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UMD-Led Quantum Light Research Enables Sources of Nearly Identical Photons

September 11, 2018

Emily Edwards, 301-405-2291

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The smallest amount of light you can have is one photon, so dim that it’s pretty much invisible to humans. While imperceptible, these tiny blips of energy are useful for carrying quantum information around. Ideally, every quantum courier would be the same, but there isn’t a straightforward way to produce a stream of identical photons. This is particularly challenging when individual photons come from fabricated chips.

Now, researchers at the University of Maryland have demonstrated a new approach that enables different devices to repeatedly emit nearly identical single photons. The team, led by UMD Associate Professor Mohammad Hafezi, made a silicon chip that guides light around the device’s edge, where it is inherently protected against disruptions.

Previously, Hafezi—who has affiliations in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, the UMD-based Joint Quantum Institute, and UMD’s Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics—together with colleagues showed that this design can reduce the likelihood of optical signal degradation. Their findings were published online September 10 in Nature.

“We initially thought that we would need to be more careful with the design, and that the photons would be more sensitive to our chip’s fabrication process,” said lead author Sunil Mittal, an assistant research scientist in UMD’s Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics and a postdoctoral researcher in the Joint Quantum Institute. “But, astonishingly, photons generated in these shielded edge channels are always nearly identical, regardless of how bad the chips are.”

In this work, the team found that the same physics which protects the light along the chip’s edge also ensures reliable photon production. Single photons, which are an example of quantum light, are more than just really dim light. This distinction has a lot to do with where the light comes from.

“Pretty much all of the light we encounter in our everyday lives is packed with photons,” said Elizabeth Goldschmidt, a researcher at the US Army Research Laboratory and the Joint Quantum Institute and a co-author on the study.  “But unlike a light bulb, there are some sources that actually emit light, one photon at time, and this can only be described by quantum physics.”

Many researchers are working on building reliable quantum light emitters so that they can isolate and control the quantum properties of single photons. Goldschmidt explained that such light sources will likely be important for future quantum information devices as well as further understanding the mysteries of quantum physics. “Modern communications relies heavily on non-quantum light,” said Goldschmidt. “Similarly, many of us believe that single photons are going to be required for any kind of quantum communication application out there.”

Scientists can generate quantum light using a natural color-changing process that occurs when a beam of light passes through certain materials. In this experiment the team used silicon, a common industrial choice for guiding light, to convert infrared laser light into pairs of different-colored single photons.

They injected light into a chip containing an array of miniscule silicon loops. Under the microscope, the loops look like linked-up glassy racetracks. The light circulates around each loop thousands of times before moving on to a neighboring loop. Stretched out, the light’s path would be several centimeters long, but the loops make it possible to fit the journey in a space that is about 500 times smaller. The relatively long journey is necessary to get many pairs single photons out of the silicon chip.  

Such loop arrays are routinely used as single photon sources, but small differences between chips will cause the photon colors to vary from one device to the next. Even within a single device, random defects in the material may reduce the average photon quality. This is a problem for quantum information applications where researchers need the photons to be as close to identical as possible.

The team circumvented this issue by arranging the loops in a way that always allows the light to travel undisturbed around the edge of the chip, even if fabrication defects are present. This design not only shields the light from disruptions—it  also restricts how single photons form within those edge channels. The loop layout essentially forces each photon pair to be nearly identical to the next, regardless of microscopic differences among the rings. The central part of the chip does not contain protected routes, and so any photons created in those areas are affected by material defects.

The researchers compared their chips to ones without any protected routes. They collected pairs of photons from the different chips, counting the number emitted and noting their color. They observed that their quantum light source reliably produced high quality, single-color photons time and again, whereas the conventional chip’s output was more unpredictable.

According to Mittal this device has one additional advantage over other single photon sources. “Our chip works at room temperature. I don’t have to cool it down to cryogenic temperatures like other quantum light sources, making it a comparatively very simple setup.”

The team said that this finding could open up a new avenue of research, which unites quantum light with photonic devices having built-in protective features. “Physicists have only recently realized that shielded pathways fundamentally alter the way that photons interact with matter,” said Mittal. “This could have implications for a variety of fields where light-matter interactions play a role, including quantum information science and optoelectronic technology.”


