When UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal delivered the Founders' Memorial Lecture at the recent Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting in St. Louis, Mo., he repeatedly asked that question as he honored the legendary Tom Eisner (1929-2011), known as “the father of chemical ecology” and “the world's best scientist.”
Speaking on “Tom Eisner: an Incorrigible Entomophile and Innovator Par Excellence,” Leal, a distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, chronicled Eisner's rejections, acceptances and accomplishments. His lecture drew smiles, laughter and tears and a live tweet from former ESA president May Berenbaum: “Brilliant Founders' Memorial Lecture by Walter Leal honoring the legendary Tom Eisner! Informative, inspiring, insightful – incredible!”
Leal, a chemical ecologist whose own exemplary career spans three decades and includes major discoveries and national and international honors, said he built his career on Eisner's work.
Tom, born to chemist Hans Eisner and artist Margarete Heil-Eisner, fled Nazi Germany in April 1933 with his family and lived in Spain and Uruguay before settling in the United States in 1947. Insects always fascinated him. At age 11, Tom's mother sketched him pinning insects, an inkling of what was to come. On his 12th birthday, his parents gave him a book on butterflies, his first insect book. He would become a world-renowned field biologist whose discoveries repeatedly landed on the covers of Science. He would receive the National Medical of Science (1994). His research on the defensive bombardier beetle spray and his nine books, including For Love of Insects and Secret Weapons: Defenses of Insects, Spiders, Scorpions and Many Other Legged Creatures, would drew international acclaim.
At age 17, Tom emerged as a budding scientist, accomplished pianist, and multilingual in German, French, Spanish, and English. He worked with bee biologist Charles Michener of the American Museum of Natural History, who encouraged him to study entomology. But when Tom applied to Cornell University, hoping to begin his undergraduate studies, he received a crushing rejection letter.
Leal showcased the letter on his PowerPoint presentation, paused for effect, and then quipped “OK, boomer!” as the audience roared.
Leal compared the rejection to what basketball legend Michael Jordan experienced in failing to gain a spot on his high school team. “Michael Jordan was the Tom Eisner of NBA,” Leal told the crowd.
Determined to succeed, Tom went on to attend community college, and obtain his bachelor's degree (1951) and his doctorate (1955) in biology from Harvard. In 1952, he married Maria Löbell, an accomplished scientist and pianist (they played duets on their Steinway pianos). They were wed 58 years. The marriage produced three daughters.
Ironically, 10 years after Cornell officials sent him the “Dear Tom” letter, they hired him as an assistant professor. He advanced to associate professor in 1962, full professor in 1966, and then the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Chemical Ecology in 1976. He retired in 2006 but worked many years past retirement. All the while, Eisner kept Cornell's rejection letter prominently displayed on his office wall.
Eisner was not only a renowned scientist and an accomplished classical pianist but a masterful photographer and videographer known for capturing the images of the explosive defensive discharge of the bombardier beetle.
Eisner and his close friend and collaborator Cornell chemical professor Jerry Meinwald (1927-2018), made music and science discoveries together. Photos show Eisner playing the piano, and Meinwald, the flute. And together, Leal related, “The Tom and Jerry of the Scientific World” co-authored more than 150 papers.
Laughter erupted when Leal pointed out that for many academicians, the student online commentary, “Rate My Professor” often turns out to be “Hate My Professor.”
But not for Tom Eisner. Typical of the unsolicited student comments: “This guy is a living legend. He has over 500 published papers, and has been the pioneer for the field of chemical ecology His story-telling is fantastic, and all of the stuff he talks about is just so interesting. One of my favorite professors that I have ever had, I stand in awe of his accomplishment as a researcher and a teacher.”
Where is Tom's entomology kit? Does anybody know?
Leal said that Eisner carried his burlap kit in the field for decades, performing insect research on four continents and producing important discoveries. It contained collecting jars, tweezers, toothpicks, dissecting tools and entomology books. Using the kit, he dissected insects, milked venom, and analyzed the results.
With suspense building, Leal finally revealed the whereabouts of the kit.
