Hands Across the Water

University Professor Michael Waterman has received the prestigious People’s Republic of China Friendship Award during a Beijing ceremony. A few days later, the University of Southern Denmark awarded him an honorary degree.
Susan Bell

Michael Waterman, University Professor and USC Associates Chair in Natural Sciences, is a 2013 recipient of the People’s Republic of China Friendship Award — the Chinese government’s highest honor for foreigners who have made exceptional contributions to China’s “economic and social progress.”

The professor of biological sciences, computer science and mathematics at USC Dornsife was presented with the award by Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai on Sept. 29 during a ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The next afternoon, Waterman and other award recipients met with Chinese party and state leaders at the Great Hall of the People and listened to a speech by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The awardees then attended a state banquet celebrating the National Day of the People’s Republic of China.

Waterman was one of 50 honorees from 20 countries to receive the 2013 award — a plaque and medal engraved with a picture of the Great Wall on the obverse along with the inscription “Friendship Award” in Chinese and English.

Hosted annually by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, (SAFEA) the award commends foreign experts for their contributions to China’s development and construction in the fields of education, technology, economics, culture and personnel cultivation.

“Receiving the Chinese Government Friendship Award in the Great Hall of the People was an honor for me, as well as for the chair professor team in bioinformatics at Tsinghua University in Beijing,” Waterman said. “What’s particularly nice about this award is that it’s given not only to scientists, but to experts from diverse fields.”

Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai emphasized the close friendship between the international experts and the Chinese people.


The medal awarded to Waterman is engraved with a picture of the Great Wall along with the inscription “Friendship Award” in Chinese and English. Photo by Xuegong Zhang.

“They are a bridge for communication between China and other countries and an important force for China’s development,” he said. “The Chinese people will always remember their contribution to China’s development and progress.”

Since 2006, Waterman has served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Partner Institute of Computational Biology (PICB) in Shanghai. In this role, he helps oversee the organization of the PICB, a joint collaboration between the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Germany’s Max Planck Society.

Since 2008, he has also headed a chair professor team for a bioinformatics program at the Department of Automation at Beijing’s renowned Tsinghua University.

In addition to these two appointments, Waterman has collaborated with many Chinese scientists and students over the course of his long academic career which spans almost 50 years, 31 of them at USC Dornsife.

Speaking of his great affection for China, Waterman said: “I love the incredible energy and wonderful, dry sense of humor of the Chinese people.”

Established in the 1950s, the award initially honored experts from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In 1955, the Chinese government decreed that each departing Soviet expert be issued a medal. This friendship award was abolished with the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s. After the reopening of China, a new Friendship Award was reintroduced in 1991 with the international winners selected by SAFEA. In all, 1,249 foreign experts from 65 countries and regions have received the award since 1991.

After accepting the award from China, Waterman traveled to Odense, Denmark, where he received an honorary degree of doctor scientiarum honoris causa from the University of Southern Denmark at a ceremony held during the Annual University Festival on Oct. 4. The university awards one honorary degree in mathematics and science each year.

“I have served for several years on USC’s Honorary Degree Committee and know the challenge of choosing candidates whose accomplishments and values will be an inspiration to the university’s students and faculty,” Waterman said. “To be selected by Southern Denmark University’s Faculty of Science as the recipient of this year’s honorary doctorate is greatly appreciated.”

Widely regarded as the founding father of computational biology, Waterman’s research concentrates on the creation and application of mathematics, statistics and computer science to molecular biology, particularly to DNA, RNA and protein sequence data. He is co-developer of the Smith-Waterman algorithm for sequence comparison and of the Lander-Waterman formula for physical mapping.