Chesapeake Quarterly
Colwell Wins Stockholm Water Prize
Dr. Rita Colway by John T. Consoli
Credit: John T. Consoli

RITA R. COLWELL, INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN MICROBIOLOGIST and University of Maryland faculty member, has won the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize. The King of Sweden, H.M. Carl XVI Gustaf, will present the award on September 9, as part of World Water Week in Stockholm. The prestigious prize recognizes world leaders in the field of water research and brings a cash award of $150,000.

Colwell, 76, said in a statement that she was grateful for this validation of research on water-borne diseases that spans her entire career.

That career has been remarkable. In 1972 the University of Maryland lured the young scientist away from Georgetown University with a tenured professorship in the Department of Microbiology. She brought a passionate interest in marine microbial ecology and especially in Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium that causes cholera. Her work showed that cholera bacteria can live in aquatic environments in association with other microorganisms, even in the absence of a disease outbreak. This ran counter to the conventional notion that cholera bacteria spread only through humans with the disease.

Her studies of the aquatic environment helped to document the ecology of cholera and other bacteria in rivers, bays, and coastal areas. A pioneer in the field of marine microbiology and marine biotechnology, she also broke glass ceilings for women in science and science administration.

In 1977 Colwell became the first director of the Maryland Sea Grant College, moving from the role of faculty member to that of administrator. As Sea Grant director she maintained an active laboratory, but also mobilized a broad research and outreach program that put her in close contact with state and federal agencies and with other researchers throughout the region and beyond. From there she became Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for the University System of Maryland and then director of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.

In 1998, President Clinton appointed Colwell as the first woman director of the National Science Foundation. From that post she energetically expanded the nation's research capacities in a range of disciplines. After the end of her NSF appointment in 2004, Colwell returned to the University of Maryland as a Distinguished Professor and also accepted a joint position with the Johns Hopkins University.

According to a statement by the Water Prize Nominating Committee, "Colwell's pioneering research on the prevention of waterborne infectious diseases has helped protect the health and lives of millions." For more information, see www.siwi.org.

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