The Fight Against Sexism in Science: International Women’s Day Featuring Scientist Rita Colwell

Photo of Rita Colwell

Welcome to the Medical Humanities podcast, where today we are pleased to have Rita Colwell join us for International Women’s Day! In addition to discussing the trials and successes of being a woman in science, she also talks to us about her new book A Lab of One’s Own.

Rita Colwell is one of the top scientists in America: the groundbreaking microbiologist who discovered how cholera survives between epidemics and the former head of the National Science Foundation. But when she first applied for a graduate fellowship in bacteriology, she was told, “We don’t waste fellowships on women.” A lack of support from some male superiors would lead her to change her area of study six times before completing her PhD.

In A Lab of One’s Own Colwell documents all she has seen and heard over her six decades in science, from sexual harassment in the lab to obscure systems blocking women from leading professional organizations or publishing their work. Along the way, she encounters other women pushing back against the status quo, including a group at MIT who revolt when they discover their labs are a fraction of the size of their male colleagues’.


LISTEN NOW: The Fight Against Sexism in Science: International Women’s Day Featuring Scientist Rita Colwell

(Transcript below bio-notes)



Dr. Colwell served as 11th Director of the National Science Foundation and Co-chair of the Committee on Science, National Science and Technology Council. Dr. Colwell has held advisory positions in the U.S. Government, nonprofit science policy organizations, and private foundations. She has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 800 scientific publications. Her interests are focused on global infectious diseases, water, and health.

Dr. Rita Colwell is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as well as President of CosmosID, Inc. Dr. Colwell served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the American Academy of Microbiology, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington Academy of Sciences, and American Society for Microbiology, Sigma Xi National Science Honorary Society, International Union of Microbiological Societies, and American Institute of Biological Sciences. Dr. Colwell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Royal Society of Canada, and Royal Irish Academy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Philosophical Society.

Dr. Colwell has been awarded 55 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education and is the recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, 2006 National Medal of Science awarded by the President of the United States, and 2010 Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden. A geological site in Antarctica, Colwell Massif, has been named in recognition of her work in the polar regions.



BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello, and welcome to the Medical Humanities Podcast. I’m Brandy Schillace, and today we are pleased to have Rita Colwell join us for International Women’s Day. Dr. Colwell served as 11th Director of the National Science Foundation and Co-Chair of the Committee on Science, National Science and Technology Council. Dr. Colwell also has held advisory positions in the U.S. government, non-profit science policy organizations, and private foundations, and has coauthored or authored 17 books and more than 800 scientific publications. Her interests focus on global infectious disease, water, and health. And we are so happy to have you with us today, Dr. Colwell.

RITA COLWELL: Thank you so much. It’s a huge pleasure to be able to speak with you and to speak, I guess, to the audience of many women, I hope.

SCHILLACE: Yes, I hope so, too. [delighted laugh] We’ve been really trying hard to kind of refocus our attention on what it means to practice in medicine and science and what it means to practice in those arenas as a woman or as a minority. And so, partly you have done so much over your career, I think I would love to hear what has it been like, what are the challenges, and also how have things changed?

COLWELL: The challenges have been huge. I must say that I’m speaking from 40 or 50 years’ experience, so I can recount my experiences from 40 years ago, which were very difficult. Women simply were not accepted. There were some women who, either because their husband or their boyfriend or a colleague had kind of paved the way. But even for them, if they weren’t able to [00:01:52 – 00:02:34 pause for interruption; not transcribed]

The experience that I can describe really covers 40 or 50 years. I was a student in the early ‘50s as an undergraduate and then a graduate student in the ‘60s and eventually became an independent investigator. It was very difficult for women. It was very unaccepting to be in the laboratory. You didn’t get the kind of reassurance and mentoring and the kind of support that the male students got. What you ended up with was a patchwork quilt, or at least in my experience. So, people will often ask me, “Well, did you plan to become Director of the National Science Foundation, the first woman Director?” And I said, “Not at all.” That was purely happenstance as a result of having accomplished a great deal in my career.

