The founding editor of the Journal of Computational Biology and one of the originators of the discipline, Professor Michael S. Waterman, has been named winner of the annual Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award. Waterman is professor of biological sciences, computer science, and mathematics at the University of Southern California.
“Professor Waterman has contributed work of prime importance in half a dozen fields of computational biology,” said Thomas Lengauer, professor of computational biology and applied algorithmics at the Max-Planck-Institut für Informatik and chair of the ISCB Awards Committee. “So much of our work is based on methods for finding sequence homology that, if we weren't constantly citing it, it would amaze us that the methodology was first devised only 25 years ago by Mike Waterman and Temple Smith. Since then, Waterman developed the dynamic programming approach to RNA structure prediction, began the combinatorial study of RNA secondary structure, improved the statistical tests incorporated into BLAST and related tools, and worked on the assembly problem for genomes past and present. He has also made important contributions to phylogeny, tree comparison, motif searching, cryptogene analysis, parametric alignment, gapped alignment, optical mapping, haplotype estimation, gene family evolution, and a host of other problems whose solutions have brought our discipline immense power and respect.”
The ISCB award recognizes members of the computational biology community who have made major contributions to the field through research, education, service, or a combination of the three.
“Michael Waterman's contribution to the field goes well beyond being a researcher, educator, and journal editor,” said Pavel Pevzner, who is Ronald R. Taylor Professor of Computer Science at the University of California San Diego.
“He and David Sankoff are responsible for transforming bioinformatics from a ‘stamp collection' of ill-defined problems into a rigorous discipline with important biological applications. Without such a transformation,” Pevzner said, “bioinformatics would never be able to attract the top talent in computer science and statistics or the other members of the generation of talented young scientists who are working in the field today.”
Waterman obtained a bachelor's in mathematics from Oregon State University and a doctorate in statistics and probability from Michigan State University, then began his academic career at Idaho State University. He was invited to spend several summers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the early 1970s. In a memoir published on his Web site, Waterman has written: “I was an innocent mathematician until the summer of 1974. It was then that I met Temple Ferris Smith and for two months was cooped up with him in an office at Los Alamos. . . . that experience transformed my research, my life, and perhaps my sanity.”
Smith, now director of the BioMolecular Engineering Research Center at Boston University, was also visiting Los Alamos from a small university in Michigan.
At Los Alamos, their fellow scientists and friends included Stanslaw Ulam, Nick Metropolis, Marc Kac, and Gian-Carlo Rota, all towering names in computational science, at a time when the lab was a hotbed of intellectual ferment. Waterman relates that it was Smith who, although trained in nuclear physics, introduced the group to the prospects of applying mathematics to biological questions. One result was the Smith–Waterman algorithm for determining the degree of similarity (homology) of amino acid sequences from DNA, RNA, or proteins. In their justly famous three-page paper, published in the Journal of Molecular Biology in 1981, Waterman and Smith changed the face of molecular biology and participated in launching the bioinformatics revolution.
Waterman joined the staff at Los Alamos in 1975, then moved to the University of Southern California in 1982. He has been honored as a USC Professor and holds the USC Associates Endowed Chair in the Natural Sciences. In 2003, Professor Waterman became Faculty Master of Parkside International Residence College at USC, which is home to 600 students and an international center.
“Computational biologists today are all beneficiaries of his work,” Lengauer said, “He has trained more than a handful of prominent computational genomicists, served on virtually all the panels and committees that guide government in evaluating grants and fellowships, and has generally guided the development of the discipline. He has been an active member of ISCB since its founding, and he worked with Pavel Pevzner and Sorin Istrail to start RECOMB, the Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology, which held its tenth meeting in April.”
Waterman said: “It is an honor to join the select company of the previous award winners: David Sankoff, David Lipman, and Janet Thornton. We have all been fortunate in our choice of the right problems.”
The award will be presented to Waterman at the ISCB's annual meeting, Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology (ISMB) in Fortaleza, Brazil, from August 6 through 10, 2006. Dr. Waterman will deliver the annual Senior Scientist Accomplishment Award keynote lecture, titled Whole Genome Optimal Mapping, as the finale to the conference.