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Department of Plant Sciences


The American Phytopathological Society has honoured Dr Nik Cunniffe Head of the Department’s Theoretical and Computational Epidemiology Group with the Syngenta Award for his outstanding contribution to teaching, research and extension in the field of plant pathology. The Syngenta award is one of a series of APS awards that honour researchers around the world who have made significant contributions to the science of plant pathology.


The Syngenta Award has been awarded to Dr Cunniffe in recognition of his outstanding research contributions in the field of plant pathology. As an international leader in quantitative epidemiology, Dr Cunniffe has made numerous ground-breaking contributions in the use of stochastic mathematical models to characterise epidemics and test control strategies. Previously his research has been recognised with the APS Schroth Faces of the Future Award in 2016 and the PLoS Computational Biology Research Prize. In 2018 he gave a keynote presentation at the International Congress of Plant Pathology and has a strong record of publications, with more than 40 peer-reviewed papers, in both leading and key specialist volumes, in the decade following the obtainment of his PhD.


Dr Cunniffe’s work focuses on modelling the spread, detection, evolution and control of plant pathogens. He aims to improve our understanding of theoretical aspects of plant disease epidemiology and use these theoretical ideas in practice by predicting the likely future spread of pathogens based on models parameterised using data from past epidemics. His applied work has contributed to our understanding of several pathosystems. He’s worked on citrus diseases, including citrus canker, greasy spot and huanglongbing, as well as maize lethal necrosis, Septoria wheat leaf blotch, Dutch elm disease and chalara ash dieback.


His most extensive modelling has been for Phytophthora ramorum, the cause of sudden oak death, leading to a landmark paper that used a large-scale model of spread across California. It showed how effective exclusion of the disease from large areas could have been achieved if disease control had been started earlier. Ideas from theoretical work were crucial in showing that large-scale disease management could have been optimised by careful selection of the radius of control around individual detected sites, as well as focusing disease management efforts on the epidemic wave front.


His interest in practical disease control is driven by experience in translating modelling work into policy. In 2013, within two months of chalara ash dieback being detected in the UK, he presented modelling results at the Houses of Parliament. As part of his work to protect UK forests, he later also worked with DEFRA to determine the response to the oriental chestnut gall wasp within weeks of that pest being detected in the country.


In addition to his contributions to research and policy, the Syngenta Award has been awarded to Dr Cunniffe in honour of his contributions to plant pathology teaching and his service to the research community. In 2015, he was awarded the Pilkington Teaching Prize, the highest pedagogic award at the University of Cambridge, for his outstanding undergraduate teaching. In addition to his undergraduate teaching commitments, he has also supervised the projects of 10 masters students, mentored four PhD students to successful completion and is currently lead supervisor for another three.


Alongside his contributions to teaching, his dedication and contribution to the field of plant pathology is evidenced by his service to professional societies throughout his career. He is currently serving as an elected board member and education officer of the British Society for Plant Pathology and serves as Senior Editor for the APS journals Phytopathology and PhytoFrontiers and as Section Editor for the Brazilian Phytopathology Society’s journal Tropical Plant Pathology.​


The Department of Plant Sciences is delighted that Dr Nik Cunniffe’s exceptional achievements in both research and teaching has been recognised by the APS awards. Dr Cunniffe, along with the other awardees, will be recognised at a virtual awards ceremony, which will be held during Plant Health 2021 Online on ​Tuesday 27th July 2021. In addition to this a Social and Networking Event with the awardees will be held ​on Tuesday 3rd August 2021.