Secretariat of the International Prize for Biology, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)

International Prize for biology

33rd Presentation Ceremony, Acceptance Address, Selection Process

Presentation Ceremony was held
in the presence of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress
on December 4th

     The recipient of this year:

Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell,
Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland,
College Park

On December 4th, a presentation ceremony for the 2017 International Prize for Biology was held at the Japan Academy in the presence of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress, Mr. Yasutoshi Nishimura, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, and Mr. Yoshimasa Hayashi, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. At the ceremony, Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell was presented the Prize of ten-million yen and a medal by Dr. Hironaka, Chair of the Committee, along with an Imperial gift from His Majesty the Emperor.

Congratulatory remarks were delivered by Prime Minister Abe (read by Mr. Nishimura) and Minister Hayashi. The ceremony ended with an acceptance address from Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell. Following the ceremony, a reception honoring Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell was held in the presence of Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress.

Dr. Colwell, holding Imperial Gift with her daughter

Dr. Colwell, holding Imperial Gift with her daughter




Acceptance Address by Rita Rossi Colwell

Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell   

Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell

I am truly honored to receive this prestigious award, the International Prize for Biology, in the presence of Their Majesties, the Emperor and Empress. I am deeply moved to receive an award which commemorates the 60th year of Emperor Showa’s reign because this prize is a tribute to the passionate work in, and commitment to, biological research by both Emperor Showa and the present Emperor and recognition of the extent of their accomplishments. It is my wish to express my deep gratitude to their Majesties.

I acknowledge and thank members of the Committee on the International Prize for Biology and members of the Selection Committee for this recognition.

In every successful scientific career there are mentors, colleagues, former students, postdoctoral fellows, and visiting scientists from many countries. I wish to thank all those who have made my work and career possible. This honor is theirs as well as mine. There are many fortunate events and encounters that have helped me on the long and often difficult road in research. I studied under Professor Alan Burdick, Purdue University, in his Drosophila genetics laboratory, providing a foundation for work in metagenomics. My studies continued at the University of Washington with Professor John Liston, in marine microbiology, a new discipline at that time. In Seattle, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Minoru Sakai and his student at the time, Dr. Takahisa Kimura, University of Hokkaido, when their research ship docked in Seattle. That introduction led to lasting friendships and years of collaboration with University of Hokkaido School of Oceanography and University of Tokyo Ocean Research Institute. A multi-year exchange program was funded by the Governments of Japan and United States which proved extremely productive. To this day, I collaborate with Japanese colleagues and scientists from many countries of the world.

Now I am doing research on the microbiome, employing next generation DNA sequencing to detect, identify, and characterize microorganisms accurately and rapidly to species and strains, based on research tracing back to my PhD on the taxonomy of marine bacteria. This work has application in marine biology, medicine, agriculture, and the environment, including analysis of drinking water for developed and developing countries. My work on water borne diseases, namely cholera, has been deeply satisfying from both discovery of bacterial survival mechanisms and ecological principles but also direct application to human health. An effective, simple filtration method was developed, based on scientific evidence derived from basic research and has been implemented in villages of Bangladesh and remote regions of Africa.

Life sciences are incredibly important today but the discoveries being made are based on work of predecessors and colleagues. My work over forty years was possible through the tireless efforts of many wonderful collaborators. I wish to thank Dr. Anwar Huq, University of Maryland, and many colleagues from Bangladesh and other countries of the world. To each of them I offer my heartfelt thanks and wish to share this honor.

I express my sincere gratitude to my late parents, notably my father, Louis Rossi, who believed girls should be educated to the fullest of their abilities and was a constant supporter of my educational ambitions. I cannot express my gratitude enough for my husband and fellow scientist, Dr. Jack Colwell. He made it possible for me to be a scientist and share with him, very happy and joyful life and family. He collaborated with me in the best of life science experiments, namely raising two successful daughters, Alison, an evolutionary biologist, and Stacie, a physician scientist. I wish he could be with me today but his health did not permit. I have with me my granddaughter, Adelaide Colwell Canning, a young woman planning her own career in neuroscience. She is able to experience the beauty and elegance of Japanese culture and learn of the innovative science being done, perhaps herself to collaborate in the future with fellow scientists in Japan.

Lastly I wish to speak to the younger generation, especially women: follow your instincts and do what you love best and you will find success. Keep an open mind, ask questions, and believe in yourself. The future is bright, despite obstacles you may have to overcome. Stay the course. The rewards unquestionably merit the effort.

Lastly, a word to the younger generation who will be the biologists of the future: there are unanswered questions all around us, questions that have not even been identified as such. My advice to you is to observe phenomena with your own eyes and an open mind, register your doubts, believe in yourself and press on, without allowing yourself to be swept along by fashions or outside pressures, toward discoveries of the logic of life.

As for the future, I will continue my work on metagenomics and microbial identification and continue to mentor young scientists. The work I began forty years ago continues to evolve and produce fascinating results. Those findings may change the world of marine microbiology.

Thank you for the honor you have bestowed on me today.


Report on the Process of Selection

Dr. Hiroo Fukuda
Chair, Selection Committee on the International Prize for Biology

Hiroo Fukuda

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

On behalf of the Selection Committee for the 33rd International Prize for Biology, it gives me great pleasure to report on this year’s selection process.

The Selection Committee consisted of twenty members, including myself and four overseas researchers.

The field of specialization for this year’s prize was Marine Biology. In order to obtain recommendations of suitable candidates, the Committee distributed a total of 1,503 recommendation forms to Japanese and foreign universities, research centers, academic associations, international academic organizations, and others. A total of 44 recommendations were received in response. After excluding recommendations naming the same individuals, the number of persons recommended was 40, from 17 countries.

The Selection Committee met a total of four times, very carefully reviewed all the candidates, and recommended Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell to the Prize Committee as the recipient of the 33rd International Prize for Biology.

After obtaining her doctoral degree from the University of Washington, Dr. Colwell continued her research at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, and also served as director of the US National Science Foundation. She is currently a Distinguished University Professor both at the University of Maryland at College Park and at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. Colwell introduced new techniques for identifying and classifying marine bacteria, and established the taxonomy of vibrios, which include Vibrio cholerae. Based on ecological studies of marine bacteria, she proposed that as a key survival strategy, vibrio cells can enter a state in which they remain viable but cannot be cultured. This concept has had a profound influence on microbiology and medicine. Noting that vibrios are expanding their habitat range due to global warming, she showed the connection of this to the wider occurrence of cholera. She has won high acclaim also for her efforts toward cholera prevention in developing countries.

The selection criteria for this prize consisted of the relevance of the candidate’s research to the selected field of biology, its originality, its influence on the field of biology in question, and its contribution to advancing progress in biological science as a whole. Dr. Colwell’s work more than amply satisfied all these selection criteria.

The Committee on the International Prize for Biology deliberated on the basis of our recommendation, and decided to bestow the 33rd International Prize for Biology on Dr. Rita Rossi Colwell.

With this, I conclude my report on the process of selection.