BOWLING GREEN, OH – Neocles B. Leontis, Professor of Chemistry at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) and Bowling Green City Council member, who was as passionate about science as he was compassionate in his pursuit of social justice and environmental sustainability, was killed in a car crash just outside Bowling Green on December 8. He was 65 years old.
Born in 1955 in Midland, MI, to Thomas and Anna Leontis, a metallurgical engineer and teacher respectively, Leontis grew up in a bilingual household in the presence of his grandmother, a refugee from the Ottoman Empire. In addition to Greek, he learned German, Russian, and French.
When he was eight years old, Leontis became a member of the “Metaphysical Society,” a group of scientists, including an atheist, deist, and Orthodox Christian, who met monthly at his parents’ home to discuss books on subjects such as the immortality of the soul. Through the assigned readings, he reveled in the debate on matters of life and death.
He never ceased to explore big questions or refrained from difficult dialogue. After finishing high school in Columbus, Ohio (1973), he earned a B.S. in chemistry from Ohio State University (1977), Master’s in physical chemistry from Harvard Graduate School (1981), and PhD in biophysical chemistry from Yale University (1986). He became professor of Chemistry at Bowling Green State University in 1987 and chaired the BGSU Faculty Senate in 2003.
Leontis was an internationally known, highly respected biochemist. His research dealt with aspects of how cells function at the molecular level with a focus on Nucleic Acids (DNA and RNA) and the diverse roles they play in living organisms. Specifically, he studied RNA 3D structures using an integrated biophysical, biochemical, and bioinformatic approach. He published two books and was issued six patents. He served as a program officer for the National Science Foundation (2009-2012) and helped secure $10 million in grant-funded activities, including a new $3 million grant from NIH.
Leontis’ collaborations crossed international and disciplinary lines. He had two major collaborators. With Eric Westhof, a French biochemist at the University of Strasbourg and member of the Academie des Sciences, he worked to establish the building blocks and motifs of RNA architecture. At BGSU, he collaborated with Craig Zirbel, Professor of Mathematics, for two decades. Together they published 27 papers and were the Principal Investigators of the RNA Structural Bioinformatics Research Group.
His research projects worked in line with his teaching. Former students remember him as an extraordinary teacher and mentor: a guide not only in academics but also in life. He was acutely aware of divisions in society and wanted to make scientific education accessible to anyone who developed a love for it. He was particularly eager to introduce first-generation college students to the possibilities of scientific research.
Leontis was very much a man of action who championed many causes. He felt a responsibility to the weakest members of the planet. While still in graduate school, he became active in the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. When his attention shifted to climate change, he committed considerable research time to address the crisis. His activities ranged from speaking on green energy to advocating for composting, providing economical paths to home insulation, and organizing citizen action to build the largest municipal solar array in all of Ohio. He was a founding member of the Black Swamp Green Team, a collaboration of faith communities, advocacy groups, non-profit entities, and individuals engaged in promoting and practicing good creation care.
His desire for social justice writ large, including fair housing policies and livable conditions for everyone, led him to run for City Council and win a seat beginning in January 2020. Driven by commitment to bring about meaningful change, and extremely well-read on every topic, he was humble enough to recognize his own limits, and he embraced the requirement of collective action. No one is big enough to make change alone.
Leontis was a dedicated husband, father, brother, teacher, colleague, collaborator, and friend. He is survived by his wife, Vassiliki Leontis, who was his advocate and supporter; daughters Evangelia (Travis) and Natalia Van Steene; sister Artemis (Vassilis); niece Daphne Vander Roest (Michael); former wife Deanne Snavely (Bob); a loving extended family; and fellow citizens.
The family is planning a (remote) musical memorial on January 17, 2021, Leontis’ birthday, and a community celebration of his life when it is safe for people to congregate again. Donations in his memory may be made to the Union of Concerned Scientists or any organization that supports civil liberties and social justice.