Dr. Cynthia Leifer Receives Weill Cornell Graduate School Alumni Award

Dr. Cynthia Leifer, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, has been awarded the 2024 Weill Cornell Graduate School Alumni Award of Distinction. 

The Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences has been recognizing alumni with this award since 1997 to honor their outstanding contributions to biomedical research in education, focusing on science and scholarship, leadership, mentoring and teaching, and service to society.  

Dr. Leifer, who earned her doctorate from the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in 2000, was presented with the award on May 16 at Weill Cornell Medicine’s 2024 commencement ceremony.  

“I am deeply honored to receive this award,” said Dr. Leifer, who teaches immunology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and lectures on vaccines in Cornell’s master of public health program. 

“My time at Weill Cornell Graduate School was very special and laid the foundation for my success,’’ she added. “The faculty recognize the importance of fostering critical-thinking skills among students, which has helped shape my career as a scientist. I feel fortunate to have many faculty members as colleagues through the connections between the Cornell Ithaca campus, where I currently teach, and Weill Cornell Medicine.”  

While a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Leifer began studying Toll-like receptors (TLRs), proteins that play a dual role in immunity and inflammation. She currently focuses on understanding the molecular pathways of TLRs, with the aim of revealing potential new drug targets for treating autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus and inflammatory bowel disease. 

In addition to her research, Dr. Leifer is a vaccine advocate and thought leader who has been interviewed frequently by the national and global news media. She has written more than 50 scientific articles and book chapters on vaccines and immunology, and co-hosts the podcast “Immune,’’ which highlights advances in immunology for a broad audience.  

“I’m incredibly proud to participate in this podcast,’’ she said. “To have the public see the ‘human-ness’ of scientists – that they’re not just robots working in a lab – is really important to me.” 

For more than two decades, Dr. Leifer has been dedicated to mentoring and promoting the success of women and diverse faculty at Cornell University. In 2017, she received a Constance E. Cook and Alice H. Cook Recognition Award for her contributions to empowering women and improving the climate for them at Cornell.  

As co-director of the Cornell Program for Achieving Career Excellence (PACE), Dr. Leifer is committed to creating opportunities and leadership roles for early career faculty. One component of the PACE program, called The Rising Stars, supports postdoctoral fellows from historically underrepresented backgrounds in science and prepares them for seeking faculty positions.  

“In the first few years of my career as a faculty member, I was fortunate to receive mentoring that equipped me with the knowledge and skills to be successful,” she said. “I took a lot of what I learned to develop programming for underrepresented groups in science here at Cornell.”  

In addition, Dr. Leifer is Faculty Core Co-Director of CornellFIRST (Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation), an NIH-funded program aimed at increasing minority faculty in the sciences. “I firmly believe that inclusivity in biomedical research cultivates creativity and leads to better science,” she said. 

Dr. Leifer also serves as president-elect of the Society for Leukocyte Biology. 

Grateful for her time at Weill Cornell Graduate School, her advice for today’s students is simple: “Take advantage of every opportunity, keep your mind focused on the research, and know that the training you get here will prepare you for amazing things in the future. 


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