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Professor Rita Colwell
LEE KUAN YEW WATER PRIZE 2018
Citation for Professor Rita R. Colwell
Professor Rita Colwell is awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018 for her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance, and her pivotal contributions in translating these insights into concrete practices and policies to better manage waterborne diseases and protect public health. Her breakthrough discovery of the “viable but non-culturable” (VBNC) phenomenon showed that bacteria can exist in a state in which they are alive and can cause harm even though they cannot be cultured. While met with scepticism from many prominent scientists at that time, the VBNC phenomenon has now been shown to exist in more than 50 species of bacteria, including many pathogens. Building upon this discovery, Professor Colwell was an early and active proponent of the use of novel molecular methods for more accurate and comprehensive diagnostics of water pathogens.
Professor Colwell also discovered that Vibrio cholerae, previously thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside the human host, occurs naturally in the aquatic environment associated with plankton. This discovery highlighted the critical link between the environment and the cholera disease, leading to her subsequent application of satellite imagery and modelling to predict cholera outbreaks, and the innovative use of affordable sari cloth filters to dramatically reduce drinking water contamination.
Working across disciplines from biology, engineering, and computing to public health and policy, Professor Colwell has fundamentally changed the way we think of water microbiology. Her seminal work has significantly contributed to the understanding and prevention of waterborne diseases, helping to improve water safety, and protect the health and lives of millions of people worldwide.
Professor Colwell is awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018 for her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance, and her pivotal contributions in translating these insights into concrete practices and policies to better manage waterborne diseases and protect public health. A world-renowned water scientist, Professor Colwell’s discoveries and innovations have fundamentally changed the world’s understanding of water microbiology.
Throughout her career, Professor Colwell has continuously challenged conventional norms and wisdom, overcoming scepticism and resistance from the scientific community. In the 1980s, when culture-based methods were widely thought to be the gold standard for determining bacterial viability, Professor Colwell’s lab discovered and demonstrated that bacteria can exist in a state in which they are alive and can cause harm even though they cannot be cultured. She coined the term “viable but non-culturable” (VBNC) to describe this phenomenon, and highlighted that the use of traditional culture-based methods to determine the safety of water was inadequate. This breakthrough discovery was met with scepticism from many prominent scientists at that time, but has now been shown to exist in more than 50 species of bacteria, including many pathogens. Professor Colwell’s work in this area has been cited more than 2000 times to date, a testament to the importance of this discovery in advancing the scientific community’s understanding and surveillance of pathogens.
Building upon her discovery of the VBNC phenomenon, Professor Colwell was an early and active proponent of the use of novel molecular methods for more accurate and comprehensive diagnostics of water pathogens. She is the key inventor of an approach that uses whole genome sequencing, along with specialised databases, to identify precisely the phylogenetic lineage of a bacterial isolate and determine its virulence and antibiotic resistance gene profile. In the past few years, Professor Colwell has been focusing her efforts on translating the use of this rapid diagnostic technology (the GENIUS system by CosmosID, Inc.) to a wide range of applications, encompassing drinking, recreational, agricultural and recycled waters.
Another breakthrough discovery by Professor Colwell was her earlier work in the 1970s on Vibrio cholerae. She discovered that Vibrio bacteria, previously thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside the human host, can occur naturally in the aquatic environment and are associated with zooplankton in the water. This significant discovery transformed the world’s understanding of the occurrence and transmission of cholera, opening up new opportunities for surveillance and prediction of the disease through environmental monitoring, and prevention and control of outbreaks through mitigation measures targeted at environmental factors. Beyond the study of cholera, this elucidation of the critical linkage between changes in environmental conditions and disease was significant in leading to further research in the 1990s, showing that climate change could considerably affect the prevalence and spread of human diseases.
Following her discovery of the relationship between plankton and cholera, Professor Colwell was the first to employ satellite sensors and predictive models to link sea surface temperature and chlorophyll to disease outbreaks. The model she developed has been successively refined, and together with subsequent teams she mentored, they are now able to predict outbreaks with a few months’ lead time. This model can be further generalised to related waterborne diseases and applied in both developing and developed countries.
Notwithstanding her prominent achievements in employing cutting-edge technology and diagnostics, Professor Colwell also applied her scientific knowledge in the most practicable and effective manner to reduce contamination and bring about the maximum impact for the community. Through advocating the use of an everyday sari cloth to filter the water for drinking, she successfully reduced the incidence of cholera by 48% in 65 villages of rural Bangladesh. This accessible yet revolutionary and practical solution helped rapidly reduce the incidence of cholera in Bangladesh, and has also been applied in other cholera-endemic areas such as India and South America.
In addition to her seminal scientific contributions, Professor Colwell is also an influential scientific advisor and public administrator who has led and shaped policy and practice through the numerous advisory and leadership positions she held in the U.S. Government, non-profit organisations, as well as scientific advisory boards. Her work spans the globe, from Africa, Bangladesh, India, Singapore to Central and South America, where she has advised governments and communities in tackling cholera and other waterborne diseases. The knowledge she provided has been translated into better policies and improved water treatment in many parts of the world.
Professor Colwell’s accomplishments and commitment to the pursuit of science and its application are exceptional. Over her immensely rich and multi-faceted career which continues till today, she has benefited the lives of millions worldwide through her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance and her tireless efforts in building upon these insights to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases.
About Professor Rita R. Colwell
Distinguished University Professor at both the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Professor Rita Colwell is one of the most well-known and respected water scientists in the world today. She has served as Senior Advisor and is Chairman Emeritus of Canon U.S. Life Sciences, Inc., and is Global Science Officer and Chairman of CosmosID, Inc., a company she founded for advancing next generation sequence technology to address whole genome analysis for pathogens in water and food. Professor Colwell holds a B.S. in Bacteriology and an M.S. in Genetics, from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Washington.
Throughout her prolific scientific career, Professor Colwell has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 800 scientific publications, and has been awarded 61 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education. In addition to her extraordinary scientific discoveries and accolades, Professor Colwell’s relentless drive and leadership in translating these insights into concrete practices and policies to better manage waterborne diseases are equally remarkable. She held numerous advisory positions in the U.S. Government, non-profit science policy organisations, private foundations, as well as international scientific advisory boards.
She was the 11th Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and also Chair and member of several national committees that helped draft regulations for drinking and recreational water.