Cilia receives Presidential Early Career Award

by | Jan 10, 2017

Michelle Cilia works with graduate student Annie Kruse in the lab.

Michelle Cilia works with graduate student Annie Kruse in the lab.

Michelle Cilia has been selected to receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), which recognizes outstanding, government-funded scientists who show great potential for becoming leaders in their field and for expanding the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

Cilia is a Research Molecular Biologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service, an Assistant Professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), and holds an adjunct appointment in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS) at Cornell University. Her research team conducts transformative work to understand how insects spread plant viruses and bacteria, and is applying this research toward a solution to citrus greening disease. She is one of 102 government scientists to receive the award this year.

“We have been impressed by the research program that Michelle has built at the institute in such a short time,” said BTI’s Vice President for Research, Professor Eric Richards. “BTI has had a long history of investigating plant disease and plant-insect interactions and her work advances these fields. I congratulate Michelle on her recognition by the president, and we all look forward to her future work and contributions to the community.”

Cilia’s research seeks to understand how viruses and bacteria manipulate their plant and insect hosts to further their own survival and spread. Viruses travel through plants and insects using protein-protein interactions that enable them to move in and out of cells. Cilia’s work has developed new technologies that enable researchers to study these interactions in biologically meaningful ways at the scale of the entire insect and virus.

Cilia is now advancing her innovative work with proteins to tackle citrus greening disease, a bacterial infection that threatens the viability of the citrus industry worldwide. She is part of a collaboration that received a USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant for $10 million to discover a solution by 2020. Her research group is in the process of designing treatments that would block key proteins in the insect that carries the citrus greening bacterium, thus preventing the pathogen’s spread.

“We’re just very fortunate to have somebody of the caliber of Michelle with us, especially early in her career, when we’re going to have decades of her productivity to look forward to,” said Jim Giovannoni, Acting Center Director of the USDA Holley Center where he is a Research Molecular Biologist, as well as a Professor at BTI and holds an adjunct appointment with SIPS at Cornell University.

Cilia will travel to Washington D.C. in the coming months to receive her award from the president.

“I congratulate these outstanding scientists and engineers on their impactful work,” said President Obama in a statement. “These innovators are working to help keep the United States on the cutting edge, showing that federal investments in science lead to advancements that expand our knowledge of the world around us and contribute to our economy.”


The Cilia lab is a leader in host-vector-pathogen interaction research, vector biology methods development, teaching and scientific communication. We are mission-driven, first and foremost. At the heart of our success is our ability to integrate information and experiments across disciplines and to apply new technologies to solve problems, old and new. We pride ourselves on fostering a supportive work environment and our tenacious and rigorous approach to the pursuit of science. Cilia lab members use their expertise and love of problem solving to have a measurable impact in agriculture, biological research and human-scale challenges, while training the next generation of scientists. We strive to create a training and research environment that fosters trust and honesty to benefit our own scientific careers, members of the scientific community – including our local scientific community of administrative staff, students, and collaborators – the agricultural community, U.S. tax payers, the environment and all of mankind.

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