Postdoc Richard Hilleary receives NIFA fellowship from the USDA

Richard Hilleary Bearded man with a knit cap and black parka
Richard Hilleary, a postdoc in the He lab, will use his NIFA fellowship to better understand plant resilience to warming temperatures.

Richard Hilleary, a postdoc in Sheng Yang He’s lab, was awarded a two-year fellowship to identify and leverage molecular mechanisms that render some plants more resilient to increases in temperature. 

The NIFA fellowship is part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program (AFRI). This Initiative aims at funding the next generation of researchers, education, and extension professionals in the food and agricultural sciences. The postdoctoral fellowships in particular offer two years of salary and additional funding for conference travel and consumables.

 Hilleary, who is currently an HHMI fellow, moved from Michigan to Durham mid-pandemic, along with Professor Sheng-Yang He.

Throughout his research, Hilleary has been interested in how the environment influences plant physiology and immunity, a topic that is made particularly crucial given how quickly our climate is changing. Along with the He lab, he has studied how environmental factors associated with climate change (elevated ambient temperatures, humidity, flooding, etc.) can increase the susceptibility of plants to pathogenic bacteria.

One of the major temperature-sensitive elements of the plant immune system involves the biosynthesis and signaling pathways of the plant hormone salicylic acid. In this NIFA-funded project, Hilleary will use natural populations of the model plant Arabidopsis to identify variations in the thermal-sensitivity of salicylic acid biosynthesis, in order to pinpoint what exactly makes some variants more or less susceptible to elevated temperatures at the molecular level.

His project has the potential to greatly influence agriculture in a warming world. Understanding the exact mechanism underlying temperature sensitivity in this element of the plant immune system could inform both breeding and biotechnological efforts to create climate-resilient crops for the future.

Throughout his fellowship, Hilleary will also develop a seminar-style course covering selected topics in plant biology as they relate to climate change, a topic that will certainly be of interest to many graduate students in the department.