"From the Chesapeake Bay to the Bay of Bengal"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University of Maryland Life Sciences
May 22, 2002
Thank you, Dean Allewell--Norma--for a kind introduction.
It's great to be here among you--really, to be home
My warmest congratulations to all of the graduates,
and an especially warm greeting to all the parents
and friends who have helped to make this a landmark
It's also an honor to be here with the two winners
of the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarships and a winner of
the University Medal. These laurels testify to the
quality of research and education in the College of
Life Sciences. And the planning for the new bioscience
and chemistry facilities is further cause for anticipation
I would like to give a special greeting to Dr. Bernard
Schwetz, whom I know well, having worked with him
while he was Deputy Commissioner of the Food and Drug
Today we gather above all to celebrate your success.
However, your graduation marks the end of a year for
the entire university that's been truly special. I
know that all of you as biologists have particular
appreciation for the phrase that is now famous: "Fear
Your years here at the University of Maryland have
been excellent preparation for living in this new
and tumultuous, yet so promising, century.
My own life sciences education bestowed a passport
that has connected the local with the global, a research
career linking the Chesapeake Bay with the Bay of
When I began as a young researcher here, at a time
when the horizon of biology was much more limited
than today, the university gave me a base from which
to spread my own wings. It provided a springboard
to a career connected to colleagues all over the world,
from Europe to Bangladesh to Japan and beyond.
Today, scientific knowledge can still be a passport
to a rewarding research career, but it can also be
an excellent basis for a calling in law, in teaching,
in writing, or in politics.
Indeed, the ability to think critically, along with
mental flexibility, will be essential in the coming
era, when one can expect to change careers a number
of times over a lifetime.
It's really not that long ago that I was a student.
Some things have improved greatly since then.
When I went to high school, girls simply were not allowed
to take physics. What's more, when I asked for a recommendation
to college to study chemistry, and I had gotten A's
in high school chemistry, my high school chemistry
teacher told me I'd never make it in chemistry--because
women couldn't. That angered me, but it also galvanized
It was actually not until my senior year in college
that I discovered bacteriology--the term "microbiology"
hadn't surfaced yet. At Purdue University, Professor
Dorothy Powelson was an inspiration.
It was rare in those days, back in the Fifties, to
have a woman professor. But she taught us a bacteriology
course and that was it. She got me hooked. All six
of us women in her class went on to get MDs or PhDs.
Then I did my masters in genetics. Among other things,
my genetics research involved counting 186,000
fruit flies. Drosophila genetics turned
out to be excellent fundamental preparation for studying
the genetics of bacteria. Of course, now we have the
entire genome--every gene--of the fruit fly sequenced!
As well as of more than 20 bacterial species.
Eventually I came to Maryland, and our lab here was
busy, filled with extraordinary students, producing
a steady stream of scientific papers. I am happy to
say that my 56th and 57th Ph.D.'s
graduate tonight--and all 57 are gainfully employed!
The years at Maryland were a heady time. We developed
one of the first deep-sea samplers to gather bacteria
under pressure. When some devastating oil spills from
tankers polluted the ocean in the 1970s, we investigated
whether the environment could alleviate this pollution.
We also looked at how human pathogens like the cholera
and dysentery bacteria survive in the environment.
It was not always smooth; there were "down times" when
all we could do was to persevere. Once, when my lab
was being renovated, the air conditioning malfunctioned;
the temperature had shot up to 102 degrees. This killed
all our cultures of cold-loving microorganisms, which
had been gathered from the deep sea, from the Marianas
Trench, from all over the world. There was nothing
to do but go back and collect new cultures all over
I have spent much of my research career investigating
the bacterium that causes cholera and its relationship
to the broader environment. The journey began through
the microscope at the smallest scale, yet led to a
puzzle with a global answer.
Cholera is still one of the most feared of infectious
diseases, and is a particular scourge in developing
countries. In the very worst cases, a healthy person
can be infected and die within hours.
A key part of the puzzle was to learn how the organism
survived between outbreaks. In the 1970s, when we
isolated the cholera bacterium from the waters of
the Chesapeake Bay, no one believed that this human
pathogen lived in the aquatic environment of rivers,
estuaries and coastal waters.
We were ridiculed for making that assertion, but we
persisted, gathering even more data and wondering
how the disease could surface in a number of places
at the same time in the environment. The reigning
theory at the time was that it was spread only from
person to person, with no known reservoir.