Who inherited the kit? A 14-year-old bug enthusiast named Katherine Angier, daughter of celebrated New York Times writer Natalie Angier. Eisner also gifted her with his first insect book.
Eisner, who met Katherine at age 5, marveled at her childhood fascination with insects, similar to his perpetual childlike wonder of insects. They kept in touch for a decade.
“She has now graduated from Princeton summa cum laude in biology,” Leal told the crowd, “and she's here in the audience.”
Tears flowed as Angier walked on stage shouldering Eisner's familiar burlap bag, lettered simply with “Tom Eisner.”
The renowned scientist and the inquisitive kindergartner connected. “We went to his house in Ithaca and we just wandered around a field looking for bugs together. And even my kindergartner brain knew it was something I would never forget.”
So for the next decade, young Katherine would write him letters “describing cool bugs that I would see and their behaviors and he was always so encouraging with his replies. He even sent me a dissecting scope that I could use to examine them.”
“Eventually I couldn't read his replies because his Parkinson's disease--it was getting worse. And when I was 14, he did send me this kit, which at first I was really happy about because it had all these really cool things in it, but then when he died (at age 81) shortly thereafter, I realized it was kind of a goodbye kit.”
During her senior year in college, “I started this senior thesis research on an ant plant mutualism in Panama and I decided it was time (to use the kit),” Angier said. “I felt like I was finally going to join the world of entomologists so I brought it with me and I thought it was kind of a good-luck charm.”
“So thank you, Tom, for being there with me and I just want to say that I hope he'd be proud that I (evolved) from a kid hardly able to pronounce the word entomology to now applying for a PhD.”
The thundering applause drowned out the rest of the comments.
The seminar culminated with Leal donating his $1000 honorarium to the ESA Chrysalis Fund, which supports and enhances insect education for kindergarten-12th grade students.
Accolades on the memorable lecture continue to stream in.
Cornell alumnus May Berenbaum, professor and chair of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois, and a close friend of Eisner's, recommends that all entomology students watch Leal's seminar. (See her biography on Eisner).
Doctoral candidate and ant specialist Brendon Boudinot of the UC Davis Department of Entomology agrees. “Honestly, I didn't know what to expect for Walter's talk. It was a really personal and emphatic portrait of Thomas Eisner. I've known Eisner's work even before I knew I was going to be an entomologist—in fact, upon reading his book For Love of Insects, I knew that entomology was a direction I should go. Walter's talk walked the audience through Eisner's early life and included numerous video clips of researchers relating their experiences and thoughts about him. The whole talk was engaging, but it is true: We, the audience, were in physical tears for the sadness of his loss. Because there is a recording, I can only recommend watching that. Again, I didn't know what to expect, but I was very glad I came. It was one of the most remarkable talks I have ever been to.”
Noted chemical ecologist Wendell Roelofs of Cornell University, who watched the seminar on YouTube, described the lecture as “so fantastic and compelling that I could not turn it off.”
Christina Grozinger, distinguished professor of entomology and director of the Center for Pollinator Research at Pennsylvania State University, commented: “This was a truly amazing and inspiring lecture, which gave a wonderfully holistic view of how Eisner's personal and professional experiences, love of insects, and intense curiosity lead to such remarkable achievements. The videos from diverse entomologists sharing their personal memories of Eisner eloquently captured his profound influence on the community and the field of chemical ecology."
Chemical ecologist Anne Jones of Pennsylvania State University said she particularly “enjoyed all the video clips of so many other important chemical ecologists (some of whom I've had the honor to meet) sharing their memories and stories about Dr. Eisner. It was very special to hear from and meet Katherine Angier as well.”
Jones added: “I grew up hearing about his and Jerry Meinwald's collaborations and discoveries (my dad is Tappey Jones) and read Dr. Eisner's book, For Love of Insects, when it was published…I know that my career path has very much been shaped by the research and inspiration by all of you who were so integral as pioneers in that field.”
One of the videos depicts an interview with honey bee geneticist Robert Page Jr., UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology and Arizona State University emeritus university provost.
Page recalled that as a graduate student at UC Davis, he remembered reading Eisner's papers in Science. “I was always waiting for the next great exciting discovery he would do with all the intricate clever stories.”
