Inducted to the Circle of Discovery in 2009 for her discovery of the environmental source of Vibrio cholerae and her leadership in research on cholera in Bangladesh and on emerging water-borne infectious diseases worldwide.
Dr. Rita Colwell is a renowned scientist and educator, whose work bridges microbiology and ecology. She and her colleagues traced the source of the bacterium that causes cholera, Vibrio cholerae, to plankton in rivers and estuaries in Bangladesh. They also linked cholera epidemiology with sea temperatures and plankton blooms, tying together global climate and disease. Taking this holistic perspective on pathogenesis has enabled researchers to begin to predict disease pandemics. When satellite observations reveal sea temperature rises in the Bay of Bengal, there is a concomitant increase in the number of cholera cases.
Colwell joined Canon U.S. Life Sciences as Chairman of the Board in early 2004,and is now Senior Advisor and Honorary Chairperson. She became the first woman to serve as Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1998 to 2004. In that capacity, she served as Co-chair of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council. Some of her major interests include K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education, and the increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.
Her policy approach enabled the NSF to establish support for major initiatives, including Nanotechnology, Biocomplexity, and Information Technology.
Under her leadership, the NSF enjoyed significant budget increases, recently reaching a level of more than $5.6 billion. Dr. Colwell has held many advisory positions in the U.S. government, in non-profit science-policy organizations, and within private foundations, as well as in the international scientific research community.
Dr. Colwell has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 700 scientific publications, and produced an award-winning film, Invisible Seas. She has served on the editorial boards of numerous scientific journals. Prior to joining the NSF, Dr. Colwell was President of the University of Maryland’s Biotechnology Institute, and a member of the National Science Board.
Dr. Colwell was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 and is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland.
She holds a B.S. in Bacteriology and an M.S. in Genetics from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in Oceanography from the University of Washington. She has been awarded 35 honorary degrees by universities in the U.S. and abroad.