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(b. 1936) A PROFESSOR ONCE TOLD HER THAT ACADEMIC FELLOWSHIPS WERE WASTED ON WOMEN. BUT THIS MICROBIOLOGIST REDUCED CHOLERA BY HALF IN BANGLADESH AND ROSE TO HEAD THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION.
The eight-layered cloth. That was the charm. Rita Colwell worked for three years with 133,000 women in Bangladesh to tame sporadic outbreaks of cholera, which killed 50 percent of its victims. Cholera is spread by a bacterium that attaches itself to plankton in the water supply. They learned that by folding the vibrantly colored cloth from their discarded saris 8 times, and using it as a filter, 98% of the bacteria could be removed from the water, reducing cholera by half.
For 30 years Colwell had suspected that cholera bacteria remained in water that tested clean. But her theory was not accepted. The Center for Disease Control even dubbed the hypothetical bacteria "Colwell's ghosts." Undeterred, Rita Colwell continued her work. She theorized that the bacteria were dormant in cold water but re-emerged in warm. Satellite information subsequently proved her theory and successfully predicted bacterial "blooms".
The sari solution was typical of Colwell's brand of science. Intuitive thought coupled with appropriate technology is a hallmark of her work. So is her commitment to improving education. Colwell says when she began her career in science women were treated "one level above an albatross". As the first woman to head the National Science Foundation she worked to change that. Colwell improved educational access for women and minorities in science and engineering, and increased stipends for graduate education. Her efforts combined with her scientific vision will no doubt inspire countless scientific accomplishments yet to come.
Credits: Rita Colwell photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation Image Library