The Joint Quantum Institute is a research partnership between University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, with the support and participation of the Laboratory for Physical Sciences.

UMD Named One of America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting

September 11, 2018

Jennifer Burroughs, 301-405-4621

COLLEGE PARK, Md. --  The University of Maryland has been listed among 58 universities in the nation who are living up to their civic responsibility to develop students who buy in and give back to their country and communities. 

For the first year, Washington Monthly magazine expanded on their analysis of civic initiatives at colleges and universities, by creating an exclusive list of those who excel in this area. The colleges listed were first evaluated for the magazine's overall best college ranking and then four more factors were evaluated to determine their commitment to student voting. These factors include:

  • Participation in Tufts University’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), which helps colleges calculate their precise student voting and registration rates by combining national voting records with enrollment data.
  • Participation in the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge, an effort that uses NSLVE data to help colleges create plans to boost their students’ voting rates and civic participation.
  • Public release of NSLVE data as an ALL IN school.
  • Public release of ALL IN action plan.

The University of Maryland recently reauthorized its NSLVE status through the year 2023, and have been an ALL IN school with a public action plan since 2014. The most recent 2018 action plan features initiatives that emphasize innovation and advocacy to inspire social change through students. UMD is also participating in the Big Ten Voting Challenge, which aims to register even more students to become civically engaged. 

The full Washington Monthly list of America’s Best Colleges for Student Voting is available here.

UMD Named One of the Nation’s Top 25 Public Colleges

September 10, 2018

Natifia Mullings, 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- The University of Maryland remains one of the top 25 public institutions in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2019 Best Colleges list, released today. UMD placed No. 22 on this year’s list, maintaining the same spot among public universities as last year.

The university has 54 undergraduate and graduate programs ranked among the top 25, nationally. The Robert H. Smith School of Business remained at No. 21, while the A. James Clark School of Engineering rose one place, to No. 24. UMD was also named No. 33 among Best Schools for Veterans, and recognized for its learning committees. 

Overall, the university ranked No. 63 on this year’s list.

With an emphasis on academic excellence, U.S. News and World Report’s Best Colleges rankings evaluate 16 factors, including assessment of excellence, graduation and retention rates, faculty resources, student selectivity, financial resources, graduation rate performance and alumni giving. This year, the magazine introduced a new methodology to measure how well schools support low-income students through graduation.

CP Dream Team Celebrates College Park’s African-American Heritage in Lakeland Community

September 10, 2018

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The CP Dream Team, a quarterly friendly basketball game to foster trust between youth and police officers, will celebrate a six-year anniversary on September 14 at 7pm at the College Park Community Center. Local youth from the Lakeland community, College Park’s historic African-American community, will play with officers from M-NCPPC Park Police, University of Maryland Police Department, and Prince George’s County Police Department to demonstrate the significance of community engagement. 

CP Dream TeamThe game will be in conjunction with the annual Lakeland Heritage Weekend, which celebrates African-American heritage in the Lakeland community. The mission of Lakeland Community Heritage Project, a key CP Dream Team partner, is to preserve African-American history in the area which began in the late nineteenth century. 

“Sports are a way to connect people of all ages and the community of today with the past. Annually we celebrate Lakeland Heritage with CP Dream Team, presenting the past and recognizing sports heroes of today,” says Maxine Gross, Director of Lakeland Community Heritage Project. 

Lakeland Heritage Weekend will take place the weekend of September 22 with a parade, picnic and benefit concert.  

“The CP Dream Team has made a tremendous impact in the Lakeland Community. The camaraderie between the law enforcement agencies and our youth has been outstanding. Trust has been built, and continues to be built between the police officers and the community with each game”, says Reverend Edna Jenkins of Embry Center for Family Life, a local nonprofit in Lakeland and major partner of CP Dream Team. “We are listening and communicating with each other because of a commitment to promote, ‘Unity in the Community’. We have a common goal of wanting a safe and supportive community for all residents”.   

CP Dream Team is possible because of collaboration between the University of Maryland, College Park Community Center (M-NCPPC), Lakeland Community Heritage Project, Embry Center for Family Life and the participating police agencies. 

