Diving into Glass: Reflections on the Blaschka’s 150-year-old Glass Menagerie

by Drew Harvell, author of A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschka’s Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

Becalmed in the North Atlantic on a dark May evening in 1853, Leopold Blaschka witnessed an other-worldly event. Beneath the glassy surface of the sea, a small green light appeared. Then a second. And a third. “A hundred of these suns light up at a certain distance,” Leopold wrote. “As if they wanted to lure the enchanted observer into a realm of fairies.” He describes a flotilla of bioluminescent jellyfish, drifting midway across the Atlantic. Leopold, a glassworker from Dresden, sketched the shifting colors, tentacles, and ghostly lights. Then he began to imagine the jellyfish forms as glass. Over the next forty years, Leopold and his son, Rudolf, would go on to spin almost 10,000 glass sculptures of 700 unique marine organisms that today populate universities and museums around the world.

Twenty-seven years ago, as Cornell’s new Curator of Invertebrates, I travelled to the Corning Museum of Glass to visit Cornell University’s Blaschka Collection. I entered the cavernous warehouse, filled with rows of shelves and cardboard boxes, and opened a box. Inside was a glass model of the common octopus (Figure 1). Though it was covered in dust, with a gaping hole in the thin glass mantle and a missing eye, I was captivated by the lifelike texture and posture of the sculpture. Inside another box, I found a model of a bright red, orange, and white striped sea slug. At the bottom of another was an Apolemia uvaria jellyfish. The multi-belled, fifteen-inch-high glass masterpiece depicts an animal that trails 30-foot-long tentacles in the Mediterranean (Figure 2). I uncovered hundreds of models, representing a vibrant tree of life, spanning eight phyla and nineteen classes. It was an unprecedented record of marine biodiversity from the nineteenth century.

The siphonophore, Apolonia uvaria CREDIT: Kent Loeffler photo

As a Marine Scientist, I have spent the past three decades studying ocean biodiversity and health in locations like Mexico, Hawai’i, Indonesia, Myanmar and, domestically, in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the reefs and shores that I work on are declining. For instance in 2016, rising ocean temperatures caused deadly coral bleaching and mass mortality of corals worldwide, but notably near Australia, Fiji, and Hawai’i. Bleaching occurs when symbiotic algae, relied on by corals to photosynthesize and transfer energy, abandon their hosts to starve or succumb to disease. The health of colder-water animals are also impacted. In 2013, off the West Coast of the United States, twenty different species of starfish died catastrophically from a lethal virus outbreak that continues to this day. The once-common sunflower starfish, a keystone species, is now endangered and still declining. This is just the damage that we know about. I worry about deaths of ocean critters and the possibility of unseen extinctions due to climate change, pollution and overfishing. The ocean contains many organisms that are difficult to record and monitor. In the midst of unprecedented marine mortality and ocean change, I began to realize that the Blaschka Glass Collection provided my team with a time capsule of biodiversity common in the 1860s. Were our Blaschka animals still in today’s oceans?

Six years ago, with videographer David O. Brown, I began the search for Blaschka matches around the world. In Italy, we dove at the Porto Fino Marine Preserve and located seventeen living matches. One, was the mauve stinger jellyfish speckled in purple dots. Another jellyfish, the tiny by-the-wind-sailor, relied on a raised, iridescent membrane to sail the Mediterranean. In Indonesia, we found vibrantly colored nudibranchs and tiny octopus relatives. In Hawai’i, David and I filmed by night shape-shifting octopi, watching us from coral heads and crevices, reminiscent of the first sculpture that I uncovered in the Corning Museum of Glass. Those stories of our underwater searches are now a book, A Sea of Glass, focusing on the successes and the failures of our global exploration and detailing the fragile existence of those matches still living in our oceans today.

The common octopus, Octopus vulgaris. CREDIT: Gary Hodges photo.

