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Rita Rossi Colwell Edit Profile

administrator , educator , microbiologist , scientist

Rita Rossi Colwell is an American microbiologist, former federal agency administrator and medical educator. She was the 11th Director of the National Science Foundation.


Rita Colwell was born on November 23, 1934 in Beverly, Massachusetts, United States. She is a daughter of Louis and Louise Di Palma Rossi.


Colwell received Bachelor of Science degree in Bacteriology in 1956 and Master of Science degree in Genetics in 1958 from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. In 1961 she was given Doctor of Philosophy degree in Oceanography by University of Washington, Seattle for her work on bacteria commensal to marine animals, which is the practice of an organism obtaining food or other benefits from another without either harming or helping it. Colwell's contributions included establishing the basis for the systematics of marine bacteria.

She has a big amount of honorary degrees from 61 educational institutions, they include such distinguished universities as: Purdue University, 1993; State University of New York, 2000; George Washington University, 2001; and California Polytechnic Institute, 2001.


Colwell was a Genetics laboratory research assistant at Purdue University from 1956 till 1957 and a Research assistant at the University of Washington during 1957 - 1958, becoming a predoctoral associate a year later during one year, he was an assistant research professor during 1961 - 1964.

In 1964, Georgetown University hired Colwell as an assistant professor, and gave her tenure in 1966. Colwell and her research team were the first to recognize that the bacterium that caused cholera occurred naturally in estuaries. They isolated the bacterium from Chesapeake Bay and in ensuing years sought to explain how outbreaks in human populations might be tied to the seasonal abundance of the host organisms in the sea, particularly plankton.

In 1972, Colwell took a tenured professorship at the University of Maryland. Her studies expanded to include investigations on the impact of marine pollution at the microbial level. Among her findings was that the presence of oil in estuarine and open ocean water was associated with the numbers of bacteria able to break down oil. She studied whether some types of bacteria might be used to treat oil spills.

At the University of Maryland, Colwell was director of the Sea Grant College from 1977 to 1983.

In the spirit of using knowledge gained from the sea to benefit humans and the environment, Colwell prepared a seminal paper on marine biotechnology published in the journal Science in 1983. It brought attention to the rich resources of the ocean that might be tapped for food, disease-curing drugs, and environmental clean-up by the applications of genetic engineering and cloning. In order to realize the potential of marine biotechnology as originally outlined in her 1983 paper, Colwell helped foster the concept and growth of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, established in 1987.

She was a director of Center Marine Biotechnology during 1987—1991, a founder and president of Biotechnology Institute from 1991 till 1998. As president of the U. M. B. I., she has formed alliances between researchers and industry and has succeeded in raising funds to develop the center as a prestigious biotech research complex.

In 2004 she became a chairman of Canon United States Life Sciences, serving there until 2006, also in 2004 she worked as a Distinguished University professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Colwell was the director of the National Science Foundation and held this position from 1998 till 2004.

In 2008 Colwell founded the company CosmosID, and nowadays she serves as Global Science Officer and Chairman of the Board.

Colwell worked as the founding editor of GeoHealth, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. GeoHealth started accepting publications in 2016.


  • Colwell is notable for investigating of the ecology, physiology, and evolutionary relationships of marine bacteria.

    As a founder and president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, she has nurtured a vision to improve the environment and human health by linking molecular biology and genetics to basic knowledge scientists had gleaned from life and chemistry in the oceans.

    Colwell and her colleagues also made a discovery that held promise for improving oyster yields in aquaculture - a bacterial film formed on surfaces under water attracted oyster larvae to settle and grow.

    As a researcher, she has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 700 scientific publications.

    Among it, Colwell produced the award-winning film Invisible Seas.

    In addition, she was the first female director of the National Science Foundation, now she is in Maryland's Top 100 Women Hall of Fame.

    She received National Medal of Science in 2006, from United States President George W. Bush. Also she received Order of the Rising Sun-Gold and Silver Star in 2005 from the Emperor of Japan.


Colwell is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Academies of Science of Sweden, Canada, Bangladesh, India, and the United States.

She served as president of Sigma Xi, the American Society for Microbiology, and the International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology, and was president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science , United States


  • American Institute of Biological Sciences , United States


  • National Science Board

    National Science Board

    1984 - 1990

  • American Society for Microbiology

    She was a President of the society.

    American Society for Microbiology

    1984 - 1985

  •  National Academy of Sciences Committee

    She was a chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine.

    National Academy of Sciences Committee



  • Other Interests

    Jogging, competitive sailing


Colwell met her husband, Jack Colwell, when he was a physical chemistry graduate student at Purdue. Rita and Jack have raised two daughters, both of whom followed their parents' footsteps into their own scientific careers.

Louis Colwell

Louise Di Palma Rossi Colwell

Jack Colwell