Martin Jonikas receives Vilcek Prizes honoring immigrants’ outstanding contributions

Written by
Office of Communications, Jamie Saxon, Princeton University
Feb. 7, 2020

Princeton’s Martin Jonikas, assistant professor of molecular biology, and writer Jenny Xie, a 2008 alumna, have received 2020 Vilcek Foundation Prizes, which recognize the career achievements and creative promise of foreign-born innovators in the sciences, arts and humanities.

The Vilcek Foundation was established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia. The mission of the foundation, to honor immigrant contributions to the United States, and more broadly, to foster appreciation of the arts and sciences, was inspired by the couple’s respective careers in biomedical science and art history.

onikas is one of three recipients of the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, a $50,000 prize awarded to young immigrant scientists whose early career work represents a profound advance in their respective fields.

Jonikas was born in Paris to parents who emigrated from Poland; his family moved to the U.S. when he was 8. He joined the University in 2016.

A citation from the Vilcek Foundation states: “Jonikas has used molecular biology to advance the single-celled green algae Chlamydomonas as a widely used model for photosynthesis — a biochemical process at the heart of global food production. He and his colleagues have unraveled the molecular makeup, structure and assembly of pyrenoids, which are cellular compartments found in photosynthetic organisms that can absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide. This work could aid efforts to engineer pyrenoids into species that lack them, paving the way toward environment-friendly food production and helping to combat climate change.”

His research on green algae may also yield important insights into ensuring the availability of fast-growing crops for an expanding world population.

In a video profile produced by the Vilcek Foundation, Jonikas says, “Our world is facing major challenges in food production and the global carbon cycle. … My dream is to leave this world a better place than when I found it.”

Jonikas and Xie will accept their awards at a ceremony at the Mandarin Oriental in New York City on April 2.