Walter Leal Selected to Give ESA Founders' Memorial Award Lecture

Breaking news and a well-deserved honor:

Insect chemical ecologist Walter Leal, a distinguished professor at the University of California Davis, has just been selected to deliver the Founders' Memorial Award Lecture at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting, to be held Nov. 17-20 in St. Louis, Mo.

Leal, a distinguished professor in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and a former chair of the Department of Entomology (now the Department of Entomology and Nematology), is known as a exemplary scientist, teacher and leader. He will discuss the work of insect chemical ecologist Thomas Eisner (1929-2011), widely known as "the father of chemical ecology."

Leal will present his talk, titled "Tom Eisner--An Incorrigible Entomophile and Innovator Par Excellence," at the Entomology 2019 awards breakfast, which begins at 7:30 on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

“I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to honor Tom Eisner--one of the founding fathers of chemical ecology,” Leal told us today. “And, consequently, Tom's main collaborator, the late Professor Jerry Meinwald--my role model, mentor and friend of three decades.”

Leal investigates the molecular basis of olfaction in insects and insect chemical communication. (See the Leal lab's work on DEET in Entomology Today.) He researches environmentally friendly alternatives to control insects of medical importance, and also targets agricultural pests.

Leal is the first UC Davis scientist selected to present the Founders' Memorial Lecture, although medical entomologist Shirley Luckhart of the University of Idaho, formerly of UC Davis, delivered the lecture in 2018. In her lecture, "He Gave to Man Control Over That Dreadful Scourge, Yellow Fever," she honored Walter Reed (1851-1902), the U.S. Army physician who in 1901 led a team of researchers that linked the spread of yellow fever to mosquitoes.

ESA established the Founders' Memorial Award  in 1958 to honor the memory of scientists who made outstanding contributions to entomology.

Thomas is known for his discoveries on chemical defenses used by insects against predators. “Notable among them was deciphering how the bombardier beetle defends itself with an internal exothermic chemical reaction, explosively sprayed at attackers,” according to a press release by Joe Rominiecki, ESA communications manager. “That discovery topped a lengthy list of revelations about the complex and often surprising biochemicals insects produce, from the bitter, predator-deterring taste of the cochineal scale's brilliant red pigment to the sticky foot secretions that allow the palmetto beetle to cling so tightly to leaf surfaces. “

Leal, whose career spans three decades, built his career on Eisner's work. Leal "has greatly advanced scientific understanding of insect olfaction," Rominiecki said.  "He has identified and synthesized several insect pheromones, and his collaborative efforts led to the first structure of an insect pheromone-binding protein." Leal's studies of olfaction in both agricultural pests and mosquitoes have also led to important management applications in the field. "His identification of the sex pheromone system in navel orangeworm (Amyelois transitella), for instance, has been deployed in agricultural fields via mating disruption, significantly reducing the need for pesticide sprays. And in 2018 Leal identified the sex pheromone of the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri) a vector of citrus greening disease and a major threat to the citrus industry worldwide."

A native of Brazil and educated in Brazil and Japan, Leal received his master's degree and doctorate in Japan: his master's degree at Mie University in 1987, and his doctorate in applied biochemistry at Tsukuba University in 1990. Leal then conducted research for 10 years at Japan's National Institute of Sericultural and Entomological Science and the Japan Science and Technology Agency before joining the faculty of the UC Davis Department of Entomology in 2000.

Leal co-chaired the 2016 International Congress of Entomology (ICE), themed "Entomology Without Borders." The event, held in Orlando, Fla,. drew the largest delegation of scientists and experts in the history of the discipline. That would be 6682 attendees from 102 countries. 

Among his many honors, Leal is a fellow of three organizations--ESA, the American Association for the Advancement of Science,  and the California Academy of Sciences--and an honorary fellow of the Royal Entomological Society.  He received a silver medal from the International Society of Chemical Ecology. Another honor: he was inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

“Walter is an amazing person and an amazing scientist,” said Fred Gould,  distinguished professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University. “His work has opened new doors to the understanding of how insects receive and perceive odors and has saved farmers in California and Brazil more than $100 million. He's at a point where he could sit back and bask in the glory of his accomplishments, but that is not Walter. He remains as prolific as ever.”

"Walter's lecture promises to be outstanding," said colleague James R. Carey, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology and a fellow of ESA who received the organization's national distinguished teaching award. "He is known as one of the exceptional, truly elite, instructors at UC Davis and beyond."  Carey praised Leal's  "innovation in content delivery, engagement with his audience, his ability to inspire and motivate them, and his always-clever touches of humor."

ESA, founded in 1889, is the world's largest organization serving the professional and scientific needs of entomologists and people in related disciplines. Its members, now more than 7000, are affiliated with educational institutions, health agencies, private industry, and government. Headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland, the Society stands ready as a non-partisan scientific and educational resource for all insect-related topics.

The ESA meeting in St. Louis is expected to bring together approximately 3,000 insect scientists to share their latest research and communicate the global science of entomology, Rominiecki said.