- Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey
Leal, a leading global scientist and inventor in the field of insect olfaction and communication and known for his impact in the fields of molecular, cellular biology and enotmology, received his medal at a June ceremony in Phoenix.
NIA selected him an NAI Fellow in 2019. However, the COVID pandemic cancelled the 2019 ceremony in Phoenix. Then in 2020, travel restrictions interfered with his plans to attend the Tampa, Fla., ceremony. Elected Fellows are required to attend the induction ceremony within two years of election in order to receive their award.
Leal attended the ceremony with his wife, Beatriz; daughter Helena; and son Gabriel. Both have co-authored papers in the Leal lab, "so they represent all visiting scholars, collaborators, postdocs, project scientists, graduate students, and undergraduate students in my lab," he commented. (See video of the awarding of the medals)
NAI singles out outstanding inventors for their “highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.” Election to NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. The NAI Fellow program has 1,403 Fellows worldwide representing more than 250 prestigious universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes.
Leal is the second faculty member affiliated with the Department of Entomology and Nematology to be selected an NAI fellow. Distinguished professor Bruce Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, received the honor in 2014.
Leal, an expert in insect communication investigates how insects detect odors, connect and communicate within their species; and detect host and non-host plant matter. His research, spanning three decades, targets insects that carry mosquito-borne diseases as well as agricultural pests that damage and destroy crops. He and his lab drew international attention with their discovery of the mode of action of DEET, the gold standard of insect repellents.
He and his collaborators, including Nobel Laureate Kurth Wuthrich (Chemistry 2002), unravel how pheromones are carried by pheromone-binding proteins, precisely delivered to odorant receptors, and finally activated by pheromone-degrading enzymes.
That led to Leal's identification of the sex pheromones of the navel orangeworm (Amyelois transitella), a pest of almonds, figs, pomegranates and walnuts, the major hosts. This has led to practical applications of pest management techniques in the fields.
At the time of his election to NAI Fellow, Joe Rominiecki, communications manager of Entomological Society of America (ESA), said Leal has “greatly advanced scientific understanding of insect olfaction. He has identified and synthesized several insect pheromones, and his collaborative efforts led to the first structure of an insect pheromone-binding protein."
ICE Council. Leal was recently elected chair of the International Congress of Entomology Council, which selects a country to host the congress every four years and which supports the continuity of the international congresses of entomology. Leal succeeds prominent entomologist May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, editor-in-chief of the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and a 2014 recipient of the National Medal of Science.
“I have big shoes to fill,” he said.
Leal's name is currently on the ESA ballot to become an Honorary Member, the highest ESA honor. The Royal Entomological Society named him an Honorary Fellow in 2015.
A native of Brazil, educated in Brazil and Japan, and fluent in Portuguese, Japanese and English, 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. He chaired the department from July 2006 to February 2008.
Leal co-chaired the 2016 International Congress of Entomology meeting, "Entomology Without Borders," in Orlando, Fla., that drew the largest delegation of scientists and experts in the history of the discipline: 6682 attendees from 102 countries.
Among his many other honors, Leal is a Fellow of ESA, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and the California Academy of Sciences. He is a past president of the International Society of Chemical Ecology and corresponding member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. In 2019, ESA selected him to present its annual Founders' Memorial Lecture, the first UC Davis scientist selected to do so.
This year Leal received the UC Davis Academic Senate's Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award for his series of four global webinars educating the public about COVID-19. The online symposiums drew more than 6000 viewers from 35 countries. Hammock, who nominated Leal for the award, praised his “extraordinary spirit of public service and selflessness in creating, organizing, and moderating a series of four COVID-19 symposiums at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He spearheaded public awareness, helped educate the public, eased concerns, and translated the scientific data into lay language. His symposiums drew global attention and brought prestige to UC Davis. It was a crucial time in our history.”
In addition to research and public service, teaching is another of Leal's passions. The UC Davis Academic Senate selected him for its 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and the College of Biological Sciences singled him out for its 2022 Faculty Teaching Award.
"I don't teach because I have to," Leal recently said. "I teach because it is a joy to light the way and to spark the fire of knowledge."