Colwell Honored with Builders of Science Award from Research!America

Nov 10, 2023

A noted University of Maryland researcher is being honored for their pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance and longstanding efforts in fighting waterborne diseases on a global scale.

Distinguished University Professor Rita Colwell was recently named a recipient of the 2024 Builders of Science Award, one of the top Advocacy Awards given each year by Research!America, a nonprofit alliance that supports increased funding and better policies related to medical and health research.

The Builders of Science Award is specific to those who have provided leadership and determination in building an outstanding scientific research organization, as well as those who have been at the forefront of scientific research.

Still active in research through her appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), much of Colwell’s scientific career has been focused on tracking and predicting outbreaks of dangerous waterborne pathogens by combining bioinformatics with satellite imaging. She recently published a report that identified several dangerous bacteria in Florida’s coastal waters following Hurricane Ian in 2022.

The impact of Colwell's research and scholarship has been especially felt in cholera-endemic countries worldwide—the result of a key discovery she made in the 1970s involving cholera-causing bacteria, known as Vibrio cholera. Previously thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside a human host, she discovered that the bacteria occur naturally in the aquatic environment associated with plankton.

This highlighted the critical link between the environment and cholera and led to Colwell's subsequent application of satellite imagery and modelling to predict cholera outbreaks, as well as her innovative use of sari cloths as filters to greatly reduce contamination in drinking water.

Cowell was the 11th director and first woman to lead the National Science Foundation, and during her tenure (1998–2004), she oversaw its most significant period of growth. She also championed and secured NSF funding for innovative science and engineering education programs and initiatives to advance women in academic engineering and science careers.

Other notable awards and recognition that Colwell has received include the National Medal of Science; the Stockholm Water Prize; membership into the National Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Swedish Royal Academy of Science, Irish Royal Academy of Science, and the Bangladesh and Indian academies of science; and the “The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star” from the emperor of Japan.

Colwell and the other Advocacy Award recipients will be officially recognized on March 13, 2024 at an event at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.