But just some examples. When I was an undergraduate, I was a good student. In fact, it was during the senior year that I decided that I would go to medical school, and I was accepted to the three schools I applied to. I was naive, and I simply applied to three that sounded good.

SCHILLACE: [chuckles]

COLWELL: Yale was one of them. And I was accepted at all three. So, I was prepared in the spring of my senior year to head off to medical school. But I happened to go on a blind date with a very handsome graduate student, and we were married two months later. So, it was whirlwind, but it was a very happy marriage. It lasted 62 years. I must say that—

SCHILLACE: Oh, that’s amazing.

COLWELL: —I miss my husband. He passed away three years ago, but we had a terrific marriage. The point I wanna make is that I didn’t want him to lose the one year that he had invested, having just come back from serving in the Army, in graduate school. He would then have lost that one year. So, we planned that we would both do Master’s, then we would move on. I would go on to medical school, and he would go on to finish his PhD work in physics. Well, I went to the department Chair and recounted my tale, and the department Chair knew that I was an A student because he had given me an A in the course that he had, he taught me in which I was a student. His response was quite bluntly, “We don’t waste fellowships on women.”


COLWELL: Now, today, no one would say that, or at least no department Chair, no Chairman of the Microbiological Department in which I was a member. But at that time, things were pretty blunt, pretty direct. It was pretty strange as to what you meant and what you were worth. Fortunately, my undergraduate advisor was a geneticist, and he had coached me or mentored me through my four years of undergraduate school. So, I went to him immediately in tears, to be honest, and recounted to Dr. Burton. And his response was, “Well, his loss is my gain.” He said, “I happen to have a research assistantship. And if you would like to take care of the fruit flies, you can do a Master’s in genetics.” Well, it turned out I landed on my feet because to do a Master’s in genetics just at that time, this was like a decade or so after the discovery of the alpha helix of the DNA and the beginning of the genetic revolution. So, that meant that I was going to come in at the bottom stage of the genetics and the molecular genomics revolution. But that’s the sort of thing that you had to deal with.


COLWELL: Even then, when I went on to the University of Washington, where Jack, my husband, received a fellowship in the Chemistry Department, and he was thrilled because it was an up and coming, very powerful Chemistry Department. And he would be at a low temperature eventually physics, and the whole path was set for him. I applied to the medical school at the University of Washington. I was accepted, but then I got a second letter. It said, “Well, I hope you do know that you have to be a legal resident for at least one year in the Pacific Northwest: Washington State, Oregon, Idaho or British Columbia. Otherwise, you are ineligible for entrance to the medical school.” So, that was a setback for me. But I decided, well, I got accepted in the Microbiology Department, and I could do that for a year or so and then move on to medical school. So, I recount this because it demonstrates the kind of patchwork you had to do.

SCHILLACE: Exactly. You have to, you had to be the flexible one because there weren’t other avenues.

COLWELL: That’s exactly right. And the irony of it was that it was accepted. No one thought it was anything, even myself. I didn’t think that it was abnormal or unbecoming for the profession. It was simply that’s the way it is.

SCHILLACE: Mmhmm, mmhmm. Now, in a way, though, do you think that those experiences, you know, you’ve become such a flexible thinker, you’ve done so many different things, it’s almost like you took these hardships and you sort of reemployed them as strengths. What was it like sort of navigating this career, and did it change the way you looked at the science itself that you were performing?

COLWELL: It did indeed change the way I looked at science because I was moving from genetics. Then I ended up in marine microbiology. I was the first trained professional marine microbiologist in the United States. At that time, it was sort of a way out, obscure major for someone to spend time on. But the point I would make is that I learned fundamental genetics at Purdue University as a graduate student. To do a Master’s in genetics I had to take microbial genetics, chicken genetics, tomato genetics, fruit fly genetics.

SCHILLACE: [laughs]

COLWELL: I was steeped in genetics, but that was perfect, perfect for the molecular revolution of the 21st century.


COLWELL: But then I ended up in oceanography, marine microbiology, and I was working on identifying the various microorganisms that are associated with marine animals and in the marine environment. This meant that I gathered huge amounts of data. The only way to really handle all that data was to use the computer. Now, that sounds today a normal, sure, you should do that.


