Caltech professor Ibrahim Cissé applies physics to decode and understand RNA transcription

Published March 30, 2021
Source View Vilcek Foundation's Press Release

NEW YORK, March 29, 2021–The Vilcek Foundation recognizes the research contributions and work of Caltech professor Ibrahim Cissé in a new article and video. Cissé is the recipient of a 2021 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science.

The Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science are awarded annually to young immigrant scientists living and working in the United States. The awards are bestowed on individuals whose early-career work exemplifies outstanding scientific accomplishment, and represents a significant contribution to their field of study. Cissé receives the award for his use of super-resolution biological imaging to directly visualize the process of gene expression in living cells, and for his application of the physical sciences to RNA transcription to understand the behavior of biomolecules in living organisms.

Born in Niamey, Niger, Cissé moved to the United States at the age of 17 to learn English and to enroll in university. The youngest of five children, Cissé loved science from a young age. With encouragement from his mother, the Cissé family’s storage room was labeled “Laboratoire Cissé” and became the site of the budding physicist’s first experiments: deconstructing, learning about, and reconstructing his family’s appliances and devices.

The modern-day Cissé Lab uses single molecule and super-resolution imaging in live cells to study collective behaviors such as protein clustering as a result of dynamic biomolecular interactions in mammalian cells. Using physics as a framework for observation and understanding, Cissé says, “We unveil, often for the first time, that these clusters exist in living cells, and we expand both on the imaging approaches and the cellular and molecular biology techniques to discover the biophysical mechanisms of action, and their function in vivo.” The techniques that Ibrahim’s work has pioneered have the potential to help scientists to better understand the way protein aggregates form in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s.

Cissé has credited his undergraduate experience at North Carolina Central University as being fundamental in his approach to teaching and mentorship. “Having trained at a historically Black college was just an incredible way of learning to see and think about race, not just in America but also in Africa,” he says. “It gave me the knowledge and that empowerment that, no matter what adversity I was going to face, it is important to move forward in a way that will empower others and create opportunity for others.”

Says Leslie Voshall of the Rockefeller University, “Ibrahim’s work using cutting-edge microscopy to look at liquid phase separation is incredible. Applying the tools of physics to look at single molecules is inspiring. His work is beautiful and rigorous.”


Read the article and watch the video at the following link:

The Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science

For more information about the Vilcek Prizes for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science, read the Vilcek Foundation’s announcement from March 1, 2021, or contact

The Vilcek Foundation

The Vilcek Foundation raises awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States and fosters appreciation of the arts and sciences. The 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. Since 2000, the foundation has awarded over $5.8 million in prizes to foreign-born individuals and supported organizations with over $5.3 million in grants.

The Vilcek Foundation is a private operating foundation, a federally tax-exempt nonprofit organization under IRS Section 501(c)(3).


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