For more information about the CP Dream Team, visit oce.umd.edu/college-park-dream-team.

For more information about Lakeland Heritage Weekend, visit https://lakelandchp.com.



Large-Scale Wind and Solar Farms in the Sahara Would Increase Rain and Vegetation

September 6, 2018

 Lee Tune 301-439-1438


North Africa showing the Sahara

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A new study led by University of Maryland (UMD) scientists conducted novel climate and vegetation model experiments to show that wind and solar farms could lead to a more than doubling of rainfall in the Sahara and an increase of up to about 20 inches (500 mm/year) in the Sahel, a semi-arid transition region that lies south of the Sahara.

Large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara could provide enough energy to replace the fossil fuel energy used currently and in the foreseeable future. The primary effect of such renewable energy farms would be a substantial reduction of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting mitigation of climate change. However, such large-scale wind and solar farms could also affect regional climate due to changes to land surface properties. An international group of researchers, led by UMD scientists, explored such climate impacts by including bidirectional vegetation feedbacks between a global climate model and a land/vegetation model. Their findings were published today in Science.

"Our model results show that large-scale solar and wind farms in the Sahara would more than double the precipitation in the Sahara, and the most substantial increase occurs in the Sahel, where the magnitude of rainfall increase is between ~200 and ~500 mm per year," said Yan Li, a lead author of the paper who was a UMD postdoctoral researcher when the study began and is now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "As a result, vegetation cover fraction increases by about 20 percent." 

"Precipitation increases predicted by our model would lead to substantial improvements of rainfed agriculture in the region, and vegetation increases would lead to the growth in production of livestock," said Safa Motesharrei, UMD Systems Scientist and a lead author of the paper. "The Sahara, the Sahel, and the Middle East include some of the driest regions in the world, while experiencing high growth of population and poverty. Our study has major implications for addressing the intertwined sustainability challenges of the Energy–Water–Food nexus in this region."

"Moreover, the availability of vast quantities of clean energy would allow for desalination of seawater and transporting it to the regions that suffer most from severe freshwater scarcity, in turn, leading to improvement of public health, expansion of agriculture and food production, and even restoration of biodiversity" added Motesharrei about the broader societal, economic, and ecological impacts of their novel scientific findings.

Past as Prelude

"In 1975 Jule Charney, my PhD advisor at MIT, proposed a feedback mechanism to help explain the drought in the Sahel, the semi-arid transition region south of the Sahara: Overgrazing increased surface albedo [reflectivity], reduced precipitation, and in turn further reduced vegetation,” said Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland Distinguished University Professor and a lead author of the paper. “About a decade ago, I had the idea that this feedback would work in the opposite direction in the presence of large solar panel farms, since these would reduce the surface albedo. Similarly, wind farms would increase land surface friction and convergence of air, thus producing upward motion and precipitation. This is a second feedback mechanism that was discovered by Y.C. Sud in 1985, but again in the opposite direction. These feedback mechanisms suggest that both large wind and solar farms in the Sahara would significantly increase precipitation and vegetation. Our results support this conclusion." (See Figure.)

 The figure and related code and data available at: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.7045547

"Solar and wind power projects in Africa and the Middle East are already underway, from Morocco to Dubai to Ethiopia, including over 200 GW of solar power planned by 2030," said co-author Jorge Rivas, a political scientist. "This renewable electricity could be transported to regions a few thousand kilometers away, and long-distance transmission lines have already existed in Africa and elsewhere for decades." 

"This study accomplishes something completely new: it looks at how human action can affect the land surface through construction of solar and wind farms, and shows that for land use change of this magnitude, it is fundamental to look at the impact on regional climate using global climate models that account for land–atmosphere feedbacks," said Paolo D'Odorico, Professor of Ecohydrology at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not a co-author. 

This study shows "that dynamic vegetation feedback could enhance the impact of land use changes on climate in this specific region [Sahara and Sahel]," said Guiling Wang, a Professor of Hydroclimatology at the University of Connecticut, who was not a co-author. "Studies using models with static [prescribed] vegetation may underestimate the effects on regional climate of anthropogenic activities such as deforestation or wind and solar farms." 

