Rita Colwell: You Can Call Her "Dr. Science"

Death was way of life in Bangladesh in the 1980s and early 1990s as a cholera epidemic raged. People were dying by the thousands from drinking contaminated water. Marine microbiologist Rita Rossi Colwell, '61, was traveling overseas to speak at a conference when a scientist friend asked her to stop by and see if she could help.

Colwell was horrified by what she saw: in the same 10 feet of stream, a child gathered drinking water, a woman washed dirty dishes, a man went to the bathroom and a shepherd brought his cattle through.

One of the world's leading researchers into the epidemiology of cholera, Colwell is now working to install the first central water system in Bangladesh. she'll be juggling that with her new job as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), perhaps the most significant science position in the nation.

Born in Beverly, Mass., Colwell-who began her six-year term in August 1998-has always loved science, and is passionate about trying to get new people involved in the field. "I ask students not to be physicists, or microbiologists, or chemists, but scientists, and convey to Congress that we need to invest much more in basic research," she says. "Basic research is what makes our country great, and is the key to science."

After earning a bachelor's degree in bacteriology and a master's in genetics from Purdue, she came to the UW in 1957 as a research assistant, and received her Ph.D. in marine microbiology in 1961. She stayed on as an assistant research professor before moving onto other positions in Canada's National Research Council, Georgetown University and ultimately, the University of Maryland in 1972. She was president of that university's biotechnology institute before joining the NSF.

Her work in environmental control of epidemic diseases, especially cholera, has gained worldwide attention. She is the first NSF director to continue major ongoing research projects while acting as the top proponent of science in America.

In addition to trying to save lives overseas, she has her hands full here at home. "We have a science literacy problem in America," Colwell says. "We need to ensure that we train and educate students to be investigators to deal with the world's problems. We have so much potential in America. It is our duty to devote ourselves to science to make the world a better and safer place for everyone."-Jon Marmor

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