Ilana Brito wins Packard Foundation fellowship

Ilana Brito

Ilana Brito, assistant professor and the Mong Family Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering, is one of 18 early career professors honored with a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Packard fellows receive $875,000, distributed over five years, to continue research into topics involving climate, the oceans and land, population and reproductive health, children and families, and other science. Brito’s work involves the human microbiome and horizontal gene transfer (HGT).

“The Packard fellowship is an enormous honor and will undoubtedly change the course of my career,” Brito said. “It will allow my lab to venture into new scientific territory. Rather than incremental science, this fellowship supports scientific leaps and bounds.”

Brito’s research into HGT – the process by which genes are exchanged between members of a species, as opposed to handed down from parent to child – has taken her as far afield as the Pacific island of Fiji. HGT affects all microbial communities, as it helps microbes adapt to changing environments.

The Brito Lab studies the transmission of microbes between people and their environments and the health impacts of such transmission events. They employ a combination of microbial engineering, single-cell sequencing approaches, and novel computational algorithms applied to genomic data to better understand the relationship between human health and the microbiome.

Brito, who joined the Cornell faculty in July 2016, this year has won a National Institutes of Health President’s New Innovator Award, a grant from the Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum Project and an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship.

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering program, established in 1988, invests in future leaders by giving them the freedom to take risks, explore new frontiers in their fields of study and follow uncharted paths that may lead to groundbreaking discoveries. The fellowships allow the nation’s most promising early career professors to pursue their science and engineering research with few funding restrictions and limited paperwork requirements.

To date, the Packard Foundation has awarded approximately $394 million through the fellowship.

Recent Packard fellows include Elaine Runting Shi, associate professor of computer science (2015) and Lena Kourkoutis, assistant professor of applied and engineering physics (2014). Éva Tardos, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Computer Science, was a 1990 Packard Fellowship winner and now serves on the fellowship’s 11-member advisory panel.

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Daryl Lovell