Sobsey to receive prestigious Clarke Prize

June 21, 2016

The National Water Research Institute (NWRI) is pleased to announce Mark Sobsey, PhD, will be the twenty-third recipient of the NWRI Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke Prize for excellence in water research. Dr. Sobsey is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Consisting of a medallion and $50,000 award, the NWRI Clarke Prize is awarded each year to recognize research accomplishments that solve real-world water problems and to highlight the importance and need to continue funding this type of research. Sobsey leadership and contributions to the field were among the reason cited for his selection as the prize’s 2016 recipient.

“Mark Sobsey has had a long and incredibly productive, innovative career,” said Michael Aitken, PhD, professor and chair of the Gillings School’s environmental sciences and engineering department. “He has been at the forefront of scientific and practical advances relevant to microbial water quality at every stage, and is sought by many for his expertise and insights. Remarkably, Mark continually zeroes in on key problems of the times and works creatively to identify solutions. It’s no surprise that students always have been attracted to his lab, because there they know they will be learning from one of the best.”

Dr. Mark Sobsey

Dr. Mark Sobsey

During his career, which spans more than 45 years, Sobsey has worked nationally and globally to improve water quality and public health. He has particularly contributed in efforts to understand, detect and control waterborne viruses such as norovirus and Hepatitis A and E viruses, bacteria and parasites. His efforts have directly influenced the development of guidance and policies by prominent public health safety organizations like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and World Health Organization (WHO).

“Professor Sobsey is an outstanding choice for the Clarke Prize,” said Jeff Mosher, Executive Director of NWRI. “His research has resulted in tremendous advancements in the water industry to improve water quality and minimize the risk of exposure to waterborne disease.”

Sobsey, a microbiologist and environmental health scientist by training, is recognized internationally as a leader and pioneer in the fields of public health microbiology and environmental virology, with a particular focus on water, sanitation, food, and hygiene. Among his more notable achievements, Sobsey developed an innovative filtration technique to selectively concentrate viruses from water. Known as the MDS filter, it was found to be more effective than conventional filters (which involved extensive, complex procedures to filter and coagulate microbes from large volumes of water) and, ultimately, helped develop a better understanding of the occurrence, concentration, and public health significance of viruses in the environment. He has also led the development of methods to detect and quantify fecal indicator viruses, called coliphages, by culture methods that became the standard methods published by EPA. The results of his virus methods research led to the development of the EPA’s Groundwater Treatment Rule, which standardized practices in the U.S. to detect and control the presence of microbial pathogens (particularly viruses) in well water. Prior to this rule, the leading cause of waterborne disease was outbreaks from groundwater. His work on the development of filter and related techniques to concentrate and examine viruses in groundwater has become the standard for the water industry.

Sobsey’s efforts to develop improved methods to detect and control numerous waterborne viruses influenced the Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR) under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act. A key question during the development of the SWTR was what requirements were needed to inactivate viruses (that is, chemically alter viruses so they cannot cause infection) found in water supplies from sources like lakes and rivers. The answer turned out to be CT values, which describe the disinfectant concentration (C) multiplied by contact time (T) needed to inactivate viruses. CT values were established for virus inactivation within the SWTR and subsequent Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule and Long-Term Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rules. These values are derived largely from the meticulous experiments and comprehensive studies of various viruses and chemical disinfectants conducted in Sobsey’s laboratory.

Among his more recent work, Sobsey was awarded a pilot research grant in 2015 to evaluate waterborne highly antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARBs), considered “superbugs,” in Nicaragua and North Carolina. As part of this effort, Sobsey’s team is developing simple direct, culture-based methods to detect and quantify fecal ARBs that cause infections and illnesses in hospital patients and are being released into the environment through hospital sewage. These ARBs include but are not limited to types of E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae, The goal is to establish methods to track these highly resistant bacteria through sewage treatment, in discharged sewage effluents and into the environment, as the basis of a harmonized monitoring system for their global surveillance by the World Health Organization (WHO) and cooperating international health agencies. Dr. Sobsey was also funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2015 to investigate how long the Ebola virus and other high risk viruses can survive in feces and raw sewage of hospitals, and the best means to inactivate them on-site by chemical disinfection.

A dedicated humanitarian, Sobsey also actively works with governments and NGOs to develop low-cost drinking water treatment options at the household level in rural or less developed areas. In Cambodia, for example, where many lack access to improved drinking water sources and diarrheal diseases are widespread, Sobsey and his team tested and modified several types of ceramic filters for the reduction of waterborne pathogens. As a result, a locally produced, low-cost ceramic filter was implemented by several NGOs, and over 100,000 households in Cambodia use them for drinking water treatment. Similar efforts are underway in other countries.

Another of Sobsey’s innovations was the development of a simple, self-contained, field-portable, low-cost test, the “compartment bag test” or CBT, to determine if water is fecally contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The test involves placing a water sample and user-friendly bacteriological medium (one that is not boiled or autoclaved, and can be incubated at ambient temperatures typical of tropical environments) within a plastic bag with internal compartments of different sizes, incubating it overnight, and then examining each bag compartment for E. coli bacteria growth by a distinct color change to determine the E. coli concentration. If bacteria are present at unsafe levels (per the WHO Guidelines for safe drinking water), users either can treat the water or find an alternative water source. The test is affordable for communities in developing regions and after natural disasters like floods. Notably, the test has influenced the United Nations to include a water quality goal as part of its Sustainable Development Goals to improve the lives of people everywhere.

The Clarke Prize will be presented to Sobsey on November 3, 2016, at the Twenty-Third Annual NWRI Clarke Prize Lecture and Award Ceremony, to be held in Newport Beach, California. He will receive the award from James Irvine Swinden and Morton Irvine Smith, grandsons of NWRI’s co-founder, the late Athalie Richardson Irvine Clarke. The award ceremony will precede the annual NWRI Clarke Prize Conference on Urban Water Sustainability.

Established in 1993, the Clarke Prize is one of only a dozen water prizes awarded worldwide and has been distinguished by the International Congress of Distinguished Awards as one of the most prestigious awards in the world. Recent past recipients of the Clarke Prize includes Department of Environmental Sciences Professor Emeritus Philip Singer, PhD, who won the award in 2006.

“I am thrilled to be the 2016 Clarke Prize recipient,” said Sobsey. “It is a great honor to receive this prestigious prize and join such a distinguished group of past recipients. I hold these colleagues in the highest regard for their outstanding research and practice contributions to the water field, and am humbled and pleased to be counted among them.”


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu