Colwell Receives Prestigious Appointment to France’s Legion of Honor

Wed Nov 22, 2017

Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), has been awarded the rank of Chevalier (Knight) in the Legion of Honor by decree of the President of the French Republic. Colwell was presented the Insignia of Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by Gérard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States, in a ceremony on November 20 at the ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C.

France's Legion of Honor, which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, rewards both military and civilian merit. According to the Légion d'Honneur website: “The Legion of Honor brings together, around the criterion of personal merit in the service of the nation [France], famous personalities as well as citizens unknown to the broader public.”

“It gives me great pleasure to extend my warmest congratulations to you on being recently appointed to the rank of Chevalier in the Legion of Honor by decree of the President of the French Republic,” wrote Ambassador Araud in the official award letter.

“This high honor reflects France’s profound gratitude as expressed by the President of the French Republic and acknowledges your exemplary personal commitment to trans-Atlantic collaboration with several French universities in the fields of environment, water and global infectious diseases,” continued Araud, who also cited Colwell’s major role in the promotion of science and in inspiring many students around the world to pursue scientific careers.

Colwell's career bridges many areas, including microbiology, ecology, infectious disease, public health and computer and satellite technology. She continues to be a world leader in the fight against water-borne diseases, particularly cholera, and in bioinformatics, especially for understanding microbiomes and applying this knowledge to human health and to the diagnosis and treatment of disease.

Colwell’s many achievements and firsts include:

• establishing the taxonomy of vibrio bacteria, which includes Vibrio cholerae and identifying a previously unknown survival strategy of dormant vibrio cells;

• showing how climate change has expanded the habitat range of vibrios, and the occurrence of cholera;

• helping prevent the spread of cholera in developing countries by discovering and demonstrating an effective way to use the sari, the traditional dress of women on the Indian subcontinent, as a filter to remove vibrio-carrying plankton from drinking water drawn from ponds, rivers and other surface waters;

• receiving a dozen U.S. patents, most involving computational biology;

• founding the company CosmosID, which uses next-generation DNA sequencing to advance new discoveries in microbiome research; and

• leading numerous science organizations, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1998–2004 as NSF’s first woman director.

The Legion of Honor is the latest of Colwell’s many recognitions and awards, which also include the 2017 International Prize for Biology, recognized as one of the most prestigious honors for a natural scientist; the 2006 U.S. National Medal of Science; the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize; “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star,” awarded by the Emperor of Japan; and membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Swedish Royal Academy of Science, Irish Royal Academy of Science, the Bangladesh and Indian academies of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Inventors.