Brain Scientist Leads UA’s Portfolio of Cutting-Edge Research

By Eric Swedlund –

Leslie Tolbert remembers the electrifying feeling of the moment she decided what her life’s work was going to be.

“I became a neuroscientist in a few milliseconds one night in my junior year of college,” she says.

An applied math and physics major at Radcliffe College – now Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study – Tolbert hadn’t known what she wanted to do with herself. She was suddenly struck with a burst of inspiration to do what she knew was the most important work in the world.

“I met a faculty member whose background was physics who started talking about the fundamental workings of brain cells and in an instant, I knew I had to study brains. I just knew. Whatever classes I had to take, whatever I had to do, I just knew I was going to study the brain for the rest of my life. And that’s what I’m doing.”

Following her passion, Tolbert went on to earn a doctorate in anatomy from Harvard, where she also received postdoctoral training in neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. She joined the faculty at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine for five years and arrived at the University of Arizona in 1987.

A Regents’ Professor with a joint appointment in neuroscience and cell biology and anatomy, Tolbert leads a research group, funded by the National Institutes of Health for the last 29 years. The group studies the cellular mechanisms at play as the brain receives sensory input and the role those cells play in guiding the development of the brain’s circuitry.

As UA’s senior VP for research. Tolbert oversees a massive portfolio of cutting-edge research, from space science to biomedical. Along with newly appointed President Ann Weaver Hart, Tolbert is part of the core leadership team that aims to double UA’s annual research activity from $600 million to $1.2 billion by the end of the decade.

During her tenure as research VP, Tolbert has worked to improve the UA’s position for competitive federal research grants by highlighting areas of interdisciplinary strength, built badly needed core research infrastructure and helped the UA secure its largest ever grant –the $800 million OSIRIS-Rex mission.

“She has put order into the office of vice president of research that was importantly needed,’’ said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science. “When she took over, that office was broke, basically. She’s organized it incredibly well, which has helped organize the research operations of the university. People trust her because she’s very honest and she’s a very good leader.”

Tolbert has identified five areas of research in which the UA is either tops or has huge potential that’s not being reached. She said focusing investments on those areas is crucial to the goal of doubling research funding by 2020.

Translational medicine and biotechnology has the largest room for improvement. Because of a disproportionately small medical school, the UA’s rankings in NIH funding – in recent years varying from the 50s to the 70s – is significantly lower than its research rankings overall.

“We have the hugest opportunity there,’’ Tolbert said. “What we’ve been doing is putting more resources into this area than in any other area, mainly for the hiring of physician scientists in order to bridge this gap between really strong fundamental science and strong practical health care delivery.

“We must make investments if the faculty are going to be strong in competing on the national scene,” she added.

In some senses, the UA’s situation in space sciences is the opposite. As the nation’s top school for space science and NASA funding, the UA is well positioned to continue capitalizing on longtime strengths, but also has to defend its status.

“It’s really important to us to stay at the forefront of space sciences, between our lunar and planetary group and our astronomy group,” Tolbert said. “It’s much easier to stay number one than to become number one.”

The other top UA areas to strengthen in the march to doubling research activity are examples of the broad interdisciplinary efforts that have long been a hallmark of the university: environmental and sustainability, optics and information science, and what Tolbert calls “people and place” – the type of arid-lands, indigenous people and border-related research that the UA has developed expertise in by virtue of its location.

“We’re trying to put special effort into the areas where we can make the most difference. When I first could identify these as the five areas I thought we should invest in, I realized immediately that was I was looking for was interdisciplinary areas,” Tolbert said. “The University of Arizona has a long history of not just accepting but excelling in and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration.”

By shunning the normal inhibitions against doing research outside individual departments and disciplines, Tolbert’s office is helping to give UA faculty opportunity to be more competitive for shrinking federal research dollars. That’s where the university’s mission and Tolbert’s own ideas of leadership converge, helping students, faculty and staff reach their goals.

“Leadership is not about command and control. It’s about creating a place where people can reach their full potential,” Tolbert said. “You have to listen, learn what it is that they want to do, what it is they’re good at, and you have to look around at what can be effective practices at helping people reach their goals.”

It’s that same agenda of setting goals and working hard to reach them that Tolbert has stuck to since her own undergraduate days.

“Part of leadership is refining your own goals,” Tolbert said. “Everybody is trying to figure out what their goals are at the macro level, but then at the micro level we keep refining our goals.”

Ruiz said he has seen Tolbert, time and time again in her seven years as a top central administrator, impart the right values to students and faculty.

UA President Eugene Sander, who chaired the search committee that hired Tolbert, called her a “first-class scientist with a national reputation.

“She’s very good at what she does and we’re lucky to have her,’’ Sander said.

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