Dr. Rita Colwell, a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation has worked in the public and private sectors with her main research focuses being health, water, and global infectious diseases including a large portion of her research being on cholera.
For over fifty years she has been researching this disease that is caused by bacteria that naturally occurs in water, a fact discovered by her lab. Cholera outbreaks can be devastating to the population and there have been nine documented pandemics caused by the bacteria. In an effort to combat the spread of the disease in developing countries Colwell led an effort in 2003 to teach women in 50 villages in Bangladesh to use the saris they wore as a water filter. By folding the fabric about four times and passing the water through, about 90% of the bacteria that was present in their water was removed and the rates of infection in these households dropped by almost half.
Returning five years later to see if the methods were sustainable, Colwell discovered that around 70% of the original participants were not only still using the method but they had also taught it to other members of their community. A surprising finding was that even in households that didn’t filter their water there was still a lower incidence of cholera due to the development of a herd immunity. Colwell and her team where able to show a connection between filtration and the reduction of cholera.
To continue her efforts in making the world a safer place, Colwell founded CosmosID, a genomic big data company that is focused on the rapid identification of microorganisms for infectious disease diagnostics, food safety inspections, pharmaceutical discovery, public health surveillance, and microbiome analysis for health and wellness.
Authoring or co-authoring seventeen books and over 800 scientific papers, Colwell’s work has been recognized in the United States where she is a recipient of a National Medal of Science and also internationally; being awarded The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star by the Emperor of Japan and the Stockholm Water Prize.
Written by Angela Goad