Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Trailblazing: One Woman's Trek in Science

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
at theAssociation for Women in Science-Alaska Chapter Luncheon

October 26, 1998

Thank you for welcoming me back to Alaska. It's a pleasure to be back in this beautiful state, to be invited to reflect with you on my own "trek" in science.

We have, each of us, lived the rigor of a frontier life and have developed special strengths to live with daily challenges, both in today's society and from the natural environment.

Indeed, my visits to Alaska -- I've traveled as far north as Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean's edge -- have evoked for me how human life thrives and how the human spirit is enriched in a harsh and demanding environment.

Living in the Arctic has parallels to the challenges we face as women in science.

What has struck me on my visits to Alaska is how the rigorous climate, the physical landscape, the winters, the darkness, are merely part of daily life.

This kind of "blending" of people with the environment has a long legacy in Alaska and the Arctic.

What springs to mind, of course as a biologist, is the remarkable adaptation of native peoples, how they survive and persevere in the harshest environment on Earth. They survive because they understand their environment.

It has been said that "We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors," but that "in the Arctic the debt seems more obvious."

How I got into science

Let me first look back on my personal and professional journey, ramble a bit down some pathways in science and education.

Some of the barriers for women on those pathways are still all too familiar, but we can celebrate the fact that other roadblocks have disappeared.

Keep in mind that mental toughness, or perseverance in the face of obstacles, is fundamental. In fact, I could say that I got my start in science out of sheer stubbornness.

When I went to high school, girls simply were not allowed to take physics. What's more, my high school chemistry teacher told me I'd never make it in chemistry -- because women couldn't.

That angered me but also galvanized me. I had begun to see science as a way to understand the world and a way to make my way in the world.


I was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe, but I couldn't afford the other half of the tuition. Instead, the full scholarship and the opportunity to live on a campus lured me to Purdue.

I started out in chemistry, but the way it was taught was so uninspiring -- beginning chemistry taught in a classroom full of a thousand students. If you were way back in the auditorium, you could barely see the lecturer.

It was actually not until my senior year that I discovered bacteriology -- the term microbiology hadn't surfaced yet. It was great --interesting and fun.

Professor Dorothy Powelson was an inspiration. That was it. All six of us women in her class went on to get MDs or PhDs.

Family life/Jack

It was about this time that I met a handsome, 6-foot-2-graduate student. First date, proposal -- married 40 years. He's still a nice guy. About that time -- there was a grad school fellowship possibility -- but the department chair said he wouldn't waste it on a woman.

Instead, I got a stipend toward a Masters in genetics. My research: I counted 186,000 fruitflies. It was tremendous fundamental preparation for microbiology.

Eventually we both applied for post-docs and we both got them at the NRC in Canada.. Then I got a letter expressing concerns about nepotism. They would give me lab space but no money.

We have two daughters, and my husband Jack played a major role in their lives and their successes from the beginning.

In 1963 -- we're talking 35 years ago -- I went off to a scientific meeting for three days to give an invited paper and left my husband with our three-month-old daughter, Alison.

That kind of behavior was unheard of at the time. People asked Jack, how could you possibly let your wife go off and leave you with a new baby? Of course, now we know that's a good way for fathers and daughters to bond. We know what an important role fathers play in their daughters' expectations of themselves.

We made a deal with our daughters: they could major in whatever they wished, but they had to take math and calculus and two years of chemistry, that is, through to organic chemistry.

Oldest -- got Ph.D. in population biology -- works on "whirling disease" parasite in fish. She and some fellow graduate students gave papers at an evolutionary biology conference I organized.

Youngest -- med school, and a Ph.D. in Women's Studies and African history -- has worked on Mount Kilamanjaro.

This past May was a red-letter month for us -- Ph.D.s, NIH grants, graduation, baby, etc.

My personal trek has taken me to this new and wonderful threshold: the beginning of my term as NSF director, and it's great...extremely exciting place to be...

My research/broader trends in science

My own research on climate and health -- particularly the correlation of cholera with climatic factors -- illustrates some of the forces or trends I see as shaping the world of research and education in the coming years.

I'll be speaking tonight at a public lecture in much more detail about my own research. Here I'd like to briefly touch on three broad trends that carry much import for our community.

  • One is the revolution in information technology. We could not have developed models to predict conditions conducive to cholera without advanced computing.

    We use data from remote sensing -- would have been impossible without high-speed computing. Sustained support for information science, through NSF and other agencies, is absolutely vital to these advances.

  • Second trend: My own research experience has also taught me the importance of crossing disciplines in research and education. Understanding our planet's systems -- and the interactions that shape them -- is an enormously complex task.

    It will take the combined efforts of biologists, ecologists, physical scientists, computer scientists, engineers, and social scientists. Much of the research excitement today is at the boundaries of disciplines.

  • The third trend is the need for all of us to communicate with those outside of science about our work. It's our responsibility to explain to the broader public how science contributes to society.


I would like to end with a bit of poetry that embodies this scientific and personal trek for me. I have been a sailor for many years as well as a scientist, and both have taken me on treks of discovery and adventure. Here is the poem:

"As sailors know
At the edge of the world
Knowledge is invisible
But changes lives.
Discovery is a shout against the dark.
And reason is an act
of the imagination
in a world in process."

The tough challenges facing us as women in our treks through science and education are far from over.

But as scientists, we know the value of both reason and imagination. And through appreciation of Alaska and the Arctic, we know perseverance can carry us on great journeys.

Thank you.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic