Change Agent Scientist Wins Top International Biology Prize

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UMD scientist & former NSF Director Rita Colwell honored for groundbreaking discoveries in marine microbiology, bioinformatics, microbiomes and cholera prevention

UMD Distinguished University Professor Rita Colwell in her lab

Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), has been named the 2017 laureate of the International Prize for Biology for her outstanding contributions to marine microbiology, bioinformatics, microbiomes and the understanding and prevention of cholera.

Colwell is the thirty-third recipient of the International Prize for Biology, generally recognized as one of the most prestigious honors a natural scientist can receive. Past laureates include such other renowned biologists as John B. Gurdon, Motoo Kimura, Edward O. Wilson, Ernst Mayr, and Thomas Cavalier-Smith.

In awarding the prize, Japan’s Society for the Promotion of Science honored Colwell as a pioneer in the use of computational tools and DNA sequencing to identify and classify marine bacteria and other microorganisms, work that helped lay the foundation for the bioinformatics revolution.

The prize also recognizes Colwell’s life-saving contributions to the understanding and prevention of cholera, an acute diarrheal disease, caused by ingestion of water or food contaminated with Vibrio cholera, which according to the World Health Organization is responsible for approximately 1 to 4 million illnesses and 20,000 to 140,000 deaths each year.

Colwell, whose career bridges the disciplines of microbiology, ecology, infectious disease, public health, and computer and satellite technology, continues to be a leader in bioinformatics, notably in understanding microbiomes and the application of this knowledge to human health and the diagnosis and treatment of disease. This includes her current work as founder and chairman of CosmosID, Inc., a microbial genomics company focused on molecular diagnostics of human pathogens and antimicrobial resistance.

“It is an extraordinary honor to be named recipient of the International Prize for Biology, a very special honor for a biologist,” said Colwell. “I am deeply grateful to the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for this award. I have many friends and colleagues in Japan and look forward to continuing my many collaborations with them.”

The selection committee also cited Colwell's transformational work in these areas:
Establishing the taxonomy of vibrio bacteria, which includes Vibrio cholerae.
Identifying a previously unknown survival strategy of dormant vibrio cells, which the committee said "has had a profound influence on microbiology and medicine.”
Showing how climate change has expanded the habitat range of vibrios, and the occurrence of cholera.
Helping prevent the spread of cholera in developing countries by discovering and demonstrating an effective way to use the sari, the traditional dress of women on the Indian subcontinent, as a filter to remove vibrio-carrying plankton from drinking water drawn from ponds, rivers and other surface waters.

There is no Nobel Prize for biology, but Japan’s International Prize for Biology is one of three prizes often considered to be biology’s equivalent. The other two honors often placed in this category are the Balzan Prize and Crafoord Prize.

"We are extremely proud of Dr. Colwell's indelible impact on the field of biology and, more importantly, on human lives," said UMD Interim Vice President for Research Amitabh Varshney. "We applaud her fearless pursuit of translational research and life-saving solutions to global health challenges."

The International Prize for Biology was instituted in April 1985 by the Committee on the
International Prize for Biology. The prize, consisting of a certificate, a medal and an award of 10-million yen (more than $90,000) is given to the recipient, along with an imperial gift, a silver vase bearing the imperial crest. The award presentation ceremony and a subsequent reception in honor of Colwell will held in late 2017 at the Japanese Academy in Japan.

Colwell joined the University of Maryland faculty in 1972 and has been a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, Bloomberg School of Public Health since 2004. She is chairman emeritus at Canon US Life Sciences, Inc. She holds a dozen U.S. patents, most involving computational biology.

Colwell’s passion for science was obvious at an early age. As a sixth-grader, her school principal said to her, “You received the highest science test score ever. You have a responsibility to meet your potential and you must go to college.” But this was in the 1940s, and discrimination against women, especially in the sciences, was an obstacle. Hurdles she faced included a high school science teacher who told her not to bother with chemistry in college, as it was not a career suitable for women, and a department chair who denied her a master’s degree fellowship because they were “wasted on women.” Colwell’s steely determination to succeed was apparent, then and now.

Her decision to pursue a career in genetics introduced her to the emerging field of molecular biology and the very earliest use of computers in the pursuit of understanding complex biological systems. In the 1960s, Colwell was the first researcher in the U.S to develop a computer program to analyze bacteriological data. She continued and expanded this work at the University of Maryland beginning in 1972. Today, bioinformatics is used at the very forefront of biological scientific research due to her efforts, along with colleagues, to promote the use of computing tools to facilitate the study of biology.

Colwell’s lifelong passion for studying environmental microbiology, especially in marine environments was fostered by her childhood fascination with the ocean. This passion led to her discovery, in the 1970s, of the presence of Vibrio cholerae, the causative agent of cholera, in the waters of Chesapeake Bay. At the time, conventional wisdom held that cholera was spread from person to person, or from consuming tainted food or drinking water and that its presence in the environment could only be due to the release of sewage into rivers, lakes, streams, and other waters. She proved that the bacteria were native to the aquatic environment, attached to zooplankton, and that that certain bacteria, such as Vibrio species, are capable of entering a dormant state.

Colwell has received a great many awards and recognitions, including the 2017 Vannevar Bush Award given by the U.S. National Science Board; the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden; the 2006 National Medal of Science awarded by the president of the United States; and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star bestowed by the Emperor of Japan. She is the recipient of 61 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education and has a geological site in Antarctica, Colwell Massif, named in recognition of her work in the polar regions.

Colwell was the 11th director of the National Science Foundation and the first woman to head the agency. She also co-chaired the Committee on Science, National Science and Technology Council. She has held numerous advisory positions in the U.S. government, nonprofit science policy organizations, and private foundations and has authored or co-authored 19 books and more than 800 scientific publications.

Colwell also has served as chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Microbiology, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington Academy of Sciences, American Society for Microbiology, Sigma Xi National Science Honorary Society, International Union of Microbiological Societies, and American Institute of Biological Sciences. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Royal Irish Academy, Bangladesh Academy of Science, Indian Academy of Science, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Inventors.

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