COLWELL: But this was 1960. This was 60 years ago. The University of Washington had just gotten the first computer, the IBM 650, a machine that really comprised the size of about three refrigerators and had the computational capacity of a wristwatch today!

SCHILLACE: [laughs]

COLWELL: So, but I learned how to program the computer. It was installed in the attic of the chemistry building because that was the only place they could install the air conditioning that the computer needed, never mind the people in the building.


COLWELL: So, to run the computer, they didn’t have technicians. You simply had to program it yourself, which meant that as a graduate student, we were only allowed to be working on the computer between midnight and 6:00 a.m. Otherwise, it was for the faculty. So, I’d go to the chemistry building, go up to the attic. It didn’t worry, it was actually not bad because my husband and I had worked out this crazy schedule for doing our research. We would work all night, get breakfast, go home and sleep, and then start again. So, Jack was in the chemistry building down in the labs. I was up in the attic doing the programing. The programing meant that you actually literally had to wire the unit for your program, and the data were punched in on IBM cards.


COLWELL: And if you dropped them, you started all over again.


COLWELL: [laughs] So, but again, this meant that I learned to program the very earliest Symbolic Optimal Assembly Program II, SOAP II, which is I think probably in the Smithsonian now along with the computer. But it taught me what was going to be the computer revolution. And I literally, unbeknownst to myself, was entering at the ground floor. So, to answer the question, indeed. I fell into these, I was fortunate, and fell into these opportunities that were really, I guess, to use the vernacular, making lemonade out of a lemon situation.

SCHILLACE: Right! Right. I find that absolutely fascinating for a number of reasons. One, I think that it’s a skill level. I was talking to, we did a, we’re doing a podcast also with Brian Sims, who’s a politician here in the United States. And one of the things he said was that there’s actual skills involved in having to constantly come up against obstacles that people who are always catered to just don’t have. Not that that means we shouldn’t get rid of the obstacles, obviously. But there are things that you have been able to take part in, but also you took that, you took it further. You’ve done so many things, and particularly you work with, your work has stretched such a wide variety of areas, including infectious diseases and water and health. And the things you bring to that are just astonishing to me. I know you write about it frequently, but I wonder, as time has gone on, do you think that the obstacles themselves have become less, or have they simply changed their natures?

COLWELL: The obstacles have gone covert instead of overt. But I’d like to comment on the notion that having to respond to exigencies, to the blocks in your path forward, I think it does give me the personality trait of meeting an obstacle, my reaction immediately is not to stand back and say, “Well, I can’t do it.” My immediate reaction is to figure out how to get around it. So, I think that’s come from the experience of always meeting obstacles practically at every important step in the way of my career.

But the other aspect of it is that, as you mentioned, I think that the obstacles are different today, and they require just as clever and dogged perseverance to overcome. Today, the response to a request for a fellowship wouldn’t be, “Well, we don’t waste them on women.” The response would be, “Well, they’ve all been awarded, and there aren’t any left to award” or whatever. So, it’s gone covert.


COLWELL: And that makes it even more difficult for someone moving into the sciences today because you sort of have to develop a kind of sixth sense about interpreting the obstacles and ways around them. Still, it requires perseverance, and I think that’s the most important.

SCHILLACE: Yes. Well, and I think that perseverance that is also, it’s forward-looking. And one of the things that I have noticed about your career, about your work, and also about a lot of women in science and in medicine, is not only that they overcome the obstacle in the path and continue on the same path, but they just blaze entirely new trails around those obstacles, and in some ways, create fields, create change. And I think that’s something that it’s not just a matter of going, “Well, OK, I’ve dealt with this obstacle. I’m gonna continue on.” But you radically altered course. You have yourself managed to change the course of history in many ways, particularly looking at infectious diseases. So, I think women have done so much for their fields as trailblazers, and I don’t think that gets talked about nearly enough.

COLWELL: I think you have a good point. For example, one of the discoveries that I made was that the causative agent of cholera is a bacterium that’s naturally occurring in the aquatic environment globally. And that was really unaccepted or unacceptable to the medical community at the time because it was person to person transmission.