Early in our quest, I dangled nervously on a tether below fifty feet of pitch-black water a mile off the coast of Hawai’i Island. We had come for the bioluminescent jellyfish of the night. We watched a ribbon-like comb jelly, a kaleidoscopic Blashka match, undulating against the current. Another point of light was drifting towards me in the current. A two-lobed jellyfish trolling tentacles that might match our Praya dubia glass sculpture. It was hunting with long, gossamer strands outstretched to capture plankton, but it spooked in our lights. Giant axons in the bell fired powerful contractile muscles that zipped up the tentacles and propelled the jellyfish away. Shivering in the cold and dark, it was time for us to surface. With a final look at the waters, we began to rise with our exhaled bubbles, nervous about our conservation efforts, and regretfully leaving this latest glimpse of the ever changing ocean.

A Sea of Glass won the National Outdoor Book Award, was a top Smithsonian Art-Science Book in 2016, and honorable mention Rachel Carson Award. Fragile Legacy is an award-winning film.

Drew Harvell is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and Curator of the Blaschka Marine Invertebrate Collection. Her research on the sustainability of marine ecosystems has taken her from the reefs of Mexico, Indonesia, and Hawaii to the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. She is a Fellow of the Ecological Society of America and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, a winner of the Society of American Naturalist Jasper Loftus-Hills Award, and a lead author of the oceans chapter in the recent U.S. Climate Change Assessment. She has published over 120 articles in journals such as ScienceNature, and Ecology and is coeditor of The Ecology and Evolution of Inducible Defenses.

5 High-Impact Articles in Atmospheric Science & Ocean Science

To mark the second day of Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, we are sharing the 5 most-read articles from Elementa‘s Atmospheric Science and Ocean Science domains. As you’ll see, Elementa articles have high usage, download, impact, and citation metrics (and if you’d like a more sweeping view of the journal’s overall impact, click here). By publishing your research open access in Elementa, your work could also receive high exposure (view submission information here).

For those attending #AGU17, we hope you’ll stop by booth #1820, where Elementa is featured at the DataONE/DataCite booth.

Atmospheric Science
Editor-in-Chief: Detlev Helmig, University of Colorado Boulder

5 High-Impact Articles
(All metrics from December 8, 2017. Citation Source: Scopus)

Global distribution and trends of tropospheric ozone: An observation-based review
Cooper OR, Parrish DD, Ziemke J, Balashov NV, Cupeiro M, et al. 2014.
Impact: 33,419 views/downloads, 94citations, and Altmetric Score 13 since original publication on July 10, 2014

Influence of oil and gas emissions on ambient atmospheric non-methane hydrocarbons in residential areas of Northeastern Colorado
Thompson CR, Hueber J, Helmig D. 2014.
Impact: 24,606 views/downloads, 10 citations (source: CrossRef) and Altmetric Score 14 since original publication on Nov 14, 2014

Anatomy of wintertime ozone associated with oil and natural gas extraction activity in Wyoming and Utah
Oltmans S, Schnell R, Johnson B, Pétron G, Mefford T, Neely III R. 2014.
Impact: 21,352 views/downloads, 16 citations, and Altmetric Score 4 since original publication on March 4, 2014

A characterization of Arctic aerosols on the basis of aerosol optical depth and black carbon measurements
Stone RS, Sharma S, Herber A, Eleftheriadis K, Nelson DW. 2014.
Impact: 19,782 views/downloads, 13 citations, and Altmetric Score 2 since original publication on June 10, 2014

Seasonally varying contributions to urban CO2 in the Chicago, Illinois, USA region: Insights from a high-resolution CO2 concentration and δ13C record
Moore J, Jacobson AD. 2015.
Impact: 19,444 views/downloads, 8 citations, and Altmetric Score 3 since original publication on June 5, 2015

Ocean Science
Editor-in-Chief: Jody Deming, University of Washington

5 High-Impact Articles
(All metrics from December 8, 2017. Citation Source: Scopus)

Evidence of lasting impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep Gulf of Mexico coral community
Hsing P, Fu B, Larcom EA, Berlet SP, Shank TM, et al. 2013.
Impact: 28,269 views/downloads, 21 citations, and Altmetric Score 17 since original publication on December 04, 2013

The evolution and future of carbonate precipitation in marine invertebrates: Witnessing extinction or documenting resilience in the Anthropocene?
Drake JL, Mass T, Falkowski PG. 2014.
Impact: 23,578 views/downloads, 8 citations, and Altmetric Score 7 since original publication on May 7, 2014

