January 19, 2010
Biology professor Peter Vitousek wins Japan Prize
By Louis Bergeron
Peter Vitousek has won the 2010 Japan Prize, one of the world's major awards for contributions to progress in science and technology and advancement of world peace and prosperity. He will receive the prize, which includes 50 million yen (approximately $540,000), in mid-April in Tokyo. The prize is awarded by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan in the presence of the Emperor of Japan.
"I am extremely grateful and highly honored," said Vitousek, professor of biology and the Clifford G. Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies.
Vitousek won the award in the field of biological production and environment. The announcement from the foundation cited him for his "contributions to solving global environmental issues based on the analysis of nitrogen and other substances' cycles." Each year two particular fields of science and technology are designated for an award. The other field selected for 2010 is industrial production and production technology, and the winner was Shun-ichi Iwasaki, director of Tohoku Institute of Technology in Japan. The foundation announced the winners at a ceremony on Friday, Jan. 15, in Tokyo, with both Vitousek and Iwasaki in attendance.
"They could not have chosen a better person," said Robert Simoni, chair of Stanford's Biology Department. "Peter's work has had a very big impact over 40 years of research, ranging from basic research on nitrogen cycles in the evolving ecology of forest systems in Hawaii to the application of that work in understanding the role of human activity, including agriculture, in global nitrogen cycles.
"The work is fundamental to any discussion of, or plans for, mitigation of human impact on our environment."
"I think it's fantastic," said Jeff Koseff, co-director of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, where Vitousek is a senior fellow. "I think he is a great scientist, a very careful and rigorous scientist."
The announcement from the foundation lauded Vitousek for his "pioneering achievements in elucidating the influences that human activity has on the ecosystems."
"I think he fundamentally understands the context in which he is working and how important it is to be able to convey the meaning and the repercussions of what he is finding in a way that is clear to policymakers and to the public," Koseff said.
Vitousek allowed that while he was not surprised that the topics of his research were of interest to the selection committee, being chosen as the winner was completely unexpected. "I was surprised to be singled out from a really good community of people" conducting research in the area of nitrogen biochemistry, he said.
"I think Peter should take it as a testimony to the high regard that his own colleagues hold him in for doing this work," as well as for the quality and importance of the work itself, Koseff said.
Vitousek is also the director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, administered by the School of Earth Sciences. "That program is all about teaching students and training them to be able to work at the interface of science and policy and make those connections," Koseff said. "I think Peter's work is a beautiful example of how you do that."
Stanford has had one previous winner of the Japan Prize. In 1985, the inaugural year of the prize, John Robinson Pierce, who had the unusual title of visiting professor of music, emeritus, won in the category of Information and Communications. He was lauded for his "outstanding achievement in the field of electronics and communications technologies."
Pierce died in 2002. His obituary said he arrived at Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) in the early 1980s. He never asked for a salary. At Stanford, Pierce "visited" for more than 12 years, and during his tenure helped bring intellectual and much-needed financial support to the center.