Bryan Grenfell receives Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences for innovating the study of disease evolution and epidemics

Liz Fuller-Wright ・ Office of Communications

Bryan Grenfell, Princeton University’s Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, is one of three recipients of the 2022 Kyoto Prize. Grenfell, who studies the dynamics of infectious disease, was honored in the basic science category for his “development of an innovative methodology for integrative analysis of pathogen evolution and epidemics.”

Grenfell is associated faculty in the High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) and a principal researcher in HMEI’s Climate Change and Infectious Disease initiative, which has published numerous studies on the dynamics of COVID-19, including the influence of masks and climate on the spread and control of the disease.

The Kyoto Prize, a major international distinction, is presented by the Inamori Foundation of Japan to honor the lifetime achievements of those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural and spiritual betterment of humankind. The award, which is presented annually in the categories of basic science, advanced technology, and arts and philosophy, includes a cash prize of 100 million yen, or approximately $735,000. Grenfell is the fifth Kyoto laureate from Princeton University.

“It has been a privilege and pleasure to spend my career exploring the spatiotemporal dynamics and evolution of infectious disease epidemics, and the impact of control measures,” Grenfell said.

“Princeton — particularly through the interdisciplinary research cultures inherent in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), the High Meadows Environmental Institute and the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) — has been a wonderful place to pursue these questions through close collaboration with brilliant scientists and scholars across disciplines,” Grenfell said. “I am especially lucky to have had inspiration and friendship from many exceptional mentors, collaborators, colleagues and students; this award reflects their insights and dedication as much as my own work. I am deeply grateful to the Inamori Foundation and profoundly honored to have my research considered worthy of a Kyoto Prize.”

In its award citation, Inamori noted the work Grenfell has done in “phylodynamics,” a new methodology that predicts the epidemic dynamics of RNA viruses. This has led to a new research field that integrates immune dynamics, epidemiology and evolutionary biology.

“The Kyoto Prize celebrates work that serves the ‘greater good of all humankind’ and this credo fits Bryan well,” said EEB chair Lars Hedin, the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and HMEI. “Throughout his career, Bryan and his laboratory group have led the world forward in understanding how infectious diseases can affect human populations. Most recently, his work has been essential to our ability to understand and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Bryan joins a special group of EEB faculty members who have previously received the Kyoto prize — Simon Levin in 2005 and Rosemary and Peter Grant in 2009 — and we are all very happy to see him receive this well-deserved honor.”

“Bryan is a leading expert in infectious disease dynamics and his work continues to influence infectious disease control policies around the world,” said Amaney Jamal, dean of SPIA. “His efforts are part of an excellent and groundbreaking portfolio of global research at SPIA, and he is so deserving of this prestigious award.”

Born in Swansea, United Kingdom, in 1954, Grenfell received his Ph.D. from the University of York in 1981. After positions at Imperial College-London, the University of Sheffield, the University of Cambridge and Pennsylvania State University, he came to Princeton in 2009. Among other awards, he has received the T.H. Huxley Medal of Imperial College-London and the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society.

Grenfell and the other 2022 laureates — Carver Mead of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Zakir Hussain, a leading tabla player of Hindustani music — will receive a diploma and a Kyoto Prize medal in addition to the prize money.

Morgan Kelly in the High Meadows Environmental Institute and B. Rose Huber in the School of Public and International Affairs contributed to this story.