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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Steering the Future of Women in Science: The Institutional Wizardry of Microbiologist Rita Colwell.

One of the exciting and daunting things about doing science in the Twenty-First century is the sheer number of competencies it demands. It is no longer enough to be a person with a particular flair for research or insight into the moving parts of Nature, but now one must be in equal measure a researcher, an administrator, a public relations official, a businessperson, a lecturer, a mentor, a fundraiser, an author, a bureaucrat, and a diplomat, in addition to possessing a number of other skills that defy easy one-word summations.

Relating the life of a modern scientist is often less about discussing a series of discoveries, and more about elucidating the web of organizations and financing agencies in which that scientist has operated. It is deeply impressive for an individual to survive amidst the unique and competing demands of those organizations for their time and expertise, and to emerge from it all with enough funding to eke out another year of research for themselves and the younger scientists who depend on them. There is, however, a special category of scientists who have not only survived in that system, but have had the personal sense of justice and inexhaustible drive to stare down its worst inequities, surmount them, and change them.

Such a person is Dr. Rita Colwell (b. 1934), who as a microbiologist has contributed to our fundamental understanding of disease life cycles, as a scientific organizer was instrumental in coordinating the scientific community’s response to the anthrax attacks that dotted the United States in 2001, and who as the director of the National Science Foundation, Chair of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine, and the first woman president of the American Society for Microbiology initiated structural changes in how science recognizes and compensates for its implicit biases. She has earned success in positions requiring radically different skill sets largely by sticking to the mantras that interdisciplinary coordination beats surface level posturing, and that problems rarely have their roots in the places they are first noticed.

Born Rita Barbara Rossi, she wore the Italian immigrant heritage of her parents in her name, and experienced all of the racial prejudice that came with it in Depression-era Massachusetts. Italians were, like Eastern Europeans and Jews, considered undesirable ethnic elements at the time, and were regularly discouraged from moving into particular neighborhoods. Those who didn’t take the hint and moved in anyway, like Rossi’s family, were at first offered compensation if they would move out, and then shunned if they refused to budge. As such, Rossi’s early friends were an eclectic mix of those willing to ignore the local stricture that Good Children Don’t Associate With Italians.

In sixth grade, Rossi’s class was given an IQ test that ended with young Rita being summoned to the principal’s office. Worried that she had done something wrong and was about to be punished (for who among us has ever been sent to the principal’s office at the hand of glad tidings?), she was instead treated to the fact that her IQ scores suggested a powerful intellect, and her principal insisted that, with her mental gifts, she had a responsibility to go to college. That imperative, to use her brain at its highest level, became a touchstone of her early life as others in her sphere (and particularly a meddlesome aunt) insisted that it would be a waste of money and time for a girl of her station and background to attend college. Her father was adamant, however, that she must go, and even more so when her mother tragically passed away in 1950.

In spite of many of her high school science teachers refusing to write letters of recommendation for her on the theory that a college science education would be wasted on a girl, however gifted, she was accepted to several colleges, and ended up at Purdue, where the science-keen administration offered her a full scholarship. She began as a chemistry student, but the agriculture-heavy slant of the department and massive class sizes discouraged her, until she found her way at last to a bacteriology class offered by Dorothy May Powelson. Powelson’s class unveiled the fascinating world of microbiology in terms of wonder and discovery tailor-made to stoke the interest of curious investigative minds, and allowed Rossi to see her path forward once again.

That path, as it turned out, was littered by a number of roadside cutthroats and bridge trolls, each seeking to arrest Rossi’s progress. The first was Professor Henry Koffler, whose response when she informed him of her desire to continue graduate studies in bacteriology was that the department wouldn’t award a fellowship to a woman, and that, “The only degree you’re going to get is in the maternity ward of a hospital.” Crestfallen but not beaten, she found a position as a research assistant in Alan Burdick’s Drosophila lab that allowed her to finish a Master’s Thesis and that gave her further insight into the power of genetic analysis.

Moving to the University of Washington for her PhD work, she experienced the problem of finding a proper mentor until marine microbiologist John Liston invited her to join his lab. A strong supporter of women in science, Liston proved an ideal mentor, and her study of Pseudomonas bacteria was well underway when, at a conference to which she’d been invited to present her work, microbiologist Roger Stanier started talking over her presentation, criticizing her results. He was unable to countenance another scientist working on the organism he had staked out as his own, and so abrasive was his attitude that she made the fateful decision to switch organisms entirely, and focus on vibrios, a classification of comma-shaped bacteria that include among their ranks V. cholerae, the agent of cholera.

Rita Rossi, now Rita Colwell after her 1956 marriage to fellow scientist Jack Colwell, completed her PhD work in 1961 with Commensal bacteria of animals; a study of their distribution, physiology, and taxonomy and, after postdoctoral work in Ottawa, she joined Georgetown University in 1963 as the only woman faculty member in the biology department. Here, she began the studies of Vibrio cholerae that made her one of microbiology’s most controversial rising figures.

The assumption had always been that V. cholerae could only be transmitted from person to person. It was also an informal law of microbiology that, if a bacterium did not produce spores, it was incapable of going into a state of dormancy. Those two dicta, when combined, made it impossible for most scientists to imagine V. cholerae infecting hosts, then going into a state of dormancy somewhere unexpected while waiting for the next host to pick them up. Such scientists were at a loss to explain the fundamental fact that cholera outbreaks came and went in waves, with long stretches in between. If V. cholera could only be transmitted by living carriers, if it died within a couple of days of existing outside a living host, what happened to it in between epidemics?