- Walter Leal's Founder's Memorial Lecture on YouTube
- Paths of Discovery, Lighted by a Bug Man's Insights, by Natalie Angier, New York Times
- May Berenbaum's Biography of Tom Eisner
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 one of 168 distinguished academic inventors who will be inducted April 10 at NAI's ninth annual meeting in Phoenix. The only other UC Davis recipient: Cristina Davis, the Warren and Leta Geidt Endowed Professor and Chair, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
“I am humbled by this honor,” said Leal, who was nominated by UC Davis chancellor emerita Linda Katehi, an NIA fellow inducted in 2012. “To express my sentiment I have to paraphrase my predecessor as president of the International Society of Chemical Ecology, late Professor Thomas Hartmann, who said in our meeting in Prague in 1996: ‘In academia, students, postdocs, and other associates do most of the work and professors received the honors.' I look forward to opportunities to support NAI's mission of promoting innovation and celebrating invention.”
Katehi, now of Texas A&M, where she is a distinguished TEES (Engineering Experiment Station) chair and professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, praised Leal's “novel, sustainable and continued contributions to the field of entomology and for their greater implications in molecular and cellular biology and the understanding of disease and prevention.” Leal holds 28 Japanese and two U.S. patents.
Leal is the second faculty member affiliated with the Department of Entomology to be selected an NIA fellow. Distinguished professor Bruce Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, received the honor in 2014. (See news story.)
Said Hammock: “When Walter Leal reached UC Davis, he came with the reputation of being a 'one man army in research.' This reputation was well deserved. I know of no one at UC Davis who matches Walter in taking his remarkable fundamental advances in science and translating them to increase the safety and magnitude of world food production.”
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. (See the Leal lab's work on DEET in Entomology Today.)
He and his collaborators, including Nobel Laureate Dr. 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.
Leal, a fellow of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), "has greatly advanced scientific understanding of insect olfaction," said Joe Rominiecki, communications manager, Entomological Society of America. "He has identified and synthesized several insect pheromones, and his collaborative efforts led to the first structure of an insect pheromone-binding protein."
'Tangible Impact on Quality of Life'
“The NAI Fellows Program highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society,” said NIA director Jayde Stewart. “Election to NAI Fellow is the highest professional distinction accorded solely to academic inventors. To date, NAI Fellows hold more than 41,500 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 11,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 36 million jobs. In addition, over $1.6 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.”
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 served as chair of 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.
Leal served as president of the International Society of Chemical Ecology and ESA's Integrative Physiological and Molecular Insect System Section. He co-founded the Asia Pacific Association of Chemical Ecologists and played a key role in founding the Latin American Association of Chemical Ecology.
Among his many other honors, Leal is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences; an honorary fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and an inductee of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences. He received a silver medal from the International Society of Chemical Ecology. Leal recently presented the Founders' Memorial Lecture at the ESA meeting in St. Louis, the first UC Davis scientist selected to do so.
“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.”
They are Frank Zalom, distinguished professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology and a past president of the Entomological Society of America (ESA); Walter Leal, distinguished professor, UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and a past chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology; and Joanna Chiu, associate professor and vice chair, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. More than 2000 attendees are registered.
On behalf of ESA, Zalom is co-organizing and co-chairing a joint conference with Antonio Panizzi, a past president and international delegate of the Entomological Society of Brazil. That event, to take place the day before the XXVII Congresso Brasileiro and X Congresso Latino-Americano meeting, will involve developing a “Grand Challenge Agenda for Entomology in South America.
Zalom will speak on “The American Experience with the Grand Challenge Agenda in Entomology.” In addition, ESA president Michael Parrella, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho and a former chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, will provide an update on the 2018 ESA annual meeting, set Nov. 11-14 in Vancouver, B. C. Speakers also will include the presidents of the entomological societies of Argentina, Peru and Brazil.
Leal, a native of Brazil, will present the opening lecture of the joint conference of the XXVII Brazilian Congress and X Latin American Congress of Entomology on “Insect Vectors: Science with Applications in Agriculture and Medicine,” on Sunday, Sept. 2. This will be his fourth opening lecture—a record—at the Brazilian Congresses of Entomology (2004 in Gramado; 2008 in Uberlandia; and 2014 in Goiania).