"These experiments with dynamic vegetation feedback in our model show that the positive precipitation–vegetation–albedo feedback accounts for about 80 percent of the simulated precipitation increase in the wind farm experiments," said co-author Eviatar Bach, PhD Candidate at the UMD Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science (AOSC). The dynamic vegetation model was developed by co-author Ning Zeng, a Professor at UMD AOSC, and coupled into the global climate model developed by co-author  Fred Kucharski, a climate scientist at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Italy. 

"While it was known that surface roughness and albedo can affect climate and rainfall, the conclusion that including dynamic vegetation would lead to a strong positive feedback in rainfall is new," said J. Shukla, a renowned climate scientist and Distinguished University Professor of Climate Dynamics at George Mason University, who was not a co-author. "This research certainly suggests that it will be possible to create a self-sustaining renewable energy system, which will be greatly beneficial for the socioeconomic development of the region."

"The Sahara has been expanding for some decades, and solar and wind farms might help stop the expansion of this arid region," said Russ Dickerson, a leader on air quality research and a professor at UMD AOSC, who was not a co-author. "This looks like a win-win to me." he said.

 “Climate model shows large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara increase rain and vegetation” by Yan Li, Eugenia Kalnay, Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, Fred Kucharski, Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, Eviatar Bach, and Ning Zeng. Science, 2018 September 7. DOI: 10.1126/science.aar5629



UMD Recognized as "Best of the Best" Top 30 LGBTQ-friendly College for 2018

September 6, 2018

Natifia Mullings, 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- The University of Maryland has been named by Campus Pride as a “Best of the Best” Top 30 LGBTQ-friendly college for its LGBTQ-inclusive policies, programs, and practices. The university was selected based on its overall rating on the Campus Pride Index's LGBTQ-inclusive benchmark measures. UMD received 5 out of 5 stars for its efforts to create a safer, more inclusive campus learning environment.

The Campus Pride Index, currently rating more than 330 campuses, is the premier national benchmarking tool which self-assesses a wide range of factors, including LGBTQ support & institutional commitment, student life, policy inclusion, and housing & residence life.

"We continue to be on the cutting edge, and we're proud of the good work of this campus,” said Shige Sakurai, acting director, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equity Center. “At the same time, we must continue to make strides, especially for transgender and gender nonconforming communities and communities of color.

The university's LGBT Equity Center will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. UMD launched a new initiative during the 2017-2018 academic year: #TransTerps, a campaign designed to raise awareness about best practices for trans inclusion on campus, and has built on its Lavender Leadership series, a racial justice focused leadership development series reaching dozens of LGBTQ+ and allied students. The University Health Center also released a trans health guide last school year. 

To learn more about UMD’s LGBT Equity Center visit https://lgbt.umd.edu/. For the full list of colleges, visit www.campuspride.org

University of Maryland Announces ‘Year of Immigration’

September 4, 2018

Sarah Marston, 301-405-4312

Year of Immigration Banner

COLLEGE PARK, MD—The University of Maryland (UMD) today announced that the campus will commemorate the 2018-19 academic year as the “Year of Immigration.” Driven by the support of faculty, staff and students across UMD’s schools and colleges, the Year of Immigration will support the university's mission to cultivate global citizenry by transforming dialogue into impact on urgent issues related to immigration, global migration and refugees.

“One of the University of Maryland’s great strengths is our international diversity, both on campus and in our surrounding neighborhoods,” said Ross Lewin, UMD Associate Vice President for International Affairs. “We hope the Year of Immigration will provide opportunities to learn, discuss solutions, and connect in ways that will foster a more inclusive community.”

Migration is one of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. and the world at large. As of last month, more than 500 migrant children were yet to be reunited with their families following separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, and bipartisan agreement on U.S. immigration reform remains a challenge. Last year, a record 68.5 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution and poverty. That’s an average of one person displaced every two seconds.