Colwell’s answer, a result of two decades of research, implied a revolution in thinking about cholera’s life cycle. She and the members of her lab demonstrated that V. cholerae was an aquatic organism, capable of surviving in a dormant state attached to marine-based copepods. Anybody ingesting unfiltered water containing those tiny crustaceans will digest the crustaceans, and awaken the bacteria upon them (up to 50,000 per copepod!). Those bacteria are then free to attach to the intestinal lining and secrete a toxin that results in cholera’s characteristic diarrhea, which improper disposal of then allows more bacteria to enter the water system.

It was brilliant and imaginative work, and the insights it brought into the V. cholerae life cycle have allowed for far better modeling of cholera outbreaks, and therefore much better procedures in anticipating them and preventing their worst outcomes in developing countries. Having benefited the world with the capacities of her mind and the resolution of her will, the world in turn took notice of Rita Colwell, and began offering her opportunities to work her organizational skills on higher official levels. When reports of mailed anthrax began creeping into the news in the wake of 9/11, Colwell collected the human and scientific resources to perform the massive task of mapping the genomes of the different anthrax strains collected (keep in mind, to put the immensity of that task in perspective, that the Human Genome Project had launched in 1990 and would not be declared complete until 2003), and using minute differences between origin strains and the attacking strains to trace the mailed anthrax samples to a single lab, and ultimately to a single location in that lab, and thereby to identify the likely culprit in the attacks.

Her work on that project is the stuff of Michael Crichton novels, and if you’re interested in the full tale (with a guest appearance by none other than Anthony Fauci), it is there in her memoirs to be read in full, but I’d like to place more focus at present upon her work as an administrator of large agencies from the 1980s onwards, first as the president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) from 1984 to 1985, then as the Director of the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1998 to 2004, and ultimately as the chair behind the profoundly influential National Academy of Science’s Committee on Women, Science, and Engineering in 2016. From these positions of power, Colwell attempted, as Mary Bunting had before her, to uncover and confront the real roots of gender discrimination in academic science.

The problem of gender disparity in science is an almost unspeakably complicated one, where for every unmasked villain there is another, more powerful, still lurking in the shadows. Colwell confronted the great intractable problems: Why, if women are earning half of the undergraduate science degrees in so many fields, are they still so under-represented in tenured positions? Why does it still take longer for women to get grants, and why do they receive less money when they do get them? Why is there still such a gap in women-authored scientific papers, and women as speakers in scientific conferences?

Sustained by the belief that science will be better when the world can pull scientists from 100% of its population, instead of the 50% it has elected to use for most of its history, Colwell sought to stimulate science education generally, and women’s representation more particularly. Her initiatives included giving graduate students chances to interact with K-12 education to the betterment of both, finding funding to substantially boost higher education facilities’ access to high powered computers, a comprehensive report detailing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in academia, and the ADVANCE program which awarded grants to university administrators who quantitatively acted to advance the access of women to scientific opportunities and change the culture of their institutions.

ADVANCE distributed $270 million in grants between 2001 and 2018, and increased the number of women’s full professorships from the 540 it had been on track to add to a staggering 8,939, with a hundred institutions participating to ensure equal pay for equal positions, the promotion of women to full time positions, and the active hiring of more women junior faculty members. The wheel is beginning to move, freed at last from some of the grasping vines and other encumbrances that have grown over it across the years and centuries, and even if it is not rolling forward with the pace that male scientists take as a matter of course, the momentum is building as more women are seeing more women earn senior positions, speak in conferences, and publish in journals, and are being mentored by those women (and those men who have read the reports of Colwell and others like her and have taken serious stock of their own preconceptions and biases as a result) to realize their full potential, instead of abandoning it in frustration midway through their careers.

We are not there yet, but we are also no longer where we were in the 1980s, when Colwell began her systematic efforts to save the system from its own worst instincts. The beast of traditional scientific administration has been made, at least in some part, aware of its basic shortcomings, and is plotting a measured course of self-reform, watched closely by those trained by Colwell and her contemporaries to recognize the signs of backsliding and bureaucratic indifference. Dr. Rita Colwell began by giving humans the tools to anticipate the attacks of bacterial foes, and went on to begin the long process of freeing science from its institutional prejudices and gifting it access to half of the world’s intellectual potential in the process. In the future, ours will be a better science, more responsive to world problems, more coordinated in its responses, deeper in its talent base, and more interdisciplinary in its methods, and standing at the gate to this New Science, one can only hope there will be a statue or tasteful plaque to Rita Colwell, who did the work of ten people, and secured the betterment of billions.


Colwell’s memoir (co-written with Sharon McGrayne, who has shown up multiple times in this column as the author of the indispensable Nobel Prize Women in Science), A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science (2020) had the marketing misfortune of confusingly sharing a main title with Patricia Fara’s 2017 book A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War and also largely with Neena Schwartz’s 2010 A Lab of My Own (about her time as a 1970s neuroendocrinologist). Like the person whose life it tells, the book has a bit of everything in it - profiles of some great women scientists of the 20th century, page-turning tales of discovery, insider views of some of the nation’s most prestigious scientific institutions, detective work with the highest stakes, and capped off by a stirring recitation of what can be done to ensure a better and more balanced future for science. It reminds us of who we were, and tempts us with what we can be, and what more can we ask than that?


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