Sea ice algal biomass and physiology in the Amundsen Sea, Antarctica
Arrigo KR, Brown ZW, Mills MM. 2014.
Impact: 20,946 views/downloads, 19 citations, and Altmetric Score 4 since original publication on July 15, 2014

The changing Arctic Ocean
Arrigo KR. 2013.
Impact: 20,466 views/downloads, 6 citations, and Altmetric Score 1 since original publication on December 4, 2013

Solar energy capture and transformation in the sea
Karl DM. 2014.
Impact: 20,348 views/downloads, 11 citations, and Altmetric Score 2 since original publication on January 8, 2014

#ResearchRoundup: 8 New Articles from Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene

In this environmental science #ResearchRoundup, we are pleased to highlight 8 new articles—including select articles trending on Altmetric—published across Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene‘s comprehensive, interdisciplinary Knowledge Domains. All Elementa articles are published #OpenAccess, so be sure to visit us at elementascience.org to read more of the latest articles.

Want more information about Elementa? Join Elementa‘s mailing list and follow the journal on Facebook and Twitter for news and updates.

Atmospheric Science

Regional trend analysis of surface ozone observations from monitoring networks in eastern North America, Europe and East Asia
Kai-Lan Chang,  Irina Petropavlovskikh,  Owen R. Cooper,  Martin G. Schultz,  Tao Wang
07 Sept 2017
Special Feature: Tropospheric Ozone Assessment Report (TOAR): Global metrics for climate change, human health and crop/ecosystem research

Earth & Environmental Science

Biogeochemical characterization of municipal compost to support urban agriculture and limit childhood lead exposure from resuspended urban soils
Maia G. Fitzstevens,  Rosalie M. Sharp,  Daniel J. Brabander
11 Sept 2017

Trending article

Evolving deltas: Coevolution with engineered interventions
A. C. Welch,  R. J. Nicholls,  A. N. Lázár
25 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Deltas in the Anthropocene


Ocean Science

Using mineralogy and higher-level taxonomy as indicators of species sensitivity to pH: A case-study of Puget Sound
Shallin Busch,  Paul McElhany
12 Sept 2017
Special Feature: Advances in ocean acidification research

Trending article

Seasonal trends and phenology shifts in sea surface temperature on the North American northeastern continental shelf
Andrew C. Thomas,  Andrew J. Pershing,  Kevin D. Friedland,  Janet A. Nye,  Katherine E. Mills,  Michael A. Alexander,  Nicholas R. Record,  Ryan Weatherbee,  M. Elisabeth Henderson
23 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Climate change impacts: Fish, fisheries and fisheries management

Sustainable Engineering

Shipping and the environment: Smokestack emissions, scrubbers and unregulated oceanic consequences
David R. Turner,  Ida-Maja Hassellöv,  Erik Ytreberg,  Anna Rutgersson
11 Aug 2017
Special Feature: Investigating marine transport processes in the 21st century

Sustainability Transitions

Trending article

Effective inundation of continental United States communities with 21st century sea level rise
12 July 2017
Kristina A. Dahl,  Erika Spanger-Siegfried,  Astrid Caldas,  Shana Udvardy


Building student capacity to lead sustainability transitions in the food system through farm-based authentic research modules in sustainability sciences (FARMS)
Selena Ahmed,  Alexandra Sclafani,  Estephanie Aquino,  Shashwat Kala,  Louise Barias, Jaime Eeg
Forum: New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems

New Clues in the Search for the Blaschka Animals

By Drew Harvell, author of A Sea of Glass: Searching for the Blaschkas’ Fragile Legacy in an Ocean at Risk

This guest post is published in observance of World Oceans Day, June 8th, a global day of celebration and collaboration to honor, help protect, and conserve the world’s oceans.

From the entrance of the historic Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, one can see across the Bay of Naples to the island of Capri. All that separates me from this timeless view and entry into the Stazione is an ancient gate crafted in metal of crabs and octopus.