Working to advance UMD’s mission to prepare students for an increasingly global society, the Year of Immigration will offer curricula and programming under three interconnected themes:

Conversation will include a series of educational opportunities to raise awareness and deepen knowledge in the UMD community on key issues related to immigration, global migration and refugees. This includes the selection for the 2018-19 First Year Book, “The Refugees,” by Vietnamese-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, who will visit campus in October as part of the Arts & Humanities Dean’s Lecture Series. The initiative will highlight immigration and migration-themed courses from across the university’s schools and colleges, Education Abroad programs and Global Classrooms.

Community will provide UMD community members with opportunities to engage with local international and immigrant communities. UMD’s Office of Community Engagement will host a series of translation and interpretation events throughout the year, as well as a fall “Design Thinking” workshop with area non-profit organizations that will focus on immigrant civil rights issues.

Culture will recognize and celebrate the international diversity and cultures of our campus, surrounding communities and beyond. This will include original storytelling, a film festival, international food events through UMD Dining Services, exhibitions presented by UMD Libraries’ Special Collections and numerous globally-focused arts performances, including an opera and chamber music series as part of the School of Music Maryland Opera Studio’s Kurt Weill Festival beginning in October.

As the largest public research university in the Washington, D.C. region, UMD has a student body representing over 130 countries. More than one-third of our graduate students and 1,300 scholars come here from other countries to study, teach and conduct research. UMD also partners closely with the surrounding Prince George’s County community, where nearly one in four residents are foreign-born.

“The Year of Immigration provides an opportunity for us to highlight and engage students, faculty and staff in the wide range of research, teaching and service conducted on the flagship campus, illuminating contemporary and historical aspects of the movement of peoples across and within borders,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, Dean of UMD’s College of Arts & Humanities.

For more information, visit www.yearofimmigration.umd.edu, or engage on social media with #YearofImmigration.


University of Maryland Ranked Among the Top 15 Public Colleges in the Nation

August 29, 2018

Jennifer Burroughs, 301-405-4621 


COLLEGE PARK, Md. - In its annual assessment of the best colleges, Forbes has ranked the University of Maryland as the No. 2 public university in the state and No. 12 public university in the country. Maryland’s overall ranking puts the institution in the top 10 percent of the 650+ schools listed. 

In its 11th year, the Forbes ranking urges students to make the best college decision based on the academic criterion they value most. This unique ranking highlights higher education outputs such as retention & graduation rates, debt after graduation and alumni salaries.The universities included have proven, through a host of many factors, to prepare students best for post-graduate success. 

Emphasis on new academic discoveries and proximity to the nation’s capital contribute to UMD’s top 50 ranking among best research universities and best colleges in the northeast. The University of Maryland has also been honored as the best in state, and is No. 15 among public colleges in the Forbes ranking of America’s Best Value Colleges

The full Forbes list of America’s Top Colleges is available here

$1 Million from the State of Maryland will Match Brin Family Donation for Two Endowed Professorships in Computer Science at UMD

August 29, 2018

Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845

COLLEGE PARK, Md.–  The University of Maryland’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) will receive $1 million from the state’s Maryland E-Nnovation Initiative (MEI) to match a private donation establishing two Brin Family Endowed Professorships in Theoretical Computer Science.

“The Brin family is extremely grateful to the state of Maryland for this match,” said Samuel Brin (B.S. ’09, computer science), who spearheaded the effort on behalf of his family. “Our family is committed to Prince George’s County and the University of Maryland, our home for many years. These professorships will help the computer science department continue to push forward and thrive, across all frontiers of computation.”

In addition to Samuel, the Brin family includes his brother and Google co-founder, Sergey Brin (B.S. ’93, mathematics and computer science); his father, UMD Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Michael Brin; and his mother Eugenia Brin, a retired NASA scientist who worked on issues related to climate and weather forecasting.

The MEI, which launched in 2015, is designed to spur private donations to universities in the state for applied research in scientific and technical fields by matching such donations. UMD has received over $8 million from MEI—more than any other institution in the state.

“This strong public-private partnership will help generate the knowledge that powers high-tech innovation in the state,” said UMD President Wallace D. Loh. “Together, the Maryland Department of Commerce and the Brin family will enable us to recruit two more world-class scientists to our growing computer science hub. We appreciate this important support.”

