Rita Colwell, distinguished professor in the University of Maryland's cell biology and molecular genetics department, and Shafiqul Islam, Tufts University professor and Water Diplomacy Program director, were awarded the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water last week for their work in predicting cholera outbreaks three to six months in advance by using satellites to monitor chlorophyll levels.
"I was very surprised," Colwell said. "In fact, I did not know that I had been nominated. I didn't know the award existed. It was very pleasing, of course."
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presided over the award ceremony on Nov. 2 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Until Colwell began her work on this project in 1960, it was widely believed that cholera was only transmitted from person to person. However, Colwell and her team's research over the years has shown that it is caused by environmental factors and is associated with natural bacteria on the zooplankton.
"[This research] demonstrates the power of research at College Park, and it demonstrates the strength of the University of Maryland as a research institution," Colwell said. "It's an opportunity for students — undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate — to participate in meaningful and important research."
Abdulmalek Al Alshaikh, the general secretary of the prize, said giving out this award entailed an "extremely rigorous evaluation process."
The process, which includes three levels of evaluation, "takes an entire year to complete and involves dozens of leading scientists around the world," Al Alshaikh said. "We receive nominations from scientists all over the world."
Nearly 20 years after Colwell began her work on studying the root causes of cholera outbreaks, Colwell and Islam wrote a joint proposal in 1999 for an NIH challenge grant. Receiving this grant spurred their interdisciplinary collaboration, though Islam said Colwell "was the first one to find out that cholera has an environmental cause, meaning that cholera simply cannot be eliminated like smallpox."
After using satellite imagery to measure chlorophyll, a pigment involved in photosynthesis, researchers can measure when the phytoplankton bloom, or have a major population growth. Three to six weeks after the phytoplankton bloom, zooplankton will bloom, too. One week later, there will likely be a cholera outbreak, Colwell said.
The phytoplankton is the first level of the food chain, and zooplankton is the second, Islam said. While zooplankton can be measured, "it's extremely expensive … [and] you cannot do it on a continuous basis."
Antar Jutla, civil engineering professor at West Virginia University, worked in Colwell's lab as both a doctoral student and postdoctoral student.
"It was pretty encouraging to see that the work I'm doing with her was making an impact," Jutla said.
Although the model in and of itself doesn't prevent cholera, predicting it months in advance allows health professionals to prepare accordingly.
"Instead of going in and vaccinating [everyone] you can determine where the epidemic will begin, and then efficiently use vaccines, provide safe water and be prepared with medical response," Colwell said.
This is especially important, because the amount of vaccines that can be created globally is less than 10 percent of the need, Islam said. Vaccines are also expensive, and most of the cholera outbreaks happen in developing countries — cholera is known as "the disease of the poor."
While Colwell's project has already been tested with chlorophyll information from satellites over the Bay of Bengal region to predict outbreaks in Bangladesh, she said she expects the World Health Organization to more widely implement it in the next three to five years.
For this university's cell biology and molecular genetics chair Jonathan Dinman, Colwell is "a real trailblazer" whose research and recognition "reinforces the … notion of excellence in the biosciences and just excellence in STEM education."
"Dr. Colwell is a legend," Dinman said. "We stand on the shoulders of giants, and she's a giant."
Staff writer Rachel Kuipers contributed to this report.