Inside the archives, I examine Leopold Blaschka’s letter, in exacting cursive, of 4 February 1877. He specifies a list of 41 preserved marine animals to be sent to help him construct in glass scientifically accurate replicas of marine invertebrates. I reflect on this new evidence of his careful planning. He researched and then obtained names of the exact preserved animals he needed to perfect his glass masterpieces. It took two months from his penning of the letter until these animals reached his door. I may never know how he formed his list, but I can celebrate the outcome. Some of those 41 animals sent at his request, arenow spun in glass and housed in the collection I curate at Cornell University.

I am visiting the Stazione Zoologica to research these letters, explore the fate of our Blaschka matches, and talk about my recent book, A Sea of Glass. The book chronicles my search for the living animals and how they are faring in a changing ocean. On the list of animals sent at Leopold’s request is the curly tentacle octopus (Eledone moschata), one of our most prized models. In glass, it is an attentive octopus crouched in a comfortable octopus pose, tentacles coiled at the ready, as if waiting for a crab to pass. Also on the list is the crinoid (Comatula mediterranea), a delicate relative of starfish and still found deep in the waters of Naples Bay and studied even now by researchers at Anton Dohrn. Near the end of Blaschka’s list is the white-spotted octopus (Callistoctopus macropus), a close cousin and look-alike to the bright-spotted ornate octopus (Callistoctopus ornatus), I describe in A Sea of Glass from my night dive in Hawaii. Shown here are the swirling red tentacles portrayed in the watercolor drawn by Leopold before tackling the glass model.

With these lists of Blaschka subjects in hand, scientists at Stazione Zoologica will help in my quest to check up on the health of the Blaschka animals by looking over the coming year to see which can still be found alive in the Bay of Naples.

The curly tentacle octopus (Eledone moschata) in glass. Claire Smith, photo.
The Mediterranean crinoid (Antedon mediterranea) in glass. Corning Museum of Glass, photo.
The white-spotted otopus (Callistoctopus macropus), water color by Leopold Blaschka. Courtesy of Rakow Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

Drew Harvell is Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and Curator of the Blaschka Marine Invertebrate Collection. Her research on the sustainability of marine ecosystems has taken her from the reefs of Mexico, Indonesia, and Hawaii to the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. She is a Fellow of the Ecological Society of America and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, a winner of the Society of American Naturalist Jasper Loftus-Hills Award, and a lead author of the oceans chapter in the recent U.S. Climate Change Assessment. She has published over 120 articles in journals such as ScienceNature, and Ecology and is coeditor of The Ecology and Evolution of Inducible Defenses.

7 New #OpenAccess Articles from Elementa

An open access scientific journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene’s mission is Open Science for Public Good. With the ultimate objective of publishing original research that accelerates solutions to challenges presented by this era of human impact, Elementa is uniquely structured into six distinct knowledge domains, led by six Editors-in-Chief.

Check out 7 new #OpenAccess articles from Elementa, and consider becoming an Elementa author! Visit elementascience.org to see Calls for Papers from each knowledge domain.

Major impact of climate change on deep-sea benthic ecosystems
Andrew K. Sweetman, et al.
Domains: Earth & Environmental Science, Ecology, Ocean Science

Analysis of local-scale background concentrations of methane and other gas-phase species in the Marcellus Shale
J. Douglas Goetz, et al.
Domain: Atmospheric Science
(Part of a Forum: Oil and Natural Gas Development: Air Quality, Climate Science, and Policy)

Scape goats, silver bullets, and other pitfalls in the path to sustainability
D. G. Webster
Domain: Sustainability Transitions
(Part of a Special Feature: Envisioning Sustainable Transitions)

Legacies of stream channel modification revealed using General Land Office surveys, with implications for water temperature and aquatic life
Seth M. White, et al.
Domain: Ecology

Leveraging agroecology for solutions in food, energy, and water
Marcia DeLonge, Andrea Basche
Domain: Sustainability Transitions
(Part of a Forum: Food-energy-water systems: Opportunities at the nexus)

Ten-year chemical signatures associated with long-range transport observed in the free troposphere over the central North Atlantic
B. Zhang, et al.
Domain: Atmospheric Science

Want to browse more recent content from ElementaClick here for recently published articles, and follow Elementa on Facebook and @elementascience for the latest updates.