CMNS has received $7.3 million from the program to establish six new endowed professorships in computer science and four new endowed chairs in computer science, the life sciences and mathematics. The endowed chair in mathematics was created in 2015 thanks to a donation from Michael and Eugenia Brin that was matched by the state. The Michael and Eugenia Brin E-Nnovate Endowed Chair in Mathematics is currently held by Visiting Professor Michael Rapoport

“These endowed faculty positions allow us to expand our college’s innovation ecosystem by recruiting new faculty members and providing them with the critical resources they need to enhance the regional and state economy through their research endeavors and the students they teach and mentor,” said CMNS Dean Amitabh Varshney.

The new Brin Family Endowed Professorships will be held by computer science faculty members who work in the area of theoretical computer science. By applying rigorously developed theory and algorithms, computer scientists are solving practical problems arising in networks, computer graphics, image processing, architecture, social networks and epidemiology. Theoretical computer science also provides the foundation for research priorities such as cryptography, data science and machine learning, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. 

“Theoretical computer science continues to make important contributions to computing by laying the foundational building blocks for the technologies of today and the future,” said Ming Lin, chair of the UMD Department of Computer Science and holder of the Elizabeth Stevinson Iribe Endowed E-Nnovate Chair. “With the support of the Brin Family Professorships, the Department of Computer Science at Maryland can further solidify its global status and reputation in these important research areas.”

In addition to the Brin Family Endowed Professorships in Theoretical Computer Science, the computer science MEI endowments include:

  • The Elizabeth Stevinson Iribe Endowed E-Nnovate Chair, held by Lin since January 2018, which was funded by Elizabeth Iribe and funds from the state.
  • The Paul Chrisman Iribe Endowed E-Nnovate Professorship, held by Dinesh Manocha since May 2018, which was funded by Elizabeth Iribe and an equal match from the state. It honors Elizabeth’s brother.
  • The Reginald Allan Hahne Endowed E-Nnovate Professor in virtual reality, held by Matthias Zwicker since March 2017, which was funded by Elizabeth Iribe and an equal match from the state. It was named for her son Brendan Iribe’s high school computer science teacher.
  • One Capital One Endowed E-Nnovate Chair and two Capital One Endowed E-Nnovate Professors in machine learning, data science and cybersecurity, funded by Capital One and an equal match from the state.

“My heartfelt thanks to the Brin and Iribe families, as well as Capital One,” Lin said. “If they didn’t have the vision and desire to give back, none of this would have been possible. The students are the biggest beneficiaries of these gifts, which also help elevate the department to the next level.”

As the Department of Computer Science searches for candidates to fill the Brin Family Professorships and the Capital One Chair and Professorships, construction continues on the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation. A cutting-edge research, education and entrepreneurship facility for computer science at UMD, the facility is expected to open in 2019. The new building became a reality thanks to a $31 million gift from alumnus Brendan Iribe, co-founder of the virtual reality company Oculus. 

These generous gifts support Fearless Ideas: The Campaign for Maryland, UMD’s $1.5 billion fundraising campaign focused on elevating and expanding the university’s mission of service, enhancing academic distinction and bolstering UMD’s leading-edge research enterprise.

“The support for a new building and endowed faculty positions is transforming the university, the region and the state, as our students graduate and go on to develop technological innovations that impact society and drive the economic growth for the state of Maryland,” Lin said.


Responding to Cholera Before It Strikes

August 28, 2018

Leon Tune, 301-405-4679


COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Research by University of Maryland microbiologist Rita Colwell is enabling a new British-led international aid effort to predict and stop potential epidemics of the disease cholera before they happen.

This international effort, which has already begun in Yemen, draws on decades of Colwell’s work to understand the water-borne bacterium Vibrio cholerae that causes the disease, and uses a computer model designed to forecast cholera outbreaks developed by a team of U.S. scientists led by Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, Antar Jutla, a hydrologist and civil engineer at West Virginia University, and UMD’s Anwar Huq, a former graduate student of Colwell’s who is a research professor in the university’s Maryland Pathogen Research Institute.

Colwell—who began studying the bacterium in the late 1960s and first conceived the idea of forecasting and proactively fighting cholera outbreaks in 1995—said seeing her vision realized in this new endeavor “is the greatest satisfaction any scientist, mathematician, or engineer could possibly have… essentially a dream fulfilled.”  

