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Cunicelli ’14: Blooming in Her Field of Expertise

Mia Cunicelli ’14, Ph.D., who works as a plant breeder at VISION Bioenergy Oilseeds in Nampa, Idaho, first found her love for botany as a cadet at VMI.—Photo courtesy Cunicelli.

Mia Cunicelli ’14, Ph.D., spends her days pursuing a unique passion—working in an Idaho crop field developing new lines of plants. She first found her love for this specialized field of plant breeding—to which she dedicated more than 6 years of schooling—at VMI.

At VISION Bioenergy Oilseeds in Nampa, Idaho, Cunicelli grows new varieties of camelina, an ancient crop that produces seed-based oil to be used in biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuels. At VBO, Cunicelli’s breeding goal is to create high-yielding varieties with high oil content for biodiesel production.

When Cunicelli first came to VMI with academic and athletic scholarships, she was interested in the sciences as a chemistry major but unsure which career path she might pursue. It wasn’t until she took a botany course with Col. Anne B. Alerding, Ph.D., professor of biology, that she discovered her passion. For Cunicelli, the connection was instant. “My professor just really knocked it out of the park with the labs, all that we learned, and the activities that we did. I just loved it and loved that class,” said Cunicelli. She found she had “a knack for and a brain for thinking about plants,” and her studies and good grades came naturally alongside her interest in the coursework. “I just found something that I was good at, something that I was interested in, and that meshed into me loving it.”

With her newfound direction, Cunicelli switched majors and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a chemistry minor. After graduation, she spent another year at VMI, utilizing a funded opportunity to be a lab assistant with Alerding and gain valuable research experience while she applied to graduate school. The next year, Cunicelli began work toward a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics from the University of Tennessee and then earned a Doctor of Philosophy degree in plant, soil, and environmental sciences from that university, as well. After completing her doctorate in 2020, Cunicelli spent 2 additional years as a U.S. Department of Agriculture postdoctoral research fellow.

Achieving her career goals meant switching majors to biology and still graduating on time—all while competing as a cadet-athlete on the swim and dive team—and working full-time while studying in graduate school, but Cunicelli says VMI taught her the time management skills she needed to succeed. “I swam, I had school, we had uniform inspections, and studies; and so with all the extracurriculars and with all those added commitments, I really learned how to manage my time and to multitask,” said Cunicelli.

After dedicating almost a decade to researching and studying, Cunicelli began her first industry job as a camelina plant breeder with VBO in May 2023. The oil from camelina seeds is used as biofuel in the movement toward low-carbon-emission fuel. In her role, Cunicelli is developing strains of camelina with high oil and yield, which are then sold to Shell Oil, which has an offtake agreement with VBO in which they crush the camelina seed for oil for biodiesel production. “My job as a plant breeder is to take the ancestral camelina lines that have been developed, breed them, and cross-pollinate them to create new varieties and new lines with traits of economic importance, traits of interest specific to our company,” she said.

Cunicelli loves the day-to-day variety in her job, which fluctuates depending on the camelina growing season. During the spring and winter seasons, Cunicelli spends the majority of her time taking field notes and checking on the crops. “I can go out and take field notes in the middle of the day and then come back. I can go ride on the tractor and plant seeds … But then, I also have the opportunity to do statistics and data analysis and to prove out what [camelina] lines I’ve created and how they either are better or worse than other lines that are out there or other lines that I’ve developed. It’s really interesting to get that data back and see actual results.”

True to her interests in the field, Cunicelli also plans to continue to pursue publishing opportunities in addition to her current work. To this day, she also keeps in touch with Alerding, who first ignited Cunicelli’s love for botany and now-blossoming career.

  • Mattie Montgomery

    Mattie Montgomery Assistant Editor

    The assistant editor assists the editor-in-chief in various tasks relating to the production of quarterly and monthly publications, as well as prepares written materials for publication. The assistant editor serves as liaison between class agents and chapter presidents and the Agencies’ publications, as well as provides backup photography for events.