Both Zalom, an integrated pest management specialist, and Chiu, who specializes in molecular genetics of animal behavior, will speak on their research at the joint meeting. Zalom will deliver a plenary address on “Drosophila suzukii in the United States” on Sept. 5 and Chiu will keynote a symposium on Sept. 3; her lecture is titled “Circadian Clock Research Applied to Agriculture and Public Health.” She also will give a second lecture: "Drosophila as an Insect Model" on Sept. 3.
This was the inaugural meeting of the Grand Challenges in Entomology Initiative. ESA is committed to thinking and acting more globally, enhancing its influence by establishing a science policy program, identifying attainable challenges for entomology that could lead to sustainable solutions for some of the world's important insect-based problems, and more effectively communicating what entomologists do to improve the human condition. At the invitation-only Summit, the participants explored “three broad issues of major global importance to which entomology can make a unique and powerful contribution”:
- Sustainable agriculture – global hunger, food security, and natural resources preservation
- Public health related to vector-borne diseases
- Invasive insect species – global trade, biodiversity, and climate change
ESA president May Berenbaum, professor and department head, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Zalom welcomed the crowd.
Zalom co-chaired the Summit with
- Silvia Dorn, professor of applied entomology, ETH Zurich; past president of the Swiss Society of Phytomedicine; and fellow of the ESA, Royal Entomological Society, and International Society of Horticultural Sciences.
- Le Kang, director of the Institute of Zoology and president of Beijing Institutes of Life Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences; current president of the Entomological Society of China; and fellow of ESA and TWAS (formerly Third World Academy of Sciences)
- Antônio R. Panizzi, senior scientist, Embrapa and professor, Federal University at Curitiba; and former president of the Entomological Society of Brazil
- John Pickett, Michael Elliott Distinguished Research Fellow at Rothamsted Research; immediate past president of the Royal Entomological Society; and fellow of ESA and Royal Entomological Society
Introductory comments on behalf of the co-chairs emphasized that “leadership meetings such as this one provide an opportunity for connectivity among the world's entomology societies."
This was the very first International Entomology Leadership Summit at an ICE meeting. It was aimed at connecting leaders from the entomological community worldwide and discussing how entomologists "can make unique and powerful contributions toward solving some of the world's insect-based problems, a goal that can be achieved only through collaborative, international efforts," officials said. The last ICE meeting held in the United States (Washngton, D.C.) took place 40 years ago.
Chemical ecologist Walter Leal, distinguished professor in the UC Davis Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, co-chaired ICE 2016 with Alvin Simmons, research entomologist with the United States Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS), U.S. Vegetable Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.
Leal said that 6,682 delegates from 102 countries attended the historical ICE 2016 meeting in Orlando. “Alvin and I were very glad to hear about the level of satisfaction: 87 percent,” Leal said, adding that "we worked very hard to prepare for the Congress and promised it would be a historic event: mission accomplished!”
The distinction recognizes outstanding Senate faculty who have achieved the highest level of scholarship. "These are scholars whose work has been internationally recognized and whose teaching performance is excellent," according to the website.
Leal, former professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, serves as a mentor in the campuswide Research Scholars Program in Insect Biology (RSPIB), launched in 2011 and administered by UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology faculty members professor Jay Rosenheim, associate professor Louie Yang and assistant professor Joanna Chiu.
RSPIB aims to provide academically strong and highly motivated undergraduates with a multi-year research experience that cultivates skills that will prepare them for a career in biological research. The annual deadline for undergraduates to apply is April 10.
Leal joins five other current or former faculty members of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology with the “distinguished professor” title: nematologists Howard Ferris and Harry Kaya and entomologists Bruce Hammock, Frank Zalom, Thomas Scott (now emeritus) and James R. Carey. Most are affiliated with RSPIB: Leal, insect physiology; Hammock, insect biochemistry; Zalom, integrated pest management, and Carey, insect demography.
Leal serves as co-chair the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) meeting, to take place Sept. 25-30, 2016 in Orlando, Fla.