Neuroscientist brings passion for learning to VP job

November 29, 2005

By Flinn Foundation

Leslie Tolbert displays some unusual decorations in her office. At first glance they look like nothing more than multicolored neon lines and squiggles. Then she tells you what they really are: photographs of insect brains given to her by her students.

“These pictures are the most beautiful things I can think of,” she says. “An individual nerve cell is about as gorgeous a thing as there is.”

Tolbert has devoted her career to neuroscience and, more generally, to learning. She explores the brains and the nerve cells of insects in order to learn how nervous systems develop. And from her days as an undergraduate at Harvard University to her role as mentor to countless undergraduates and graduate students, Tolbert has remained hooked on academe and dedicated to her quest to unlock the mysteries of the brain.

“The fun is learning,” says the Regents’ professor, whose nomination for the prestigious title was endorsed by Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel. “I’ll always be learning.”

It was this pursuit of knowledge that led Tolbert to follow John Hildebrand, her postdoctoral advisor from Harvard and the current director of University of Arizona’s Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neurobiology, out to UA in 1987, to help establish the America’s first independent invertebrate neurobiology group. Nearly 20 years later, she has risen through the ranks to assume the post of vice president of research, graduate studies, and economic development, a job that gives her a chance to fully express her enthusiasm for UA.

“I love this university,” she says.

The excitement that emanates from her voice every time she utters the phrase—and she utters it often—is surprising when contrasted with her otherwise calm composure. But it is this mix of professionalism and passion that strengthen Tolbert in her role as an advocate and a supporter for UA faculty, especially at this crucial time of uncertainty for the university.

President Peter Likins, who has overseen much of UA’s investment in the biosciences– including the creation of the BIO5 institute and the expansion of the medical research building–will retire in June. The Arizona Board of Regents is in the process of selecting a pool of candidates for the job.

It will fall to Tolbert, who is only a few months into her new administrative role, to ensure that much of UA’s research, including its work in the biosciences, continues to grow through the end of Likins’ presidency and into the next.

You have taken the role of vice president of research, graduate studies, and economic development at a time of potentially major change at UA. With the selection of a new president looming, how do you plan to navigate through the change?

I thought a lot about the fact that, one year into this appointment, we would have a new person in the position of the president. But I realized that to carry this position forward from one presidency to the next, building on the ideas of this administration and incorporating the ideas of the next administration, is an amazing opportunity. I have strong feelings about the strengths of the faculty here. If I can begin building on those strengths with the new perspective I bring to the job, the next president will benefit. It will be a service to the faculty to have someone hold on to this position through the change, and this job is all about serving the faculty. I’m excited about the future because I think we’re likely–given the flavor and the distributive strength of this university–to find a president who will build on that.

What are some important aspects of what is happening here in the biosciences that will be crucial for you to carry through the next presidency?

Clearly, our biggest novel endeavor is BIO5, an initiative that will bring people together from all corners of campus. Every day they will work in the same building, find each other at the coffee machine, and have the opportunity to share their diverse ideas and experiences.

One of the emphases of BIO5 is to do research that will lead to application. That’s one thing we can do very well in the future because we have so many people with strengths in bioscience research. Bringing them together to do collaborative work is the smartest thing we could do.

How collaborative is the UA campus environment?

I think collaboration is something the UA does extremely well. I came here in 1987 because I needed to be in an interdisciplinary community. And that is very clearly what I saw people doing here—interdisciplinary education. This is a collegial environment that encourages collaboration, and for that reason, we have a particular edge on other universities. We do not just have a bunch of good biologists: We’re a collaborative environment that encourages cross-disciplinary cutting-edge research not only among biologists but also chemists, physicists, hydrologists, and many others.

Neuroscience, your field of research, was listed as one of Arizona’s strengths by Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap. From your perspective, how competitive is Arizona in the neurosciences?

The Roadmap was just phenomenally insightful. In neuroscience we have had for over twenty years a statewide program in motor control. For a long time at Northern Arizona University there was a great neuroscientist who researched lizard crawling. At Arizona State University there’s been a very strong bioengineering approach to movement and control and movement disorders. Well, here, there’s been an insect group, a cat group, there used to be a turtle guy in the cat group, and we all learned the special lessons you get from studying a particular species. And then at Sun Health where there is a world-class brain bank that lets you look at the brains of people whose medical histories you know in great detail. Given all these resources, to identify neuroscience as a statewide strength was right on target.

What more needs to be done in neurosciences to move along the Roadmap and build up neuroscience as a niche?

We need space, which we will have. The dean of the College of Medicine just gave us a floor of the medical research building, next to BIO5. My hope is that in the future we can recruit the resources to put together a real institute or center, perhaps with a real clinical piece. In addition to neuroscience, bioengineering was cited as a strength in the Roadmap, and I want to help move that forward as part of a statewide plan and as part of a UA plan. We need to develop a stronger partnership between the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering. Collaboration is there in part but I want to help that be strengthened so that our biomedical engineering program has a much more solid footing. Right now they’re a bunch of faculty who work extremely hard and extremely well and I want to work with them to have a stronger base from which to work.

You’ve been the recipient of multiple federal grants, including grants from the National Institutes of Health. What advice would you give to those who are trying to earn those lucrative awards?

Communication, communication, communication. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, you must be able to talk about, and write compellingly about, what you do. You have to be able to convince the nonspecialist of the importance of the work, the relevance of the work. If you can’t tell me the “so what” of your proposal, then I don’t know as a grant reviewer why you should be funded. If you can’t answer the “so what” question, you’re not likely to be funded. Asking the “so what” and thinking about how to compel someone unfamiliar with your subject is the last step in the grant application process we sometimes forget.

Another thing to keep in mind is that now grants are being geared toward projects where multiple perspectives are being brought to bear. There’s an increasing focus in the funding agencies, for instance, on building teams to do the work to address complex problems. And I think that’s exciting. I only went into science when I realized you could work as a team.

Originally you were an applied mathematics major at Harvard University. How did you get involved in neuroscience?

Jon Nichols, a well known neuroscientist who studies leech nervous systems, happened to be a faculty member affiliated with my dormitory, and he came to dinner one night and started talking about the way the nervous system works in terms of physics. I remember the night like it was yesterday because my whole life suddenly appeared before me. I thought, here’s someone who knows physics and is applying that knowledge to the most exciting thing. The instant he started talking I knew I had to go find whatever background I needed to teach me how to study the brain. So I started taking biology at the same time I went to the medical school to take neuroanatomy with graduate students. It was a crazy time, but it was so exciting, and I think about that all the time when I’m teaching. You never know what’s going to hit you and grab your fancy.

Are you still teaching?

Absolutely. I’m still teaching, and I still have my lab. And it’s because I like teaching, and I like doing research. And now I like helping other people do it, too.