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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"From the Chesapeake Bay to the Bay of Bengal"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Commencement Address:
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 once again.

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 day.

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 and congratulations.

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 Administration (FDA).

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 the turtle!"

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 Bengal.

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 me.

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 again.

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 Orleans.

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 bright green.

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 water.

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 problems.

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 ago.

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 destruction.

The second reason that our planet seems a much smaller place in the cosmos today is the challenge of sustaining the biosphere.

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 steepened pace.

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 the world.

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.



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