was honored on Nov. 16 at the ESA meeting in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, Reno. He was one of seven professionals receiving distinguished awards. The other categories were Extension, entomology, horticultural entomology, teaching, the certification program, and early career innovation.

“When I first heard of my selection via e-mail, I thought it was a hoax,” Leal said. “Recipients of this award are members of the National Academy of Science and world-class insect physiologists. Later, when I got a phone call from ESA, I started to believe.”

Leal praised the work of current and past members of his lab “who made this award possible” and his colleagues who nominated him and wrote letters of recommendations. Bruce Hammock, professor of entomology at UC Davis, spearheaded the nomination. He received the coveted award in 1998 and was the first UC Davis faculty member to receive the award since its inception in 1997.

“Walter has shown great creativity in designing new approaches to problems in insect olfaction,” wrote Yale University professor John Carlson. “His extensive expertise in chemistry has allowed him to undertake analyses that others in the field would not have imagined or would not have been able to execute.”

William S. Bowers, chemical ecologist and retired professor, University of Arizona, wrote: “Professor Leal’s discoveries have profoundly impacted agriculture, the environment, and human health. His mating of chemistry and biology has positioned him as one of the real leaders in the development of environmental protective, biorational methods for pest and disease control.”

Colleague Ring Cardé, chair of the Department of Entomology at UC Riverside, lauded Leal as “one of the leading scientists worldwide studying the chemistry of pheromone communication in insects and related arthropods.”

A pioneer in the field of insect olfaction, Leal is best known for his research on the mode of action of odorant – binding proteins and odorant-degrading enzymes on the identification and synthesis of insect sex pheromones and on insect chemical communication.

The Leal lab unveiled DEET’s mode of action on Aug. 18. Contrary to previous hypotheses, DEET doesn’t jam the senses or mask the smell of the host; mosquitoes smell the repellent directly and avoid it.

Praised for being a dynamic teacher at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, Leal incorporates film clips on biochemistry and insect behavior in sophisticated multi-media lectures. He gives mid-term and final exams orally to expand the intellectual experience of his students.

Internationally recognized, Leal received the 2007 Silverstein-Simeone Award from the International Society of Chemical Ecology (ISCE). He is a past president of ISCE and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

His native country of Brazil awarded him with its Medal of the Entomological Society of Brazil in 1995 and with its Medal of Science (equivalent of ESA fellow) in August of this year.

The Japanese Society of Applied Entomology and Zoology awarded him its highest honor, Gakkaisho.

Under his tenure as chair, the UC Davis Department of Entomology was ranked last November as the No. 1 department in the country by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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