Alien Ocean Wins the 2017 J.I. Staley Prize

We are delighted to announce that Stefan Helmreich was awarded the J.I. Staley Prize for his book, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas on behalf of the School for Advanced Research.


The School for Advanced Research (SAR) presents the J. I. Staley Prize to a living author for a book that exemplifies outstanding scholarship and writing in anthropology. By recognizing groundbreaking books and their authors through the J. I. Staley Prize, SAR seeks to stimulate the best in anthropological research and writing.

Published by the press in 2009, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas has received considerable praise from reviewers, and we’re proud that Stefan’s work has earned this significant recognition.

“Unique [and] innovative. . . . Captures the excitement and crucial nature of oceanographic research. . . . Perhaps Alien Ocean will inspire the next generation to fulfill the promise of environmental genomic sequencing.” —Nature

“Erudite, widely ranging account of currently important aspects of marine microbiology and their broader implications.” —A. J. Kohn, Choice

Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene Call for Papers: Ocean Science

We invite you to submit your next paper to the Ocean Science domain of Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, a trans-disciplinary, open-access journal whose mission is Open Science for the Public Good.

Elementa publishes original research with the ultimate objective of accelerating scientific solutions to the challenges presented by this era of human impact. It is structured into six distinct knowledge domains, and gives authors the unique opportunity to publish in one or multiple domains, helping to present their research in its broader, interconnected context.

In addition to innovative features including a value-sharing business model and an article-promotion partnership with Kudos, Elementa articles are highly used and downloaded (see highlighted articles below). For the full Elementa story, visit our website at elementascience.org.

For Elementa news and updates, be sure to follow along on Facebook and Twitter.

There has never been a more important time to ensure that transparent, evidence-based, peer-reviewed research has the widest and most impactful dissemination as possible. Please consider submitting your ocean science papers to Elementa or developing a Special Feature (e.g. ASPIRE), and feel free to get in touch with Jody Deming, University of Washington, Editor in Chief for Ocean Science, should you have any questions.

Special Features open for submissions

Impacts of natural versus anthropogenic oil inputs on the Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem
Advances in ocean acidification research
The sea surface microlayer
Oceans and human health in a changing environment
Marginal ice zone processes in the summertime Arctic
Climate change impacts: Fish, fisheries and fisheries management
Biogeochemical Exchange Processes at Sea-Ice Interfaces (BEPSII)

High-impact Ocean Science content from Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene

(All metrics from March 6, 2017)

Evidence of lasting impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on a deep Gulf of Mexico coral community
Hsing P, Fu B, Larcom EA, Berlet SP, Shank TM, et al. 2013.
Total usage: 27,861 since original publication on Dec 04, 2013

The evolution and future of carbonate precipitation in marine invertebrates: Witnessing extinction or documenting resilience in the Anthropocene?
Drake JL, Mass T, Falkowski PG. 2014.
Total usage: 23,407 since original publication on May 07, 2014

The changing Arctic Ocean
Arrigo KR. 2013.
Total usage: 20,186 since original publication on Dec 04, 2013

Solar energy capture and transformation in the sea
Karl DM. 2014.
Total usage: 20,142 since original publication on Jan 08, 2014

Call for Papers: Human Health and Environmental Change


We invite you to submit your research related to human health and environmental change to Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

Published by University of California Press and organized around six knowledge domains—Atmospheric Science, Earth & Environmental Science, Ecology, Ocean Science, Sustainable Engineering, and Sustainability Transitions—Elementa is a not-for-profit, open access scientific journal publishing original research reporting on new knowledge of the Earth’s physical, chemical, and biological systems; interactions between human and natural systems; and steps that can be taken to mitigate and adapt to global change.