COLWELL: Well, today, we are now launching, the National Science Foundation, for example, is launching a massive program geared to predicting pandemics, particularly zoonotic infectious diseases, because now it’s fully understood. Well, I should say that it’s beginning to be fully understood, that the environment plays a very significant role, especially in the emerging infectious diseases. The other application, I don’t know whether you’d call it a discovery, was that having discovered that the bacterium is in the aquatic environment, and its host, its vector—it’s a vector-borne disease, is a copepod, which is a microscopic animal, part of the plankton of the world oceans. And to be able to predict epidemics, I was able to use the information back in 1975 and 1980 when Landsat, the satellite, was launched, that measured chlorophyl, sea surface temperature, and sea surface height. It occurred to me that this relationship to plankton of cholera we could measure by satellite sensing.

And I published a paper 20 years ago where we showed that indeed, there was a strong correlation between the chlorophyl peaks in the Bay of Bengal and the actual cases of cholera. Now, today, everybody and his brother, ancestor, is considering satellite sensing as a public health tool. And I’m delighted because I do believe it’s a very powerful tool. That’s another example.

SCHILLACE: That is, I love that example because, of course, it brings us back around to the concept—still not accepted by everybody—that climate change is affecting disease, infectious diseases, and the protocols in which we can deal with them, particularly when it comes to water and the availability of water, the temperatures of water. So, I think that’s fascinating, too. There’s all of these different areas that your research has touched upon and influenced.

COLWELL: Well, that’s a wonderful example, because a collaboration that I carried out with my colleagues in Italy, Dr. Carla Pruzzo, another woman, fantastic person at the University of Genoa. She and her team and a group at the Max Planck Institute where they do some very elegant genomics and a Southampton marine station did what’s called a citizen science experiment 40+ years ago, collecting plankton samples and determining temperature changes year by year. Which allowed them a record to be kept of the, they were just looking at the different kinds of plankton species. What we did collaboratively was to extract the DNA from the plankton samples, knowing that there would be copepods amongst them, and then probe the DNA for the vibrio species that are pathogenic for humans. Vibrio cholerae causes cholera, vibrio parahaemolyticus, which is a very common foodborne infection for ingesting contaminated fish, and then vibrio vulnificus, a really nasty bacterium with a 50 percent fatality rate if you get a systemic infection.

We were able to correlate the warming of the sea surface in the North Sea and the North Atlantic off the coast of the U.S. with increased numbers of vibrios which respond very quickly to warm temperatures, which we had learned in our studies way back in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay 40 years ago. And we were able to correlate it with increasing infections caused by those vibrios and in the specific diseases in Europe, England, and the north coast of the U.S. So, I think, and we published that 20 years ago. No, not 20 years ago, sorry. We published that about three or four years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And I do think that that’s probably the first infectious disease-related climate change-directed increase.

SCHILLACE: And this is going to be increasingly important. I mean, obviously, with the pandemic happening, suddenly everyone’s kind of standing up and taking notice. But these problems, these increases in disease and vectors, this has been going on for a long time as you point out. This isn’t like suddenly there’s these problems. These problems have existed, but they’ve been maybe not in the public eye to the same degree. So, this is really critical and important work that you’re doing. And I know, too, that your writing, I’m sort of, you know, I stumble over the fact that you’ve been part of 800 scientific publications. My mind is blown. But these are not just, these are really critical things that you’re researching and studying. And people are jumping off of those platforms and doing additional work on top of that. And so, I think that you’re engendering work as well along the way.

COLWELL: Well, I think that’s an interesting analysis. And let me just say that one of the things that’s very fascinating is that we had been in a pandemic that was unrecognized. We were in, and continue to be in, the seventh pandemic of the cholera case history. We measure the massive outbreaks of cholera in pandemic years. And starting in the 1960s, it was accepted that we were in the seventh pandemic of cholera. So, we were, excuse me, we are actually in a dual pandemic situation, sort of a low-level cholera pandemic and this massive COVID-19 pandemic.

