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2021 Syngenta Award​

​This award is given by Syngenta Crop Protection to an APS member for an outstanding recent contribution to teaching, research, or extension in plant pathology.

Nik Cunniffe was born and raised in Luton, England. He earned a B.A. degree in mathematics (1996) and an M.Phil. degree in computer speech and language processing (1997), both from the University of Cambridge. He then worked in industry developing algorithms for Internet search engines before earning an M.S. degree in mathematics from the University of Bath (2003), which included a research project supervised by Frank van den Bosch. He returned to the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. degree in the Department of Plant Sciences, supervised by Chris Gilligan, modeling soilborne plant pathogens (2008). He was appointed a temporary lecturer in the same department in 2009–2016. He was tenured and promoted as a university senior lecturer in mathematical biology in 2018. During the past decade he has become an international leader in quantitative epidemiology, making numerous groundbreaking contributions in the use of stochastic mathematical models to characterize epidemics and test control strategies.

Cunniffe's work focuses on modeling the spread, detection, evolution, and control of plant pathogens. His program has two parallel, but interconnecting, strands. The first aims to improve our understanding of theoretical aspects of plant disease epidemiology. The second concentrates on using these theoretical ideas in practice. Often, this involves predicting the likely future spread of pathogens based on models parameterized using data from past epidemics.

His early theoretical papers modeled the small-scale growth of fungi in soil and showed how feedbacks due to root growth can lead to soilborne diseases exhibiting counter-intuitive decreases in disease incidence as control is intensified. A highlight was a paper introducing an epidemiological framework for modeling biological control of soilborne pathogens, as well as other work showing how flexible latent and infectious periods can be represented in compartmental models (i.e., linked differential equations). More recent theoretical studies have included an evolutionary component, most notably in work on fungicide-resistance management strategies, as well as on deployment of host plant resistance genes. Work published recently in PLoS Biology and developed during a working group on multiscale vectored plant viruses under the aegis of NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, shows how insights from theoretical models can inform new statistical tests for interactions between pathogens.

However, Cunniffe's main contribution is based on stochastic models of disease control, typically with a spatially explicit component. Such models allow a meaningful discussion of disease risk and risks-of-failure in disease management, as well as the effects of the spatial patterning of hosts characteristic of plant disease epidemics. Initial work showed how to optimize the radius of control when removing hosts surrounding detected infections. This was motivated by citrus canker, the basis of a costly failed eradication attempt in Florida up to the early 2000s.

The initial work, setting out principles for successful reactive control of invading pathogens, has subsequently been extended by introducing epidemiologically sophisticated control strategies (such as selective tree roguing), based on calculations of the disease risk posed by individual hosts. This allows control to go beyond removing all hosts within a certain control radius. More recent work shows how the mathematically complex technique of optimal control theory can be used to make practically useful recommendations via simplification of the framework of model predictive control. A parallel strand considers whether, counter-intuitively, waiting before making control recommendations could be beneficial, because additional disease-spread data allows (under some circumstances) interventions to be targeted more precisely. Proof-of-concept work introducing a “Control Fast or Control Smart" algorithm determining when precisely to act was recently published.

Cunniffe's applied work has contributed to our understanding of several pathosystems. As well as citrus canker, there is also work on other citrus diseases, including greasy spot and huanglongbing. Other applied work has led to models of maize lethal necrosis, Septoria wheat leaf blotch, Dutch elm disease, and chalara ash dieback. However, the most extensive modeling effort has been for Phytophthora ramorum, the cause of sudden oak death. A landmark paper used a large-scale model of spread across California to show how effective exclusion of the disease from large areas could have been achieved if disease control were started earlier. Ideas from theoretical work were crucial in showing that large-scale disease management could have been optimized by careful selection of the radius of control around individual detected sites, as well as focusing disease management efforts on the epidemic wave front.

Cunniffe's interest in practical disease control is driven by experience in translating modelling work into policy. For example, within two months of chalara ash dieback being detected in the United Kingdom in 2013, he was part of a team of four from the University of Cambridge presenting modeling results at the Houses of Parliament. He has also influenced responses to other threats to U.K. forests, for example working with the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to help determine the response to the oriental chestnut gall wasp (Dryocosmus kuriphilus) within weeks of that pest first being detected in the country.

Cunniffe's program is grounded in a strong record of publications, with more than 40 peer-reviewed papers in the decade since obtaining his Ph.D. degree. This includes papers in leading general journals, as well as key specialist venues. Cunniffe has mentored 4 Ph.D. students to successful completion and has supervised the projects of 10 master's students. He is currently the lead supervisor for three other Ph.D. students. The quality of his undergraduate teaching was recognized in 2015 by the Pilkington Teaching Prize, the highest pedagogic award at the University of Cambridge. His research has also been recognized with the APS Schroth Faces of the Future Award in 2016 and the PLoS Computational Biology Research Prize for a paper published in that journal. In 2018 he gave a keynote presentation at the International Congress of Plant Pathology.

Cunniffe's contribution to the discipline is evidenced by his record of service to professional societies: he is currently serving as an elected board member and education officer of the British Society for Plant Pathology. He serves APS as a senior editor for Phytopathology and the new journal PhytoFrontiersTM, as well as the Brazilian Phytopathology Society as a section editor for Tropical Plant Pathology.​