Cameron Currie receives Presidential Early Career Award

Cameron Currie is one of the country’s brightest young scientific minds, according to the White House. Currie, a CALS associate professor of bacteriology, has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the nation’s highest honor for researchers beginning their independent careers.“It’s a huge honor and very humbling,” Currie says. “I’m blown away by it.”

Currie is one of 20 winners nominated by the National Science Foundation, and is among 100 winners tapped by nine federal agencies as up-and-comers with the potential for innovative research at the frontiers of science as well as leadership in education and outreach.

His work focuses on how insects engage in beneficial associations with bacteria.

“We study symbiotic associations between microbes and animals,” says Currie, whose lab houses dozens of colonies of leaf-cutter ants. “We’re looking at how these combinations of microbes evolve and contribute to the complexity of life.”

Currie discovered the ants employing helpful bacteria to derive antibiotics to help fight pathogenic fungi that attack the fungi the ants cultivate for food. The helpful bacteria are cultured and studied with an eye toward adding to our ability to fight human pathogens.

As part of the Department of Energy’s Great Lakes Bioenergy Center, Currie is also studying the microbes used by the ants to help break down plant cellulose, a key step in the production of biofuels.

In the fall, Currie is expected join the rest of the Early Career Award winners for a ceremony at the White House. The winners were selected from the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, which awarded five-year, $500,000 research grants in 2008 to 455 researchers who had already demonstrated success integrating research and education with the mission of their organizations.

The Early Career Awards program was established in 1996 to encourage the development of young scientists and engineers. The NSF director selects finalists for the awards, which are passed on to the White House.