Elementa welcomes your research related to human health and environmental change, including article submission related to:

  • Biodiversity loss and human health
  • Connections between happiness, health and GDP
  • Connections between healthy ecosystems and healthy communities
  • Ecosystem approaches to controlling emerging threats from infectious diseases
  • Health impacts of the shift to clean energy
  • Healthy food systems, healthy communities
  • Human health and sustainability
  • Human health consequences of climate change (direct and indirect)
  • Mental health-environment connections

We also welcome your contributions to a related Special Feature, Oceans and human health in a changing environment, guest edited by Erin K. Lipp (University of Georgia).

Start your submission here, or contact Managing Editor Liba Hladik at lhladik@ucpress.edu for more information.

On behalf of Editors-in-Chief Jody W. Deming (Ocean Science) and Anne R. Kapuscinski (Sustainability Transitions), we look forward to your contribution to this timely and important topic!

—the Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene Team
p.s. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene includes a number of innovative features, including a novel mechanism that gives back to the research community by recognizing and sharing the value contributed by editors and peer reviewers; and an article-sharing partnership with Kudos to increase the reach and impact of your work. To learn more please visit elementascience.org.


Elementa author Mark Johnson explains the focus of his research and his reasons for publishing with the journal

Mark Johnson

“After contacting the Editor-in-Chief, we knew this was a solid journal and the right place to publish our findings.”

Mark Johnson, co-author of the Elementa article, Estimating Arctic sea-ice freeze-up and break-up from the satellite record: A comparison of different approaches in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, tells us more about his research on sea ice variability, and gives us his perspectives on publishing.

How did you come to focus your research on sea-ice variability over time?

As a physical oceanographer having done work in Antarctica and the Arctic, I observed first hand that ice plays an important role in the ocean’s behavior. I became interested in the sea ice thickness problem and ways to measure thickness. While I was in Barrow, Alaska, I became acquainted with my co-author Hajo Eicken who was conducting airborne surveys of ice thickness. That led to several successful NSF proposals and more work on sea ice. My past ocean research looked at decadal variation in wind-driven Arctic Ocean currents, and it seemed natural to start looking at long term sea ice trends and their relevance to ocean circulation.


Please tell us about your recent research with the NSF funded projects, the Arctic Ocean Model Intercomparison, and Seasonal Ice Zone Observing Network.

AOMIP and now FAMOS seeks to improve numerical models. With the algorithm we describe in our paper we can now determine dates of freeze-up and break-up from models and then see how well they time the annual sea ice cycle compared to the satellite record. It was the SIZONET project that helped acquire the observations to validate the algorithm and allow me to work with and learn from sea ice experts.


How do you think research on sea ice is helpful to a broader understanding of climate change and its effects?

Changes in sea ice are a key indicator of climate change. The timing of the sea ice cycle is a critical element in understanding that cycle and how it may be changing in time.

You have recently co-authored an article in Elementa: ‘Estimating Arctic sea-ice freeze-up and break-up from the satellite record: A comparison of different approaches in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas’. What does your article examine? How rare is it to include local observers of sea ice patterns in such analyses?

The article uses observations from sea ice experts in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas who have been keeping records of sea-ice, ocean, and weather conditions as part of SIZONET. Those observations guided development of the algorithm described in the paper to calculate sea-ice seasonality. We are not aware of similar studies where ground-based observations are used to validate remote-sensing derived observations of freeze-up and break-up. Our approach provides a measure of sea-ice seasonality that is relevant to on-ice users, researchers, and industry.


What attracted you to contribute to the Ocean Science domain of Elementa?

A long-time colleague, Patricia Yager, who I met while doing work in the Northeast Water polynya years ago was visiting after a research cruise. She had recently published in Elementa and highly recommended it. The manuscript I was working on with Hajo Eicken seemed well suited for Elementa. After contacting the Editor we knew this was a solid journal and the right place to publish our findings.

The reviewers comments made for a significantly better paper. It was great working with Elementa to get the figures and the text to their best form. Elementa paid attention to detail that helped improve the final product, and they responded well to my perhaps fussy suggestions even as the edits neared final form. It was a very positive experience.


What would you like to see more of in scholarly publishing?

Elementa is a good example of where journals are heading. Publications with ready access to the science community and the public. Production of a clean, good-looking paper. The ability to share via Facebook, Twitter, etc. is ideal and important in our electronic age.


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.