Using data from NASA satellites and other sources, the team's computer model provides risk maps for cholera in Yemen and other regions in the world based on factors that include air and water temperatures; precipitation amounts; severity of natural disasters; availability of clean water; sanitation and hygiene infrastructure; population density; and severity of natural disasters.

“By being able to predict when and where cholera is of highest risk, it makes it possible to deliver supplies and arrange for safe drinking water effectively and accurately,” said Colwell, a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation whose highly acclaimed career bridges the disciplines of microbiology, genetics, ecology, infectious disease, public health, data analysis and satellite technology.

This spring, based on the model’s predicted locations and timing for cholera outbreaks in war-torn Yemen, the British government together with UNICEF began providing aid to lessen both the spread and severity of the illness, which causes severe diarrhea that can lead to dehydration, and even death, if untreated. Aid workers have distributed supplies for water sterilization and personal hygiene to reduce people’s exposure to the bacteria, and provided rehydration salts, intravenous fluid packs and other supplies to reduce the severity illness in those that became infected.   

“The conflict in Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with millions of people at risk of deadly but preventable diseases such as cholera,” said Department for International Development Chief Scientist, Professor Charlotte Watts. “By joining up international expertise with those working on the ground, we have, for the very first time, used these sophisticated predictions to help save lives and prevent needless suffering for thousands of Yemenis.”

“This [collaborative effort] means public health intervention accurately, precisely delivered when and where needed,” said Colwell. “It is truly satisfying to be able to see one’s research, including that done here at the University over the past forty plus years, incorporated into an effective public health success on a global scale.”  

“I certainly hope other governments, NGOs, and the United Nations will incorporate our model into their ongoing work,” she said. “Cholera offers a superb model for other waterborne and vector transmitted diseases.”

A Vision Realized

The ability to predict and better respond to potential cholera epidemics is the direct result of Colwell’s five decades of award-winning work to understand Vibrio cholerae and how it multiples and spreads to cause disease.

Her first key discovery was that the natural habitat for this bacterium was water, particularly among and within the microscopic animals and plants that constitute plankton. This meant that cholera outbreaks must first arise from consumption of contaminated drinking water drawn from sources such as rivers and ponds. Later she identified environmental conditions that determine whether these disease-causing bacteria lie dormant in their aquatic environments or flourish and proliferate.   She also developed a simple, inexpensive and effective method of using readily available used sari cloth to filter pond and river to greatly reduce the incidence of cholera in villages in Bangladesh. 

 In 1995, while looking at colorful NASA satellite imagery showing a coastal bloom of plankton that are home to Vibrio cholerae, Colwell realized that satellite data could be used to forecast potential cholera outbreaks. More recently, Colwell has worked with colleagues Jutla, Huq and others to advance the science and computer science needed to develop this predictive capability. She also has led research that has increased our understanding of how changing environmental factors, such as the world’s warming climate, are affecting the health risks posed by Vibrio cholerae and other vibrio bacteria.

“We still have a lot of work yet to do to increase accuracy and geographic applicability [of our predictive model]," said. “We also need to continue to accumulate ground truth data to strengthen the model. This means continuing our valuable molecular biology and genomic research on cholera done here at the University of Maryland.  And we will be expanding our work in Africa where cholera continues to be devastating.”

In addition to her cholera work, Colwell is known for pioneering research in computational biology and DNA sequencing that helped lay the groundwork for the bioinformatics revolution. She holds a dozen U.S. patents and is founder and chairman of CosmosID, Inc., a microbial genomics company focused on molecular diagnostics of human pathogens and antimicrobial resistance. Colwell has received many national and international awards and recognitions, including the 2017 Vannevar Bush Award given by the U.S. National Science Board; the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden; the 2006 National Medal of Science awarded by the president of the United States; and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star bestowed by the Emperor of Japan.

A member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the first female director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (1998-2004), Colwell also has long been a powerful voice calling for investment in and encouragement of STEM (science technology engineering and math) research and careers as essential to the health, welfare, social stability and national security of the U.S. and all nations.


Video: Using Precipitation Data to Assess Risk of Cholera Outbreaks. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center


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