Interview with Associate Editor Rita Colwell – recipient of the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award

Rita Colwell

“NCSE understands that the real problems are in the interdisciplinary areas and that’s where the tough work is done.”

Elementa has always been delighted to have Dr. Rita Colwell on the board of Associate Editors for the Ocean Science domain. She is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She serves on a number of boards of organizations and advisory groups. She is a former Senior Advisor and currently Chairman Emeritus at Canon US Life Sciences, Inc., and Founder and Chairman  of CosmosID, Inc. She was the 11th  Director of the NSF, and over the years has made numerous outstanding major contributions that advanced science for the public good.  On January 20th, 2016, the NCSE recognized this achievement and awarded her the NCSE Lifetime Achievement Award.

We spoke with Dr. Colwell to ask her more about this award and also about the variety of research and projects that she has initiated to date.  While Dr. Colwell has received many honors and awards over the years, she explained that this award was particularly meaningful to her as she has been involved with the NCSE almost from its inception. She has served on the board, and was supportive when she was the Director of the National Science Foundation. When asked what she was most particularly proud of in her work with the NCSE, Dr. Colwell did not  single out an initiative, given the organization’s broad-ranging work from influencing policy  to environmental  education for students. However, she did note that the NCSE is an organization that always thinks out of the box and is particularly interdisciplinary. While it is relatively straight-forward to carry out research within a single discipline, “NCSE understands that the real problems are in the interdisciplinary areas and that’s where the tough work is done.” 

On the topic of interdisciplinarity, we discussed ways in which to overcome silos and engage a variety of groups, organizations, foundations, and associations, in addition to teams of researchers from a variety of disciplines. Dr. Colwell explained that while Director of the NSF, she initiated a number of interdisciplinary programs, the formation of which was challenging, but found that ensuring that Directorates from all of the sciences had a role to play in general planning for interdisciplinary programs resulted in shared investment in the programs and fostered a culture of partnership and collaboration.

Interested in the fascinating research that she conducted in educating women in Bangladesh to filter their own water through folded saris, we asked Dr. Colwell to tell us more about the work she is undertaking in developing an international network around improving water quality and the identification of infectious diseases.

“I have been working with others to develop a network of groups that  provide safe  water for those who lack access in developing countries. I was  approached by the Safe Water Network in New York and now serve  on their board. Safewater Network was formed by highly strategic business leaders, academics, and philanthropists, including the late Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. The Safe Water Network  uses a  business model, building kiosks in villages within developing countries that provide  safe water. People in these villages are  recruited to run the  operations, and to manage  the kiosks. The system is sustainable, providing safe water for village residents affordably. The Safe Water Network also  is working to connect a variety of groups (church groups, and small and large philanthropic organizations) with the common goal of  providing safe water, so the combined efforts can make a greater impact.”

Dr. Colwell is also the founder and CEO of CosmosID, a bioinformatics company focused on rapid identification of microorganisms for infectious disease diagnostics, public health surveillance, food safety, pharmaceutical discovery, and microbiome analysis for health and wellness.  We asked her what needs she had identified when founding the company, and how it developed. She explained that she had been studying microbial systematics since graduate school, back when technology applied to microbiology was limited.  When she was the Director of the NSF, she was involved in tracking the source of anthrax.  After completing her term as NSF Director, she continued with her interest in rapid identification by developing algorithms  to translate DNA sequences of samples to  identify  bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.  Now CosmosID uses this approach in partnership with a number of organizations,  including hospitals but also water treatment facilities  to ensure the safety of water.

Somehow, with all of this work (and other research, projects and initiatives too numerous to count), with 17 books co-authored and more than 750 scientific publications, she also found time to produce the award-winning documentary film “Invisible Seas.” We asked how this came about, and Dr. Colwell explained that when beginning as Professor of Microbiology at the University of Maryland, she had  high enrollment in her course on marine microbiology  and it was not possible for  all of the  students to carry out field work on ships because of the limited accommodation, usually 10 slots maximum. She decided that the best way to provide a “simulated” experience was to prepare a documentary and used funds she had available to produce the film. Interestingly, the film received critical acclaim, including a gold medal at the Venice Film Festival as the best scientific documentary that year.

Lastly, we discussed the reasons why Dr. Colwell decided to serve as Associate Editor for Elementa, and assist in its development. While the journal’s nonprofit, open access status, and commitment to publishing interdisciplinary research is important to her, she notes that she was mainly drawn to the commitment and caliber of the Editors involved.