Rita Rossi Colwell is one of the most influential and visionary scientists of her generation. She is a microbiologist, marine expert and internationally recognized authority on cholera and infectious diseases. Dr. Colwell has pioneered the expanding role of women and minorities in science from Bangladesh to America, and a dynamic understanding of complex systems, integrated data, and the multi-level interplay among the earth’s systems.
In developing nations, Dr. Colwell used “high-tech analyses to produce extremely low-tech solutions.” Researching the environmental aspects of cholera outbreaks with new tracking techniques, Colwell and her colleagues developed locally based, inexpensive filtration methods to remove the plankton associated with cholera bacteria that are responsible for high death rates in poverty-stricken countries. They taught women a simple, folded-sari-cloth filtration technique of water purification to reduce the incidence of cholera by 50%. The global impact on reduction of mortality from cholera infection is profound.
Dr. Colwell became the eleventh Director of the National Science Foundation in 1998, the first woman to become Director and the first biologist. At the NSF, she spearheaded the agency’s emphases on K-12 science and mathematics education, increased the participation of women and minorities in science and engineering, and led the NSF through the greatest period of growth in its fifty-year history. Her policy approach strengthened core NSF activities and established support for major initiatives in Nanotechnology, Biocomplexity, Information Technology, Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and the 21st Century Workforce.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Colwell received the National Medal of Science in 2006 for her work in studying oceans, climate and human health. She is the author or co-author of 17 books and more than 700 scientific publications, and produced the award-winning film Invisible Seas. In recognition of her work in the world’s polar regions, the geological site in Antarctica, Colwell Massif, has been named in her honor. Dr. Colwell currently chairs Canon U.S. Life Sciences and is distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.