Rita Rossi Colwell (born November 23, 1934) is an American 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 and 1st female Director of the National Science Foundation.[1] She has served on the board of directors of EcoHealth Alliance since 2012.[2][3]

Rita R. Colwell
11th Director of the National Science Foundation
In office
PresidentBill Clinton
George W. Bush
Preceded byNeal Francis Lane
Succeeded byArden L. Bement Jr.
Personal details
Born (1934-11-23) November 23, 1934 (age 89)
Beverly, Massachusetts, U.S.
Alma materPurdue University
University of Washington
Scientific career
InstitutionsNational Science Foundation
University of Maryland College Park
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Georgetown University
ThesisCommensal bacteria of marine animals; a study of their distribution, physiology and taxonomy (1961)
Doctoral advisorJohn Liston
Doctoral studentsJody Deming

Early life and education


Colwell was born on November 23, 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 in 1957. Colwell obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in aquatic microbiology under the direction of microbiologist John Liston in 1961.[4][5] She participated in a post-doctoral fellowship at the Canadian National Research Council in Ottawa.


Colwell describes her research path from fruit fly geneticist to world class biologist, and the key decision points and supporters along the way.

Colwell is recognized for her study of global infectious disease spread through water sources and its impacts on global health.[6] 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]

Many of her research papers have focused on abating the spread of cholera in the developing world by improving ways to track its spread and researching inexpensive methods for filtrating out the infection 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 water temperatures. This rising temperature causes algae blooms that host cholera bacteria, and rainfall and extreme weather patterns aid in spreading cholera among water systems.[7] 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 waterways. These inexpensive and readily available materials yielded a 48% reduction in cholera, when compared with the control: absence of any type of filter.[8]

National Science Foundation


Colwell was the first female director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and held this position from 1998 to 2004.[9] 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 the 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.[10] 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.[11]

In 2004, Colwell completed her term as director of the National Science Foundation.[12] She then became the chief scientist at Canon U.S. Life Sciences, a division of Canon. She served as chairman of Canon U.S. Life Sciences[12] until 2006 when she was named as Senior Advisor and Chairman Emeritus.



Colwell joined the faculty of the Department of Biology at Georgetown University in 1964, and she gained tenure there in 1966. While at Georgetown, Colwell and her research team were the first to learn that the causative agent of cholera was found naturally in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. In 1972, Colwell accepted a tenured professorship at the University of Maryland. She remains a professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.[13] At the University of Maryland at College Park, she is a Distinguished University Professor in the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), which is part of the university's College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences.



Colwell founded the company CosmosID in 2008, and she currently serves as global science officer and chairman of the board.[9] CosmosID is a bioinformatics company that develops various types of equipment to identify microbial activity in a variety of ecosystems.

EcoHealth Alliance


Colwell was elected to the Board of Directors of EcoHealth Alliance in November 2012.[3]

Publications and media


Colwell has authored or co-authored more than 800 scientific reports and publications, along with 19 books.[14]

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.[15]

Colwell is the founding editor of GeoHealth, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. 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.

Colwell's memoir "A Lab of One's Own: One Woman's Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science",[16] written with Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, was released in August 2020.

Colwell is a co-author of a letter published in The Lancet titled "Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19" in which the authors declared, "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."[17] Her link with EcoHealth Alliance was not reported as a conflict of interest.

Awards and recognition


Colwell is the recipient of 61 honorary degrees, including Honorary Doctorates from NUI Galway, the University of Notre Dame, The New School,[18] and the University of St Andrews in 2016.[9]

Personal life


Colwell met her husband, Jack Colwell, when he was a physical chemistry graduate student at Purdue.[1] They had two daughters and three grandchildren. Jack H. Colwell (1931–2018) was a scientist at the National Bureau of Standards.[33]


