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Rita Colwell

environmental science
(recorded in 1999)

Colwell is known for her work in microbiology and ecology. She and her her colleagues traced the source of the causative agent, Vibrio cholerae, to plankton in rivers and estuaries. They also linked cholera epidemiology with sea temperatures and plankton blooms, tying together global climate and disease. Colwell is a nationally respected scientist and educator. She authored or co-authored 16 books and more than 600 scientific publications and produced the award-winning film Invisible Seas. Born in Massachusetts, 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. Colwell was the director of the National Science Foundation from 1998 to 2004 and is currently Distinguished University Professor, Center for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Part 1: Rita Colwell recounts the vital contributions made to society by basic research funded by the National Science Foundation, and discusses how investments today will impact the economy in the future. About 60 percent of all Nobel laureates did fundamental research under NSF grants earlier in their careers, she notes. The increased emphasis being placed on advancing the field of information technology has, in turn, helped advance interdisciplinary collaboration. Colwell explains the decision-making process within NSF, which operates in an unbureaucratic fashion. (18 minutes)

Part 2: The first NSF director to be a woman and fully trained in the life sciences, Colwell talks about findings from research projects supported by NSF: a disturbing increase of disease in ocean organisms, the discovery of life around hydrothermal vents deep on the ocean floor and meteorites from Mars found in Antarctica. She also describes how her own work as a marine microbiologist led to discoveries about cholera and new water filtration techniques that will reduce the number of cases of this disease. This progress was the result of interdisciplinary research. She concludes by emphasizing the importance of investments in basic research to the economic vitality of the nation. (17 minutes)


Last Updated: 07-26-2004

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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.

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