2023-2024: GeoHealth: Rita R. Colwell

Rita R. Colwell
University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health


Dr. Rita Colwell’s interests are focused on global infectious diseases, water, and health and Dr. Colwell developed an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world, in collaboration with Safe Water Network, headquartered in New York City.

Dr. Colwell served as the 11th Director of the National Science Foundation, 1998-2004.  In her capacity as NSF Director, she served as Co-chair of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council.  One of her major interests includes K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education, and increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.  

Dr. Colwell served as President of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and Professor of Microbiology and Biotechnology at the University Maryland.  She was also a member of the National Science Board from 1984 to 1990.

Dr. Colwell has been awarded 63 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education, including her Alma Mater, Purdue University and is the recipient of the 2005 Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, the 2006 National Medal of Science awarded by the President of the United States, the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden, the 2017 Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Foundation, the 2017 International Prize for Biology from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the 2017 Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (“Knight of the Legion of Honor”) bestowed by the Ambassador of France, the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize of Singapore, and the 2020 William Bowie Medal from the American Geophysical Union. Dr. Colwell is an honorary member of the microbiological societies of the UK, Australia, France, India, Israel, Bangladesh, and the U.S. and has held several honorary professorships, including the University of Queensland, Australia.  A geological site in Antarctica, Colwell Massif, has been named in recognition of her work in the Polar Regions.

Dr. Colwell has held many advisory positions in the U.S. Government, nonprofit science policy organizations, and private foundations, as well as in the international scientific research community. She is a nationally-respected scientist and educator, and has authored or co-authored 20 books and more than 800 scientific publications.  She produced the award-winning film, Invisible Seas, and has served on editorial boards of numerous scientific journals. She served as Chair of the Research Board for the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (2010-2020). 

Dr. Colwell has previously served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Microbiology and also as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Washington Academy of Sciences, the American Society for Microbiology, the Sigma Xi National Science Honorary Society, the International Union of Microbiological Societies, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). Dr. Colwell is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Irish Academy, the Bangladesh Academy of Science, the Indian Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.  

Born in Beverly, Massachusetts, Dr. Colwell 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.

Abstract: Oceans, Climate, and Human Health: Predicting Cholera During Climate Change

The role of microorganisms as a driver of fundamental processes of climate, emerging infectious diseases, and human health is surprisingly extensive and extraordinarily complex. It is now clear that the human microbiome plays a significant role in health and well-being. But the global function of microbes is only beginning to be understood. A model for such study is cholera, a disease the causative agent of which is a bacterium whose home is the aquatic environment. Research has shown that this bacterium is native to the environment but also a deadly pathogen, particularly in lesser-developed countries. Next generation sequencing and bioinformatics of cholera patient microbiomes suggest cholera is best described as a polymicrobial infection, with Vibrio cholerae a key player. Extension of the findings from cholera to study of the microbiome offers new insight into infectious diseases, including COVID-19.  Furthermore, satellite sensing coupled with computational modeling provides a powerful public health tool for predicting risk of pandemics.  Such studies on cholera and COVID-19 make possible risk prediction for the current pandemics.