Rita R. Colwell

Rita R. Colwell

Rita R. Colwell in 2011.
Born November 23, 1934 (1934-11-23) (age 82)
Beverly, Massachusetts
Nationality United States
Fields microbiology
Institutions National Science Foundation, University of Maryland College Park, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Alma mater University of Washington

Rita Rossi Colwell (born November 23, 1934) is an environmental microbiologist and scientific administrator. Colwell holds degrees in bacteriology, genetics, and oceanography and studies infectious diseases. Colwell is the founder and Chair of CosmosID, a bioinformatics company. From 1998 to 2004, she was the 11th Director of the National Science Foundation.[1]

Early life and education

Rita Colwell was born on November 24, 1934, in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her parents, Louis and Louise Rossi, had eight children, Rita being the seventh child born into the Rossi household. Neither her mother nor her father were from scientific backgrounds. In 1956, Rita obtained a B.S. in bacteriology from Purdue University. She also received her M.S in genetics from Purdue. Colwell's Ph.D. is from the University of Washington in the field of oceanography. She participated in a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa.


Colwell is recognized for her study of global infectious diseases through water sources and its impacts on global health.[2] Through this research, she has developed an international network that has brought attention to the emergence of new infectious diseases in drinking/bathing water, pertaining mostly to its role on the developing world.

Cholera research

During early research and study of cholera, Colwell discovered that cholera can lay dormant in unfavorable conditions and then resume normal functions when conditions are favorable again.[1] This discovery has helped scientists learn how to stop the spread of cholera and eradicate it.

Many of her research papers have been published with the intention of abating the spread of cholera in the developing world by developing ways to track its spread and researching inexpensive methods for filtrating out the infections agents of cholera in water systems. Some of these tracking methods include observing weather patterns, surface water temperatures, chlorophyll concentrations, and rainfall patterns. Colwell's findings of correlations between these phenomena showed that the infection rate of cholera is connected to rising surface water temperatures. This rising temperature causes algae blooms that host cholera bacteria, and rainfall and extreme weather patterns aid in spreading infectious hosts of cholera among water systems.[3] Colwell also concluded that climate change will have a profound impact on the spread of cholera.

Colwell has proposed ways people in the developing world can use inexpensive methods to filter water when water treatment facilities are not available. In one study spanning about 3 years, 65 villages in rural Bangladesh comprising 133,000 individuals, participated in an experiment in which they used folded sari cloth or nylon mesh filters placed over water pots to acquire safe drinking water from their local water ways. These inexpensive and readily available materials yielded a 48% reduction in cholera, when compared with the control: absence of any type of filter.[4]

National Science Foundation

Colwell was the first female director of the foundation and held this position from 1998–2004.[5] In a presentation to members of the foundation in 2002, she detailed what the foundation should address in the future. She explained that an educated society is critical not just for developing technology, but for supporting that development, both by the public and by government.

Colwell is interested in K-12 science and mathematical education, and she is a proponent of increasing the number of women and minorities in science and engineering.[6] Rita Colwell was responsible for doubling the funding to the NSF initiative ADVANCE, which supports the advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers. Colwell also pushed to invest $60 million as part of a new priority area in mathematical and statistical sciences.[7]

In 2004, Colwell left her position as director of the National Science Foundation to become the chief scientist at Canon U.S. Life Sciences, a division of Canon. Then in 2008, she claimed the position of chairman of Canon U.S. Life Sciences.


Colwell returned to academic life in 2005 as a professor. She is a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.[8] At the University of Maryland at College Park, she is a distinguished Professor in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), which is part of the University's Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences department.