  1. ^ a b c "Rita Rossi Colwell, MSA SC 3520-11592". msa.maryland.gov. Retrieved 23 September 2016.
  2. ^ "Board of Directors". EcoHealth Alliance. 3 February 2016. Archived from the original on 26 October 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2023.
  3. ^ a b "EcoHealth Alliance Announces Dr. Rita Colwell's Election to Board of Directors". EcoHealth Alliance. 27 November 2012. Archived from the original on 2 April 2023. Retrieved 27 October 2023.
  4. ^ Colwell, Rita Barbara Rossi (1961). Commensal bacteria of marine animals; a study of their distribution, physiology and taxonomy (Ph.D.). University of Washington. OCLC 20018876 – via ProQuest.
  5. ^ Marmor, Jon (June 2000). "Wonder Women: Bumping Against the Glass Ceiling". Columns Magazine. University of Washington.
  6. ^ a b c "RitaColwell – Cell Biology & Molecular Genetics". cbmg.umd.edu. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  7. ^ 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. (18 November 2008). "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 2584748. PMID 19001267.
  8. ^ 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. (4 February 2003). "Reduction of cholera in Bangladeshi villages by simple filtration". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 100 (3): 1051–1055. Bibcode:2003PNAS..100.1051C. doi:10.1073/pnas.0237386100. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 298724. PMID 12529505.
  9. ^ a b c d e "US NSF – News – Rita R. Colwell, Biography". www.nsf.gov. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  10. ^ "Rita Colwell | UMIACS". www.umiacs.umd.edu. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  11. ^ "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 26 October 2016.
  12. ^ a b Dame, Marketing Communications: Web // University of Notre (2 May 2016). "Rita Colwell, former director of NSF, to deliver the Graduate School Commencement Address". Notre Dame News. Retrieved 4 November 2021.
  13. ^ Corey, Pamela (24 January 2014). "Biography of Rita R. Colwell". NIST. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  14. ^ a b Ayala, Christine (2016). "Rita R. Colwell". National Science and Technology Medals Foundation. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  15. ^ University of Maryland, College Park; Department of Microbiology; University of Maryland, College Park; Office of University Relations (1 January 1977), Invisible seas, The Office, OCLC 19548735
  16. ^ Colwell, Rita R.; McGrayne, Sharon Bertsch (4 August 2020). A Lab of One's Own: One Woman's Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science (First Simon & Schuster hardcover ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-1-5011-8127-6. OCLC 1124524054.
  17. ^ Calisher, Charles; Carroll, Dennis; Colwell, Rita; Corley, Ronald B; Daszak, Peter; Drosten, Christian; Enjuanes, Luis; Farrar, Jeremy; Field, Hume; Golding, Josie; Gorbalenya, Alexander; Haagmans, Bart; Hughes, James M; Karesh, William B; Keusch, Gerald T (19 February 2020). "Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19". The Lancet. 395 (10226): e42–e43. doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(20)30418-9. ISSN 0140-6736. PMC 7159294. PMID 32087122.
  18. ^ "The New School Commencement to be Held on May 21". 17 May 2010.
  19. ^ a b "Rita Colwell Papers". www.asm.org. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  20. ^ "Colwell Massif (USA)". SCAR Gazetteer. Australian Antarctic Data Centre. Retrieved 15 October 2021.
  21. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  22. ^ "International Prize for biology – Japan Society for the Promotion of Science". www.jsps.go.jp. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  23. ^ National Women's Hall of Fame, Rita Rossi Colwell
  24. ^ "The President's National Medal of Science: Recipient Details". NSF – National Science Foundation. Retrieved 21 October 2016.
  25. ^ a b "Rita Colwell, AIBS Past President, Receives Mahathir Science Award". AIBS Public Policy Office. Retrieved 26 October 2016.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "CosmosID Founder Rita Colwell". CosmosID - Exploring the Universe of Microbes. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  27. ^ "Creativity Prize 7th Award". Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  28. ^ "Rita Colwell, world-renowned microbiologist and science leader, to receive the Vannevar Bush Award". National Science Board. Retrieved 16 May 2017.
  29. ^ hermes (10 July 2018). "Seoul, US scientist receive honours". The Straits Times. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  30. ^ "Singapore International Water Week – Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize". Singapore International Water Week. 5 February 2019.
  31. ^ "Colwell Honored by AGU with William Bowie Medal". umiacs.umd.edu. 19 November 2020. Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  32. ^ "colwellcenter.usmd.edu__about-us".
  33. ^ "Obituary. Jack Colwell". Washington Post. 18 February 2018. (typo in 2nd line of obituary)

Further reading

Professional and academic associations
Preceded by President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Succeeded by
Government offices
Preceded by Director of the National Science Foundation
Succeeded by