Rita Colwell First Woman Recipient of Global Water Research Prize

American microbiologist Rita Colwell is the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laurate. Photo: Public Utilities Board, a statutory board under Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

American microbiologist Rita Colwell is the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laurate. Photo: Public Utilities Board, a statutory board under Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative congratulates Dr. Rita Colwell on her selection as the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize Laureate for her work in revolutionizing the fight against water borne diseases. The award announcement was held in conjunction with the Singapore International Water Week and the launch of the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018 – 2028.

The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is the premier award among its global peers, by focusing on innovative water technologies, policies, or programs that have been game-changers in their real-world application. Highlighted at the announcement ceremony were Dr. Colwell’s pioneering insights into water quality surveillance and her pivotal contributions to translating these insights into concrete practices and policies to better manage water borne diseases and protect public health.

“The water prize provides an opportunity to promulgate on a very wide scale the importance of water,” said Dr. Colwell. “I’m honored and a bit humbled because this is a global water prize.  But it also inspires me because it provides an opportunity to have a forum, a pulpit, that I would not have had otherwise to be able to express some of the very strong feelings that I have and the passion that I have for the work that I do.”

Professor Colwell’s breakthrough research in water microbiology, in particular her discovery of the viable but non-culturable (VBNC) phenomenon in bacteria, has helped tackle cholera and other waterborne diseases. Her discoveries were initially met with skepticism because in the 1970’s, non-culturable bacteria were thought to be dead and incapable of causing harm. However, the phenomenon is now known to exist in over 50 bacterial species, many of which are potentially harmful. Her contributions have led to the development of faster and more accurate techniques for detecting pathogens in water.

Dr. Colwell’s research has been translated into practical use. For example, she discovered that sari cloth could be used as an effective filter for drinking water, and this affordable and practical solution led to a 48% reduction in the incidence of cholera in 65 villages in rural Bangladesh.

The award will help Dr. Colwell continue her work in Bangladesh and extend it to water safety in Africa. She will deliver the Singapore Water Lecture on 9 July 2018 and receive the $300,000 prize and gold medallion at the Lee Kuan Yew Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet, a flagship program of the Singapore International Water Week co-located with the World Cities Summit and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore.

This prestigious international award is named after Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, whose foresight and leadership has enabled Singapore to attain a sustainable water supply.

Rita Colwell is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Founder and Chair of CosmosID, Inc., and Chair of the GoMRI Research Board. She is the recipient of numerous national and international awards and honors, including 55 honorary degrees, and holds many leadership and advisory positions in U.S. Government and nonprofit science policy organizations, private foundations, and the international scientific research community.


The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) is a 10-year independent research program established to study the effect, and the potential associated impact, of hydrocarbon releases on the environment and public health, as well as to develop improved spill mitigation, oil detection, characterization and remediation technologies. An independent and academic 20-member Research Board makes the funding and research direction decisions to ensure the intellectual quality, effectiveness and academic independence of the GoMRI research. All research data, findings and publications will be made publicly available. The program was established through a $500 million financial commitment from BP. For more information, visit https://gulfresearchinitiative.org/.

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