In fact, a cholera outbreak had not been recorded in
the United States since 1900. However, in the late
1970s, the Louisiana Health Department called me to
help trace a mysterious cholera outbreak near New
First we collected water from the bayou where the patients
had been crab fishing. Then we took our samples to
the lab--and that's a day I'll never forget.
Instead of conventional methods to culture a microorganism,
we used a fluorescent antibody that could attach to
the cholera bacterium--if it was there. Under an ultraviolet-light
microscope, we hoped, the bacteria would light up
They did! Bright green!--and, when we saw that, we
did a little tribal dance around the microscope. Where
conventional culture methods showed nothing, we used
new molecular methods and confirmed the presence of
cholera bacteria in an environmental reservoir--brackish
Another key piece of the puzzle came from the other
side of the world, the Bay of Bengal.
If you use satellites to trace the ups and downs--the
seasonal fluctuations--of the temperature of the seawater
off Bangladesh, you find that the peaks--the warm
water periods--match the increase in cholera cases
in hospitals there. These cases can number up to 100,000
or more in a single year.
We are now developing a predictive model, to anticipate
environmental conditions conducive to cholera and
ultimately to mitigate or even prevent the outbreaks.
As a biologist, I have always been intrigued by how
it all comes together--fascinated by the mixture,
by the froth that makes life bubble.
Reductionist science, dissecting the whole into the
smallest parts, seemed to me like clear-cutting a
forest in order to study one tiny seedling.
My research has drawn upon remote sensing, sociology,
medicine, oceanography, mathematics, and physics--and
other areas. It has combined the sophisticated--the
use of satellite data--with the basic, the testing
of sari cloth as an everyday filter to clear the drinking
water in Bangladesh villages of the plankton harboring
the cholera bacteria.
(By the way, the naysayers told us this sari cloth
filter would not work--that no Bangladeshi man would
drink water filtered through cloth a woman had worn.
It turned out, however, that the local men had already
been using sari cloth to strain the flies from their
beer!) Indeed, the sari filter has shown promise--a
50% reduction in the number of cholera cases over
the last two years.
My life's trek has brought me to a wonderful threshold--the
position as director of the National Science Foundation,
and it's an extremely exciting place to be.
From this vantage point one can take in firsthand the
power of basic research to transform lives, the intellectual
excitement of intersecting disciplines, and the urgent
need for a scientific perspective on so many societal
Today, the biosciences serve as a guiding beacon, drawing
other areas together.
Take nanotechnology--the science of the very small--truly
a point of convergence for the living and non-living
worlds. Living cells have employed nanotechnology
for billions of years.
Now, physical scientists are meeting us bioscientists
at the nanoscale, with staggering implications for
biology, medicine, industry, and countless facets
of daily life.
In quite another biological realm, we learn of the
amazing adaptability of the human brain throughout
life, along with the underlying chemical basis. Such
insights begin to shed light on how we learn, how
we behave in communities, and many more areas.
The frontiers of the life sciences beckon from the
very edges of the possible. And yet, the world that
you as graduates inherit seems dramatically smaller
than the one I stepped into as a graduate some decades
I will cite two powerful reasons that our smaller world,
nonetheless, needs individuals wide in perspective
and cognizant of society.
First, there is the watershed date of September 11
and its aftermath. The events have reminded us in
a dramatic way of the one-ness of our world.
I have just come from a meeting of the American Society
for Microbiology where countering potential bioterrorism
was much discussed. We microbiologists carry a special
responsibility to counter those who would hasten life's
The second reason that our planet seems a much smaller
place in the cosmos today is the challenge of sustaining
We human beings have become a geophysical force. With
this has come an extinction rate for our fellow travelers--all
the other species that share this planet--at a drastically
The "Promethean fire" of bioscience is a flame we hold.
Its glow can help to light the future of our species,
or can consume us, whether through bioweaponry or
by destroying the biosphere that sustains us.
Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and Pulitzer
Prize-winning author, said that "Science and technology
are what we can do; morality is what we agree we should
or should not do."
As bioscientists in our era, we need to lift our gaze
from the microscope to take a planetary view.
Science bridges national boundaries and builds international
communities. We dare to hope that your generation
will take up this work of forming closer bonds throughout
I congratulate you all for having truly earned a most
worthy passport, your university degrees, for the
journeys you have begun. We are all looking forward
to receiving your postcards from destinations and
frontiers yet unknown.