Forty Years of Science in 40 Minutes

Harris Lewin stands outdoors against cement structure
Harris Lewin, a distinguished professor emeritus and former vice chancellor for research, delivered the inaugural talk at the UC Davis New Emeriti Distinguished Lecture series, which was created by Distinguished Professor Walter Leal. (Gregory Urquiaga / UC Davis)

Forty Years of Science in 40 Minutes

New Emeriti Distinguished Lectures Begin

He quipped that he was "going to cover 40 years of science in 40 minutes."

And UC Davis distinguished professor emeritus Harris Lewin, renowned for his research in comparative mammalian genomics and immunogenetics, did just that when he delivered the inaugural UC Davis New Emeriti Distinguished Lecture on “From Chickens to Cows to Everything: Perspectives from 40 Years in Science."

The lecture, held Dec. 7 in the UC Davis International Center and live-streamed on Zoom to attendees from five countries (United States, South Korea, Australia, Japan and Israel), chronicled his bovine leukemia research that led to his receiving the 2011 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, an award comparable to the Nobel Prize in Agriculture. 

Lewin's seminar was the first in a series of three lectures honoring new emeriti and coordinated by UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, former chair of the Department of Entomology and Nematology.  Lewin's lecture is online at  

“The New Emeriti Distinguished Lecture series is a platform to celebrate the accomplishments of retiring colleagues,” Leal said. “They have dedicated their lives to laying the foundation for UC Davis to grow into a premiere academic institution. We are very thankful for their contributions to the university's missions and for making UC Davis a better place for us to succeed." 

All lectures are free and open to the public.

In his welcoming address, UC Davis Chancellor Gary May commented: "I'd like to thank Dr. Lewin for giving the first lecture in this series.  Harris is the former vice chancellor for research and a distinguished professor emeritus in evolution and ecology. He also holds the Robert and Rosabel Osborne Endowed Chair with work that specializes in the genome evolution of mammals. Like Dr. Lewin, all of our emeriti deserve recognition. They continue to make critical discoveries in their research and scholarship across disciplines. For our new emeriti, I welcome you to this distinguished group and encourage you to stay engaged with campus. Your emeriti play a vital role in keeping our campus on an upward trajectory lending time, talents and treasure to keep our university thriving. The Emeriti Association has resources and support for this newest chapter of our career. We're grateful for your dedication to UC Davis and congratulations on reaching this milestone."

Walter Leal and emeriti poster
UC Davis distinguished professor Walter Leal looks at a poster of UC Davis professors who transcended to emeriti in 2021-22.

UC Davis distinguished professor Bruce Hammock, who holds a joint appointment with the Department of Entomology and Nematology and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, videoed that "Harris Lewin has a been an Aggie for a long time." Lewin received his doctorate in immunology at UC Davis in 1984, joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and returned to UC Davis in 2011 as vice chancellor for research, a position he held until 2016.

"I had numerous interactions with Harris but the the enduring memory is meeting him right in front of Briggs for coffee," Hammock said, "and he was so excited over his latest paper (genetics) that he was trembling. So he's been fun for a long time." 

Lewin thanked his mentors, colleagues, collaborators, family and friends. He recalled his 27 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he held the E.W. and J.M. Gutgsell Endowed Professorship in Immunogenetics and served as director of the University of Illinois Biotechnology Center, founding director of the W.M. Keck Center for Comparative and Functional Genomics, and founding director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.

Following his nearly three decades at the University of Illinois, Lewin returned to UC Davis to serve as the vice chancellor for research, 2011-2016. Then UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi videoed how she was able to recruit him. She praised him for "the stellar job that laid the foundation" for UC Davis to reach the recent billion-dollar mark in research funding

After scores of colleagues lauded Lewin's scientific research, his daughter, Sara Lebwohl, stated that his most important title is "My Da (dy)." Granddaughter Halle, corrected her: "No, it's Grandpa Harris."

Next two lectures

UC Davis distinguished professor emeritus Geerat Vermeij, an evolutionary biologist and paleoecologist with the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, will present the second in the three-part New Emeriti Distinguished Lecture series at 5 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 15 on" The Evolution of Power." It will be live-streamed on Zoom; registration is underway at

The series of New Emeriti Distinguished Lectures concludes with the spring lecture by UC Davis distinguished professor emeritus Sharon Strauss of the Department of Evolution and Ecology. It will take place at 5 p.m., Wednesday, April 19 in the International Center and also will be live-streamed on Zoom. Strauss is known for her work on how species evolve as a consequence of community membership (their complex interactions with co-occurring species); direct and indirect effects (through pollinators) of herbivory on male and female plant fitness.

Great citizen of the campus 

In his opening remarks, Lewin described Leal "as a great citizen of the campus" and "Walter is really the only person who can pull something off like this." Leal won the Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award for his four online or virtual symposiums on COVID-19 that drew more than 6000 viewers from 35 countries. Widely recognized for his research, teaching and mentorships, Leal is an elected Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, American Association for the Advancement of Science, California Academy of Sciences, Royal Entomological Society and the Entomological Society of America (ESA). The UC Davis Academic Senate named him the recipient of its 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award for Undergraduate Teaching, and the Pacific Branch of ESA presented him with its 2020 Award of Excellence in Teaching. Leal was recently selected the 2022 recipient of the College of Biological Sciences (CBS) Faculty Teaching Award.

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