Leslie Tolbert
Leslie Tolbert

Regents' Professor Leslie Tolbert Elected AAAS Fellow

The UA professor of neuroscience and cellular and molecular medicine has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Nov. 21, 2016

University of Arizona Regents' Professor Leslie P. Tolbert has been elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society.

Tolbert, a professor of neuroscience and of cellular and molecular medicine, is passionate about research and also about teaching and guiding students. Her research specialty is figuring out the mechanisms that underlie the brain's early development and plasticity.

Of receiving this honor from her colleagues at AAAS, Tolbert said: "It means a lot. It's a generous acknowledgement of the several different directions I've taken in my scientific career."

The AAAS Section on Neuroscience chose her because of her "outstanding contribution to knowledge of the intercellular interactions between developing and mature neurons and glial cells and service to academic research and professional societies."

Tolbert is one of the 391 AAAS members who have been elected as fellows this year because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. New fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin (the colors represent science and engineering, respectively) on Feb. 18 during the 2017 AAAS annual meeting in Boston.

In addition to her several decades of research on brain development and function, Tolbert also has served as an advocate for all science — not just her own.

Tolbert served as the UA vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development from 2005 to 2011 and as the UA senior vice president for research from 2011 to 2013. During that time, she championed and supported research activities of the UA — an enterprise that grew to $625 million under her guidance. She also encouraged the development of cross-cutting, interdisciplinary activities at the University.

Of her many achievements, Tolbert mentioned being particularly pleased to be involved in the development of the Golden Goose Award, an annual award that recognizes researchers whose obscure and sometimes odd-sounding federally funded research has led to breakthroughs in major fields of science.

"We select people whose work has had either a huge economic or societal impact," she said. "For example, understanding the sex life of the screw fly has transformed the cattle industry."

Screw flies, or screwworms, eat the flesh of mammals and can cause havoc in the livestock industry. After researchers learned more about the insects' sex life, they developed sterile females and released them into the wild, which caused the population of screw flies to plummet. 

Tolbert also cited research on coral, the organisms that build coral reefs. Knowledge about the skeletons of coral is being used to develop ways to regenerate bone.

"You look around and find out almost anywhere you look, basic research that was aimed in one direction has had an impact in another field," she said.

In 2013, Tolbert returned to her first loves: research and teaching. She exudes enthusiasm for discovery and for guiding students.

"Leslie is a gifted scientist and teacher who has made a lasting impact on the field," said University Distinguished Professor Alan Nighorn, head of the UA Department of Neuroscience.

"In addition to her being an insightful researcher, I am very impressed with Leslie's ability to inspire and work with young scientists. This is a very well-deserved honor for Leslie," Nighorn said.

Tolbert graduated with honors from Radcliffe College with a degree in applied mathematics and has a doctorate in anatomy from Harvard. She was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. She taught for five years at Georgetown University School of Medicine before coming to the UA in 1987 as an assistant professor in the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neurobiology and in the anatomy department at the UA College of Medicine.

She was selected as a "Woman of Influence" by Inside Tucson Business in 2005 and as a "Woman on the Move" by the Tucson YWCA in 2006. Tolbert also is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for Neuroscience. She is the founding member and first president of the Tucson Chapter of the Society for Neuroscience.