Colwell founded the company CosmosID in 2008, and she is the active president.[5] CosmosID is a bioinformatics company dedicated to making the world a healthier and safer place by developing various types of equipment to identify microbial activity in a variety of ecosystems. In doing so, CosmosID ensures prompt, accurate responses, appropriate medical therapies, and corrective actions to prevent public health risks.[9]

Publications and media

Rita Colwell has authored or co-authored more than 750 scientific reports and publications along with 17 books.[10]

In 1977, Colwell produced the award-winning film, Invisible Seas. In this 26 minute film, the microbiology department at the University of Maryland, College Park demonstrates what types of methodology are required of marine microbiologists when studying microorganisms in the ocean. They emphasize the importance of marine microbiologists studying microorganisms in the ocean in order to determine the impact pollution has had on our oceans.[11]

Colwell is the founding editor of GeoHealth, a journal of the American Geophysical Society. Colwell recognized the increase in published Geohealth research due to the advancement in our understanding of how Earth and space science provides deeper insight into health and disease in both people and ecosystems. GeoHealth expects to start accepting publications in the fall of 2016.[12]

Awards and recognition

Colwell is the recipient of 61 honorary degrees, including Honorary Doctorates from the University of Notre Dame and the University of St Andrews in 2016.[5]

Personal life

Colwell met her husband, Jack Colwell, when he was a physical chemistry graduate student at Purdue.[1] Rita and Jack have raised two daughters, both of whom followed their parents footsteps into their own scientific careers.


  1. 1 2 3 "Rita Rossi Colwell , MSA SC 3520-11592". msa.maryland.gov. Retrieved 2016-09-23.
  2. 1 2 3 "RitaColwell - Cell Biology & Molecular Genetics". cbmg.umd.edu. Retrieved 2016-09-13.
  3. Magny, Guillaume Constantin de; Murtugudde, Raghu; Sapiano, Mathew R. P.; Nizam, Azhar; Brown, Christopher W.; Busalacchi, Antonio J.; Yunus, Mohammad; Nair, G. Balakrish; Gil, Ana I. (2008-11-18). "Environmental signatures associated with cholera epidemics". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105 (46): 17676–17681. doi:10.1073/pnas.0809654105. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 2584748Freely accessible. PMID 19001267.
  4. Colwell, Rita R.; Huq, Anwar; Islam, M. Sirajul; Aziz, K. M. A.; Yunus, M.; Khan, N. Huda; Mahmud, A.; Sack, R. Bradley; Nair, G. B. (2003-02-04). "Reduction of cholera in Bangladeshi villages by simple filtration". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100 (3): 1051–1055. doi:10.1073/pnas.0237386100. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 298724Freely accessible. PMID 12529505.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 "US NSF - News - Rita R. Colwell, Biography". www.nsf.gov. Retrieved 2016-10-20.
  6. "Rita Colwell | UMIACS". www.umiacs.umd.edu. Retrieved 2016-09-13.
  7. "Director Rita R. Colwell's Remarks to The Engineering Deans Council Public Policy Colloquium, National Academy of Engineering, February 12, 2002". www.nsf.gov. Retrieved 2016-10-26.
  8. Corey, Pamela (2014-01-24). "Biography of Rita R. Colwell". Retrieved 2016-09-13.
  9. 1 2 "CosmosID Founder Rita Colwell". CosmosID - Exploring the Universe of Microbes. Retrieved 2016-10-20.
  10. 1 2 Ayala, Christine (2016). "Rita R. Colwell". National Science and Technology Medals Foundation. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  11. University of Maryland, College Park; Department of Microbiology; University of Maryland, College Park; Office of University Relations (1977-01-01), Invisible seas, The Office, retrieved 2016-10-26
  12. "AGU Expands into Geohealth, Starting with New Journal". From The Prow. 2016-08-11. Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  13. 1 2 "Rita Colwell Papers". www.asm.org. Retrieved 2016-10-20.
  14. "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details | NSF - National Science Foundation". www.nsf.gov. Retrieved 2016-10-21.
  15. 1 2 "AIBS Public Policy Office | Rita Colwell, AIBS Past President, Receives Mahathir Science Award". www.aibs.org. Retrieved 2016-10-26.
Preceded by
Francisco J. Ayala
President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Succeeded by
Jane Lubchenco
Preceded by
Neal Lane
Director of the National Science Foundation
Succeeded by
Arden L. Bement Jr.
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