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Rita R. Colwell (1934- )

Photo of  Rita R. Colwell, the eleventh NSF director.

Rita R. Colwell

Credit: Photo by Sam Kittner/

The eleventh director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) served from August 1998 to February 2004. Rita R. Colwell was the first female director, as well as the first biologist to serve as director in over 25 years. Colwell brought to NSF concerns with interdisciplinary research, biocomplexity and education at the pre-collegiate level. At the time of her nomination, Bruce Alberts, then the president of the National Academy of Sciences, described her as "a very gifted spokesperson for modern biology and its potential applications for human benefit."

Colwell received her B.S. (1956) and M.S. (1958) from Purdue University. She received her Ph.D. in 1961 from the University of Washington. She was a guest scientist at the National Research Council of Canada from 1961 until 1963, when she joined the faculty at Georgetown University. In 1972, Colwell left Georgetown for the University of Maryland. She held various administrative positions at Maryland. At the time of her nomination to the directorship of NSF, she was president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

An aggressive seeker of increased funding for NSF, Colwell saw the budget of NSF increased by 68 percent during her tenure. The increased funding was used to increase grant size, encourage collaborations across traditional disciplines, and start new and innovative programs. Among the new starts was the "GK-12" program, which brought graduate students and their enthusiasm for science, into classrooms from kindergarten to high school. (Speeches by Former NSF Director Rita R. Colwell)