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Women Do Need A Lab of Their Own: Rita Colwell

In “A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science,” Rita Colwell shares her six decade journey of incredible science, discoveries and sexism.  Colwell changed the world with her work to understand cholera and help people have clean water, she was the first female leader of the NSF, and she was […]

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In “A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science,” Rita Colwell shares her six decade journey of incredible science, discoveries and sexism. 

Colwell changed the world with her work to understand cholera and help people have clean water, she was the first female leader of the NSF, and she was the leader of the committee working with multiple intelligence agencies to discover who sent anthrax after 9-11.

Colwell had her own laboratory for almost sixty years and loves science but her path was made challenging by men who blocked her career. As she explained: “There have always been highly capable women wanting to be scientists. But there has also always been a small set of powerful men who wouldn’t let women in.”

During her tenure as director of Maryland Sea Grant, Colwell continued working on her own research in her lab in the UMCP Microbiology Department. Photograph, Skip Brown

Colwell was determined to do science. When she was 15 years old, her mother had chest pains and instead of being treated for a heart attack; she was sent home by their family doctor and died. Colwell vowed “to become a research scientist or a medical doctor to give poor and powerless people the care my mother was denied.”

At Beverly Hills High School, her chemistry teacher refused to write her a letter of recommendation because “Girls don’t do chemistry.” In May 1956, Professor Henry Koffler at Purdue University told her: “We don’t waste fellowships on women.” 

“Astronomer Nancy Roman, known as the “Mother of Hubble” for her work on the space telescope, recalled asking her high school guidance teacher for permission to take a second year of algebra instead of a fifth year of Latin: “She looked down her nose at me and sneered, ‘What lady would take mathematics instead of Latin?’” It’s no wonder that 97 to 99 percent of the era’s top high school graduates who did not go to college were girls.”

Due to male professors being unwilling to support her, Colwell’s “thesis on the bacteria that live in marine animals was approved, not by the microbiology department or the oceanography department, but by the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.”

It is hard to believe that in the 1960s, she was the only woman in Georgetown’s biology department and when she was at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, a leading microbiologist, Einar Leifson, asked her, “Does your husband know where you are? Why aren’t you home pregnant?” 

Rita R. Colwell in 2011.

Even though there was a lack of support from many of the male scientists, Colwell had “more than $1 million in funding from the US Navy, the NSF, the NIH, and soon from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for microbial ecology studies.” While she had data, research, and the requisite publications, it was a challenge to have enough lab space. Women researchers consistently were given smaller labs and not enough support from their departments.

“Two years after Title IX came into effect, zoologist Sue V. Rosser was pregnant with her second child and working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin. One day, the professor supervising her fellowship told her the birth of a second child would interfere with the lab’s grant writing schedule. He told her to get an abortion. Rosser had her child, quit science, and became provost of San Francisco State University, making her one of the first women provosts at a research university. With experiences like these, is it any surprise that the number of women on prestigious faculties actually dropped during the 1970s?”

Science, the leading American scientific journal, published research in 1974, showing that: “women advanced in their careers more slowly than men, that they were paid less at every stage, and that this salary gap expanded as men and women gained professional stature. For every dollar a man earned, a woman with the same degrees made do with, on average, 68 cents.” 

Rita Colwell

While women earned 40 percent of the new PhDs in biology in the early 1980s, they were not invited to give talks, did not receive grants and were not able to publish many articles about their research. Colwell was aware that for many important journals every single editor in chief was male and of the “750 ‘expert’ volunteers chosing which articles to publish—more than 90 percent of those ‘experts’ were men.”

In 1994, Pardue and Hopkins reported that “MIT’s six science departments (biology; mathematics; physics; chemistry; earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences; and brain and cognitive sciences) employed 197 tenured men and only 15 tenured women (including themselves).” Additionally “more than half the undergraduates in three of the School of Science’s six departments were women and the number of female PhD students was rising nationwide, MIT’s percentage of female science faculty had been stuck at about 8 percent for twenty years.”

