Rita Colwell

The medical “breakthroughs” you read about on the news, while rightly celebrated, usually involve very expensive treatments for previously untreatable diseases. Much less attention is typically given to the most effective way to confront disease – prevention – especially when it comes to preventing diseases in developing nations. This week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Rita Colwell, has dedicated her life to stopping the spread of cholera, a devastating water-borne illness that takes a huge toll on developing nations.

Colwell spent years researching how environmental factors affect infection rates. Among her many findings, she discovered that increased water temperatures can lead to the spread of cholera by supporting the growth of algae that host cholera bacteria. Therefore, she warns, climate change has the potential to increase cholera’s spread. However, Colwell emphasizes that this spread is not inevitable – infection can be prevented with simple methods. For example, while they may not be glamorous, Colwell found that even simple cloth filters can drastically reduce cholera’s spread.

On the national level, Colwell served as the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s first female director (1998-2004). While holding this position, she advocated for increasing the representation and success of women and minorities in science and engineering, doubling funding for NSF’s ADVANCE initiative, which supports projects focused on removing institutional barriers to women’s success in STEM.

Colwell was born in Massachusetts in 1934. She received a B.S. in bacteriology and M.S. in genetics from Purdue, followed by a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington. She serves as a professor at the University of Maryland and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has also taken on entrepreneurial roles, including founding a bioinformatics company called CosmosID that monitors microbial activity in ecosystems around the world. In 2006, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, and she has received over 60 honorary degrees. Colwell’s story serves as a great reminder that there are many career paths available to scientists, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Photo Credit: University of Maryland College Park

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