In terms of physical size, microbiologist Rita Colwell is a petitie woman. However, her distinguished research and service career has made her a giant in her field. Her research revolves around many aspects of water ecology, including the intersection of the environment and infectious disease (as I wrote about here following a talk she gave this past spring).

Much of her research has focused on Vibrio cholerae, including devising simple (and inexpensive) methods to remove the bacterium from contaminated water using cloth filtration. For these achievements and more, Dr. Colwell will be awarded the National Medal of Science tomorrow. More after the jump…

The National Medal of Science recognizes the outstanding contribution Dr. Colwell has made to the fields of molecular biology and microbiology of the aquatic environment. Dr. Colwell has been at the forefront of research on the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, the water-borne pathogen responsible for deadly outbreaks of cholera in the developing world. Her research efforts have led to actions that significantly improved drinking water quality and reduced the number of deaths in affected regions of the word, including Bangladesh and India.

Within the United States, Dr. Colwell and her laboratory are examining the distribution and ecological interactions among bacteria, viruses, and plankton in the Chesapeake Bay. She is currently developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world.

“What a well-deserved and prestigious honor for a real leader in the biological sciences research community,” said Dr. Kent Holsinger, AIBS Past-President and Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. “Dr. Colwell’s work has both improved our fundamental understanding of basic biological systems and provided innovative solutions to serious public health challenges.”

Dr. Colwell is the President-elect of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and will be chairing next year’s annual meeting will be on climate, environment, and infectious diseases in Washington, DC.

Image from http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2003/nsf03014/images/Rita.jpg

Comments

  1. #1 Stephen
    July 26, 2007

    A small giant then. Any relation to Madame Maxime?

    Let me get this straight. She got ahold of some cholera bacteria, and looked to see if one could strain it out with cloth? And it worked? Do you boil the cloth later, or can you just let it dry in the sun?

  2. #2 Tara C. Smith
    July 26, 2007

    I can’t recall what they did with the cloth after, but yep, it worked. (I think they’ve also tried it with layered coffee filters, which worked as well). The thing is that vibrios in water are often in association with larger particles and organisms (such as copepods. The layered cloth filters out the zooplankton, which most of the cholera bacteria are attached to, so it significantly reduces the dose of cholera in the water, cheaply making it safer to drink.

  3. #3 Michael
    July 26, 2007

    Very nice job in presenting and emphasizing the life saving work of Dr. Colwell. She most assuredly deserves such recognition.

    Dr. Colwell, along with her extremely simple and common sense discovery is to be saluted and honored as a true and honorable and integrous scientist, as well as a conscientious global citizen who teaches us all by her own wonderful example, and by her deeds, that oftentimes it is the simplest inventions and discoveries that matter the most. And for showing us that it is not what one can get from this world while one is alive that matters such as financial gain or prestige, but what one can give to this world to serve and honor all of mankind while one is alive.

    If more attention were paid to simple and low cost preventatives such as this, the health problems of third world developing nations would be impacted tremendously for the better, and millions of lives and billions of dollars could be saved and put to better use.

    Perhaps another lesson is less focus on crisis management, and more focus on common disease prevention, education, hygiene, clean water, proper nutrition, and the third world countries can be transformed from cesspools of hopelessness and disease and into healthy cohabitants and contributors to the well being of the world, as well as a healthier planet, and a much better place for the future offspring of our offspring to live.

    Thank You Dr. Colwell for what you have given us all, and thank you Tara for spotlighting her wonderful achievement.

  4. #4 Laura
    July 27, 2007

    If I remember what I heard her speak about earlier this year correctly, drying the sari in the sun after straining can do the trick.

    Her own research is undoubtedly important and deserves high praise. She also sees the bigger picture clearly, as evidenced by her work as head of the NSF and other service activities. A great lady and well-deserved award.

  5. #5 Eric
    July 29, 2007

    I remember seeing this woman talk at Tufts University last year – she was engaging, and her description of the scope of public health as a science – everything from sari cloth filters (which according to my memory were chosen because every woman in every household has tons of old sari cloth) to sending probes down to ocean vents to look at primordial Vibrio was one of the most compelling I’ve ever heard.

    I’m glad she’s getting some much deserved praise.