I would also make a comment with respect to the number of publications. It’s very interesting. Having been discouraged at several points in my career, I sort of said, well, you know, maybe the gods are determining that I might be doing something else. So, I took a lot of courses in literature, creative writing, even playwriting at Purdue, which is interesting as an engineering school. But they have an extremely good College of Liberal Arts as part of the university. And then at the University of Washington, when it looked as though I wasn’t going to be able to do either a PhD in microbiology or a medical degree. So, for about a year, I took a number of courses from some brilliant literature professors at the university. That gave me the ability to understand and to write coherently. And as a result of finding obstacles in my science, I had to publish extensively to make the case. Because it was not easy to make it by simply going to a meeting, making a presentation. Had to publish a paper, another paper, another, all the details of the work so that it accumulated as a integrated overall story of work that has been done over the last two or three decades.

And of course, it’s culminated in publishing a book, which I did last year in August 2020, a book titled A Lab of One’s Own, which describes much of what I have been telling you about cholera in the work on in microbiology. In the book, I’ve also included a chapter which I’m very proud of, which was when I was Director of the National Science Foundation. It was the time of 9/11 and the terrible attack on the Twin Towers in New York. It was followed by the anthrax biothreat, terrorism, actually.


COLWELL: I ended up chairing what was then a classified secret committee of agency representatives. We met every week for three years advising the FBI and the CIA on using nucleic acid sequencing, DNA sequencing, and genomics to track down the perpetrator. We were successful, and I’m very proud of that. It hasn’t been told in detail until I was able to write it in the book. And I’m very proud of the chapter because everyone who participated, just about everyone who participated in the committee and in that interaction with the FBI and the CIA has read the book, and most are excited. So, it tells a tale of using science to solve a crime.

SCHILLACE: Oh, yes. And to me, that’s one of the most exciting portions of, well, it’s not the most exciting thing. The book is a really amazing book, your book, A Lab of One’s Own, but particularly the sense in which you’re the great investigator, you know. And this flexibility that you have, which you have turned to advantage in so many different ways over the course of decades, is also, you know, you’ve made it such a strength, even though you’ve been sort of thwarted in so many different ways. And of course, we’re the Journal of Medical Humanities. And so, we, and I myself come from the Humanities. I’m a historian, and we recognize just how important those connections are, which become so apparent in your book: the ways in which the things that you’ve learned, the things you’ve taken from literature, from history, from all of the studies you’ve done in science and the studies you’ve done that, just in laboratory work and everything that you’ve brought together in these ways that I think make you not only a really exceptional and amazing person to talk to, but really, to me, a sort of leading figure in Medical Humanities, somebody who recognizes the power of all of these different pieces to come together and to change the world. So, we’re just so pleased with everything that you’ve done and also with the ways in which you have brought these pieces together in such a coherent and really storied way.

COLWELL: Well, thank you. Let me make one other comment. I’m very, very proud of the 63 PhD students that I’ve graduated. Four of the students have been elected to the National Academy of Science, and all of them have been a pleasure to work with. And it’s wonderful to see them moving on and making their discoveries in science, medicine, and in business, government, and in the private sector. So, I think the most wonderful part of being able to have had a career in science is to have been able to guide other students and other individuals in the path of science and science discovery.

SCHILLACE: It is beautiful and wonderful work, and your lasting legacy will be well beyond any of our years, I’m sure. It’s been a pleasure talking to you today, and particularly in hearing about these narratives. I want our listeners to know that we will have a transcript of today’s podcast available on our blog, along with links to the book, A Lab of One’s Own, and other various links to tell us more about Rita Colwell’s work. Rita, is there anything that you would like to leave our listeners with today?

COLWELL: I would like to, I would like to say that science really underpins society. We need science for national security, for the economy, and for social stability. And so, it’s really important that we see science finally being returned to the forefront and recognized as its major contribution to society.

SCHILLACE: And I think I also want to add women’s contribution all along the way. Rita, thank you so much for being with us today and also for everything it is that you do.

COLWELL: Thank you so much.

SCHILLACE: And to our listeners, once again, thank you for being part of the Medical Humanities conversation.

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