Professors discuss research, fellowship
This October, UC Davis professors Dr. Walter Leal and Dr. Lynne Isbell were both honored as the newest fellows of the California Academy of Sciences for their contributions to the natural sciences.
The California Academy of Sciences, located in San Francisco, is one of the world’s largest natural history museums with over 26 million specimens. It has evolved into a main source of public science education with original research contributions.
Every year the Academy’s Board of Trustees chooses a maximum of 15 distinguished scientists for their work in the natural sciences. The chosen scientists then become fellows for life, with goals to extend the Academy’s positive impact on research, public engagement and education through collaborative work with the researchers and staff.
Leal, a College of Biological Sciences professor, is looking forward to the outreach services that he will take part in. As a well-renowned scientist, he is fully aware of the divide between the scientific community and the general public, and has set his sights on closing that gap.
“There’s a mentality in the Academy of Sciences that asks, so what?” Leal said. “In other words, how is our research going to benefit the public? It’s very important because people aren’t here in the lab, so we have to tell them how the university and Academy works and how they can help us to make them better.”
Leal is currently studying mosquitoes to find a strategy that is more advanced than sprays and repellants to keep these pests away from humans, since they can lead to the spread of diseases like the West Nile virus. His team is working to figure out which compounds attract mosquitoes in order to trap the insects and use them for studies. According to Leal, the long-term goal is to make a repellant that is non-toxic to animals and can safely manipulate the mosquitoes enough to control their population and contain the diseases they carry.
Among Leal’s team is Peter Choo, a postdoctoral researcher from South Korea who focuses on molecular biology. Choo looks at what olfactory receptors respond to which compounds for the traps. He has worked with Leal for four years and said he was not surprised when he heard of his supervisor’s latest honor.
“[Leal] is highly recognized in the U.S. and overseas as one of the top entomologists in the world,” Choo said. “He gives me chances to learn totally different things, like bumblebee venom, which is completely unrelated to olfactory systems. He wants me to learn a lot of things before I go back to Korea next year, which is really good for me and my career.”
The second UC Davis professor elected as a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences is Dr. Lynne Isbell, a professor in the Department of Anthropology. Julie Linden, a former graduate student of Isbell’s and current doctor in the department of anthropology at UC Davis, credited her teaching success to the guest lecture opportunities that Isbell gave her .
“[Isbell] is a wonderful adviser and absolutely deserves her nomination,” Linden said. “She has contributed so much to a wide range of related disciplines. She is not only a leading researcher in the field of primate socioecology, but also an all-around great person who honestly cares about her students.”
Isbell studies ecological bases for the diversity of social organizations seen in primates. Her latest project is in Kenya, where her team studied leopard-primate interactions using GPS collars and has recently sent the data back to Davis to be analyzed.
“What we want to find out is how often leopards and primates interact,” Isbell said. “Can we tell from the movements of the monkeys if they detected the leopard or not? [M]onkeys give alarm calls when they see one, so what does that alarm call do? Does it affect the leopard’s movements? It’s basic stuff that we still don’t know.”
Using the data that her team collected, Isbell has similar goals to Leal — both are looking to apply their findings to humans. Isbell hopes to discover ways in which the results can answer questions about how our ancestors dealt with their own predators, and how the gradual evolution of our bodies helped or hindered that ability.
In her 2011 book The Fruit, the Tree and the Serpent: Why We See So Well, Isbell suggests a new theory for the origin of primates and argues that humans’ superior vision is a result of the predation pressure from snakes. Through her research she found that venomous snakes only arrived in the New World after monkeys were there and had started speciating, thus making each new species adapt to the predation in slightly different ways. Those adaptations, Isbell said, explain the variation in neuronal wiring seen in New World monkeys, as opposed to the lack of variation in Old World monkeys, and was a critical aspect in human evolution.
Dr. Isbell’s book, which won the 2014 W.W. Howell’s Prize given by the Biological Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association, garnered attention from many different fields and has lent itself to further research regarding the link between snakes, primates and the evolution of humans. She is currently working with an international team of neuroscientists to explore how sensitive the human visual system is to snakes alongside her research on leopard-primate interactions. Both of these projects are reasons for her recognition as a lifelong fellow of the Academy.
“One of the jobs of the fellow is to work closely with the Academy’s museum duties and functions,” Isbell said. “We serve as experts for people who want to know more about certain topics and give guest lectures.”
Sharing experiment details have not always been on scientists’ radars in the past. Many researchers used to believe that scientific jargon was too complicated for the general public and did not translate them into the vernacular.
“People outside don’t really know what we’re doing but it’s not their fault; it’s our fault that we didn’t explain,” Leal said. “I like to communicate with the public and I believe that since we use taxpayers’ money, we have to show the receipt.”
Although she does agree with Leal’s perspective, Isbell does not believe that the vocabulary difference is as prevalent in her area of research. As an anthropologist, her research focuses more on behavior and social activity of primates, which she considers to be more straightforward than understanding what is happening at a molecular level inside animal bodies.
However, she said she is aware that her definition of “straightforward” could be biased through her years of extensive research and is open to clarifying any technical terms her audiences are confused by. Both she and Leal agree that sharing scientific knowledge with the public is important as everyone deserves to have a say in what happens in the society, especially when it is their money that is funding the experiments.
“When I came to Davis, we were not very good in the [communication] department, but it became much better,” Leal said. “There’s still room to improve, but we translate to people in journals why this research is important now. Not all research can immediately be translated into something useful, but it lays the foundation for other things to build up. We need relationships with the public sector to transfer the information so it can be used.”