Trailblazing: One Woman's Trek in Science
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
at theAssociation for Women in Science-Alaska Chapter
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.