- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
So says noted chemical ecologist Walter Leal, newly selected recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching from the UC Davis Academic Senate.
The award recognizes outstanding teaching and dedication to student success. Leal will be honored with other Academic Senate and Academic Federation award recipients at a ceremony in the spring.
"When I started teaching chemistry in high school--while I was a sophomore in college--students were only one to two years older than me," said Leal, a distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology (now Department of Entomology and Nematology). "Now they are younger than my sons and daughter! My goal remains the same--not only to excite students about the content of my lectures, be it high school chemistry, insect physiology, or biochemistry, but also to trigger their curiosity.
"I don't teach because I have to; I teach because it is a joy to light the way and to spark the fire of knowledge," Leal said. "Teaching is, and out to be, the raison d'etre of a university professor. It is really an honor to receive the Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award. Many thanks to my peers, all students, and teaching assistants, particularly Fran Keller and Silvia Hilt who teamed up for insect physiology and biochemistry, respectively, for more than three years."
Nominator J. Clark Lagarias, distinguished professor of biochemistry in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology described Leal as an exemplary, innovative and highly respected teacher. “Walter excels in developing new courses, programs and teaching methods. He is a trendsetter whose passion, innovation, dedication and outstanding contributions to teaching inspire us all.”
Distinguished professor James R. Carey of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology--and the recipient of four teaching awards including the Academic Senate's top teaching award--praised Leal's innovative and dedicated teaching.
"I consider Professor Leal as an exceptional instructor," Carey wrote in the nomination packet. "His exceptionalism is derived from his dedication to student learning, his innovation in content delivery, his engagement with students (including his always-clever touches of humor), and his ability to both motivate them and incentivize their investment in studies. All of these efforts rest on the deep foundation of the disciplinary authority that he brings to the classroom as an eminent basic and applied biochemist, a stature that his students clearly recognize...Walter is a natural teacher who not only speaks with a voice of great authority in the classroom, but with the voice of a person who cares deeply about student learning."
Stanford graduate student Garrison Buss, who studied with Leal ("my research mentor at UC Davis"), said the professor "consistently encouraged active learning at a high level through a variety of modalies. Among these, the most novel and beneficial included having students solve equations by writing them out on an iPad and projecting what they wrote in real time—similar to having a portable overhead projector that any student in the lecture hall could use. This way, the whole class could see and provide feedback by critiquing the problem and solutions together with Dr. Leal. The lecture material itself was also innovative. Dr. Leal would show videos of real life experiments and interviews that he had made with prominent scientists who were subject matter experts in the topic that we were discussing."
"The lecture material itself was also innovative," Buss related. "Dr. Leal would show videos of real life experiments and interviews that he had made with prominent scientists who were subject matter experts in the topic that we were discussing. As an instructor, he challenged the way that I understood my academic performance and through his extra effort showed me that I could achieve much more than I had previously believed. As a mentor, he gave me opportunities and responsibilities that were out of reach for many of my fellow researchers."
A native of Brazil, Leal was educated in Brazil, Japan and the United States in the fields of chemical ecology, biochemistry, insect physiology and olfaction. He joined the UC Davis faculty in 2000, and chaired the Department of Entomology from 2006 to 2008.
The veteran teacher, a member of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology faculty since 2013, has taught insect physiology for 13 years and biochemistry for six years. In his classrooms, he employs the strategic use of digital technology, which has led to such unsolicited comments on the “Rate My Professors” website as “best professor at UC Davis.” His tools include Camtasia, PowerPoints, podcasts, e-reviews and Skype for ease of learning and knowledge retention. He generates animated e-reviews by recording a narrative summary of each of his lectures with Camtasia software. In place of a verbal narrative, his students watch videos--featuring animations and illustrations--to review major concepts.
The e-reviews can be time-consuming to produce but he considers them—and rightfully so—valuable for increased student engagement and comprehension. With Skype, Leal also brings noted guests into his classroom: researchers, textbook authors and colleagues who have made landmark discoveries in the field.
Known as a leader and inventor as well as a noted scientist and teacher, Leal co-chaired the 2016 International Congress of Entomology and also served as president of the International Society of Chemical Ecology. He is a fellow of the 7000-member Entomological Society of America, which selected him to deliver the Founders' Memorial Lecture at its recent meeting in St. Louis, Mo. His topic chronicled the life of Tom Eisner, the father of chemical ecology and a role model: “Tom Eisner: an Incorrigible Entomophile and Innovator Par Excellence.” Leal also is a newly selected fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, which honors and encourages academic inventions that benefit society.
Teaching, however is the raison d'etre.
"I don't teach because I have to; I teach because it is a joy to light the way and to spark the fire of knowledge."