John Hildebrand Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

May 9, 2007

John G. Hildebrand, the University of Arizona neurobiologist known for his seminal work on the neurobiology and development of insect olfactory systems and their effects on insect behavior, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences on May 1, 2007.

Election to membership in the academy is considered one of the highest honors a U.S. scientist or engineer can achieve.

Hildebrand's work integrates several fields of biology, including anatomy, physiology, behavior, developmental biology, biochemistry and neurobiology.

"I was thrilled to hear that John has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences," said Leslie Tolbert, UA's vice president of research, graduate studies and economic development and a UA Regents' Professor of neurobiology.

"He is a world leader in chemosensory neuroscience and neuroethology and richly deserves this honor. John's exciting work lures undergrads, graduate students, postdocs and foreign scientists to his lab in droves, and he is a natural-born leader outside of the lab as well."

Hildebrand is among 72 new members and 18 foreign associates from 12 countries recognized for distinguished and continuing achievements in original research. Those elected this year bring the total number of active members to 2,025.

Hildebrand is the 29th member of the NAS in Arizona and the 18th currently at the UA. He is the only newly elected member from Arizona.

Hildebrand, a UA Regents' Professor of neurobiology, pioneered the use of the hawkmoth Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm moth, as a model organism for studying the organization of insects' sense of smell. Adult moths have a wingspan of about four inches and relatively large brains, making them much easier to study than smaller insects.

By increasing understanding of how insects behave and function, his work can also help combat insects that are vectors of disease or predators on crops.

Manduca and other insects make their way in the world guided by their sense of smell, said Hildebrand, the director of UA's Division of Neurobiology. "We're studying the nuts and bolts by which the brain does all that."

His research group is figuring out how a moth's neural circuitry analyzes the airborne chemical soup that the moth uses to figure out where to feed, where to find a mate and where to lay eggs. The team's findings can be applied to other animals' nervous systems.

The olfactory mechanisms the moth uses, he said, "are essentially the same mechanisms that lead a mosquito to find humans, bite them and possibly transmit diseases, including malaria, West Nile virus and dengue. If you learn about the mechanisms that control insect behavior, you can intrude on that and possibly fool it."

Of his election to the academy, Hildebrand said, "I was stunned. I've been feeling awfully good for the past week. I'm proud at having done well enough to make it.

"Any honor like this to the head of a lab is really an honor to the whole group. I am very happy for my field and for the U of A and my lab as much as I am for myself."

Hildebrand joined the UA faculty in 1985 to establish and direct the Division of Neurobiology, part of the UA's Arizona Research Laboratories devoted to insect neurobiology and behavior. He also created the universitywide Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience.

Along with UA faculty members William Bowers and John Law, he founded the UA's Center for Insect Science. Hildebrand said that in 1986 the three researchers were having a beer outside at the Arizona Inn when they had an epiphany. The three sketched out their plan for a center that would bring together the insect researchers from a variety of units all over campus. CIS, part of UA's Arizona Research Laboratories, is now world-renowned for its research on insects.

He also is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1986); an elected member of the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina -- the oldest academy of sciences in the world (1998); an elected Foreign Member in the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (1999); and elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Cagliari, Italy (2000).

His awards include the R.H. Wright Award in Olfactory Research (1990); the Humboldt Research Award for Senior U.S. Scientists (1997); the International Flavors and Fragrances Award for Innovative Research in the Chemoreception Sciences (1997); the Founders Memorial Award from the Entomological Society of America (1997); a University of Arizona Mortar Board National Senior Honor Society Faculty Award (2000);the Manheimer Award from the Monell Chemical Senses Center (2005); a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association, Diversity Program in Neuroscience (2006); an Outstanding Service Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences (2006); a Silver Medal from the International Society for Chemical Ecology (2006); and a Henry and Phyllis Koffler Prize for Research/Scholarship/Creative Activity from The University of Arizona (2006).

Hildebrand earned his bachelor's degree magna cum laude in biology at Harvard College in 1964 and his doctorate in biochemistry at Rockefeller University in 1969. Before coming to Arizona, he was on the faculty at Columbia University (1980-85), Rockefeller University (1981-86) and Harvard Medical School (1970-80). He also served as a trustee (1981-89) and member of the executive committee (1982-88) of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, as a trustee of Rockefeller University (1970-73) and as associate in behavioral biology in the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology (1980-97).

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.