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

International Prize for biology

35th Presentation Ceremony, Acceptance Address, Selection Process

Presentation Ceremony was held
in the presence of Their Imperial Highnesses Crown Prince and
Crown Princess Akishino on November 29th

     The recipient of this year:

Dr. Naomi Ellen Pierce,
Hessel Professor of Biology, Harvard University, USA

On November 29th, a presentation ceremony for the 2019 International Prize for Biology was held at the Japan Academy in the presence of Their Imperial Highnesses the Crown Prince and Crown Princess, Mr. NISHIMURA Akihiro, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, and Mr. HAGIUDA Koichi, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. At the ceremony, Dr. Naomi Ellen Pierce was presented the Prize of ten-million yen and a medal by Dr. IMURA, Chair of the International Prize for Biology Committee, along with a Congratulatory Gift from His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Akishino.

An address was delivered by His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince, followed by congratulatory remarks by Prime Minister ABE (read by Mr. NISHIMURA), and Minister HAGIUDA. The ceremony ended with an acceptance address from Dr. Pierce. Following the ceremony, a reception honoring Dr. Pierce was held in the presence of Their Imperial Highnesses the Crown Prince and Crown Princess.

Dr. Pierce, holding the Congratulatory Gift with her spouse


Acceptance address by Dr. Naomi Ellen Pierce

I am deeply honored to receive the International Prize for Biology. Previous winners are among my greatest scientific heroes, and I am humbled to be recognized alongside these luminaries. I have been fortunate to have had outstanding students and collaborators, and I feel strongly that the prize should also be theirs, and not mine alone, but I am thrilled to be the one receiving it on behalf of us all.

It is also a special honor to receive this award in the presence of Their Imperial Highnesses Crown Prince and Crown Princess Akishino. The prize is an especially fitting commemoration of Emperor Showa and his descendants because of their longstanding commitment to biological research. I also thank the members of the Committee on the International Prize for Biology, the selection committee and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science for this honor and for their support of this field, the Biology of Insects.

I study insects because I was inspired by the vision, intellect, and enthusiasm of one of my undergraduate professors, Charles Remington. It was a privilege to learn from the very best. My doctoral advisor, Bert Hölldobler, taught by example through his insistence on rigor, scholarship and elegant experimental design. From graduate school onwards, I have been fortunate to count Edward O. Wilson first as a mentor and eventually as a colleague and friend. My postdoctoral advisor Roger Kitching has likewise supported and inspired me throughout my career. I benefitted enormously from working at Oxford with William D. Hamilton, and a particularly memorable experience for me was the trip we made with Shigeyuki Aoki and Utako Kurosu to observe soldier aphids at Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan. As with all science, my debt to others extends far beyond my own lab. I have had wonderful long-term collaborators, including Frederick Ausubel on insect/ plant/ pathogen interactions, Mark Elgar on lycaenid/ ant symbioses, and Nanfang Yu on the biophysics of insect perception and signaling. 

Family has always been of central importance to me, and I am especially grateful to my father, Arthur Pierce, a geophysicist who instilled in me his love of science and art, and my mother, Ruiko Pierce, a homemaker who through her unusual combination of fiery temper and unconditional love gave me the confidence to believe that anything is possible. My older sister, Tomi Pierce, was my best friend and partner in crime in all adventures, intellectual and otherwise.

My husband, Andrew Berry, has been my greatest support and my most insightful scientific critic for the past 35 years. Nothing induces rigor in scientific thinking more effectively than knowing that your ideas have to survive scrutiny at the family dinner table. Perhaps it is not surprising that our daughters, Katie and Megan Berry, have opted for non-scientific careers! 

Mention of my daughters, however, brings me to a consideration of the future. In this era of climate change, it is clear that my generation’s environmental legacy to our children is disastrous. This applies, too, to insects: diversity and abundance are declining precipitously worldwide. This is a reflection of the impact our species is having on the health of the planet as a whole. I hope that the choice made by the Committee on the International Prize for Biology for this award to recognize the Biology of Insects will send a signal that humans should be striving to reduce our global impact so that our children and their children can continue to benefit and take inspiration from the biology of insects.

The International Prize for Biology is of special significance to me because of my Japanese heritage. After I graduated from college, I spent almost a year living with my grandfather, the novelist Ishizaka Yojiro while I was studying butterflies and their host plants in the mountains close to his country house in Karuizawa. He once wrote about his birthplace near Tsugaru, “It is a region where the sky is blue, the snow is white, the apples are red and the women are beautiful. It is where my days were spent and my dreams were fostered.” 
Japan will always be that place for me, too, and I thank you again for this great honor.


Report on the Process of Selection

Dr. AGATA Kiyokazu
Chair, Selection Committee on the International Prize for Biology

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

On behalf of the Selection Committee for the 35th 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 the Biology of Insects. In order to obtain recommendations of suitable candidates, the Committee distributed a total of 1,611 recommendation forms to Japanese and foreign universities, research centers, academic associations, international academic organizations, and others. A total of 96 recommendations were received in response. After excluding recommendations naming the same individuals, the number of persons recommended was 58, from 26 countries and regions.

The Selection Committee met a total of four times, very carefully reviewed all the candidates, and recommended Dr. Naomi Ellen Pierce to the Prize Committee as the recipient of the 35th International Prize for Biology.

After obtaining her doctoral degree from Harvard University, Dr. Pierce continued her research at the University of Oxford and Princeton University. She is currently the Hessel Professor of Biology at Harvard University.

Dr. Pierce’s behavioral ecological research on the symbiosis between lycaenid butterfly larvae and ants has contributed greatly to understanding of the evolution of inter-species symbiosis. She developed molecular phylogenies of butterflies and ants, as well as orchids and euglossine bees. Using contemporary comparative methods combining the information thus obtained with ecological data, Dr. Pierce presented a succession of novel ideas that brought significant progress in shedding light on the symbiotic relationships between these insects and plants, as well as on the diversification of species. Embracing state-of-the-art technologies, Dr. Pierce proposes new topics of research, employing research methods inspired and directed by her interest in natural history that result in an ever-expanding range of species studied. Dr. Pierce’s distinguished achievements in pioneering such a field of research, notable for its breadth as well as its depth, are highly acclaimed.

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. Pierce’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 35th International Prize for Biology on Dr. Naomi Ellen Pierce.

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


Commemorative Symposium for the 35th International Prize for Biology

To mark the award to Dr. Pierce, a Commemorative Symposium for the 35th International Prize for Biology, “Biological sciences related to insect sociality and symbiosis” was held on November 30 and December 1 2019 in Tokyo, co-organized by the National Museum of Nature and Science and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.