*Women were getting lower salaries, pensions, and funds to start their labs; less equipment and heavier teaching loads; and fewer nominations from MIT for awards, department chairmanships, and influential committee seats.

*There had never been a female department head in science or engineering.

*The percentage of women on the faculty of MIT’s School of Science went from zero in 1963 to 8 percent in 1995 to 19.2 percent in 2014. There were fourteen women faculty members in MIT’s biology department in 2009—and there were still fourteen ten years later in 2019.

*At this rate, MIT estimates it will take forty-two years for women faculty members in the School of Science to reach fifty-fifty parity with men.

Colwell published “more than eight hundred scientific papers over the course of my career…I had no choice: as a woman, I had to prove my findings twenty times over just to get them taken seriously…[As a woman,] you were always swimming against the current.

Colwell’s study of cholera in Bangladesh and in Maryland was to “mitigate a disease that, over the course of history and around the world, has killed hundreds of millions of people.” Cholera occurs when there is polluted water but Colwell figured out where the “Vibrio cholerae hide between epidemics.” She trained in bacteriology, genetics, and oceanography mainly because there were so many obstacles in her career she was forced to find a way to open doors when men were constantly closing them on her. But due to her diverse training, she discovered the life cycle of this bacteria.

After the biggest cholera outbreak in recorded history struck Yemen in 2017, “in what the United Nations and the World Health Organization called the worst humanitarian crisis on the globe. More than 1.2 million of Yemen’s 26 million people were diagnosed with cholera, a third of them small children. To date, more than 2,300 people have died from what is a preventable and cheaply treatable disease.”

Colwell created “a cholera-forecasting system for Yemen …and in March 2018, the Department for International Development began using [her] model’s forecasts.” Colwell helped UNICEF and other aid groups target their response where support was needed most.

Colwell’s leadership in the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maryland as well as the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute which received more than a hundred million dollars in state and federal funds for building laboratories and for grants to do research allowed her to support many woman researchers and scientists.

In 1997, Vice President Al Gore invited her to become the director of the National Science Foundation where she served for six years from 1998 to 2004 as the agency’s first female director. The NSF grants support thousands of scientists, engineers, teachers, and students each year.

Colwell also served on the CIA’s Intelligence Science Board and worked with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Colwell was the leader of NIGSCC—the National Interagency Genome Science Coordinating Committee which was the anthrax task force after 9/11. She was chair of the NIGSCC until it disbanded in 2011 and was awarded a medal by the CIA for her work.

Colwell was instrumental in the Gulf of Mexico clean up after the BP oil spill. She was chair of the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GoMRI) along with experts from leading oceanographic research centers: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the National Oceanography Centre in England. With BP’s half billion dollars, they “funded a new generation of Gulf scientists: 455 postdoctoral positions, 630 PhD students, 562 students in master’s programs, 1,048 undergraduates, and 115 high school students, some of whom will spend their careers in the Gulf area.”

In addition to working to solve the environmental crisis in the Gulf and save humanity from cholera, Colwell has continued her focus on safe drinking water. “The World Health Organization and UNICEF say that one in three people on Earth—some 2.2 billion people—lack safe water… safe water is a women’s issue. Women and girls are the water haulers of the underdeveloped world, so providing conveniently located sources of safe drinking water also helps keep girls in school.

What can we do to help make sure humanity has access to Safe Water? The Safe Water Network has been “serving more than one million people in parts of India and Ghana with water-purifying kiosks the size of a telephone booth. The key to their success has been charging customers a nominal but realistic fee—as little as five cents for 20 liters—to cover the cost of the kiosk, training its operator and staff, repairing and replacing parts, and educating consumers.”

What are you willing to do? How can you help more people have access to drinking water? “Safe Water Network estimates that four billion people will lack safe water in the next ten to fifteen years.” What issues on our planet are important to you? 

Despite unequal treatment of women in science, Rita Colwell has spent six decades in science and changed many lives. What a tragedy it would have been if any of the men who blocked her path kept her from making her discoveries, leading task forces or creating opportunities to support the women who came after her.

“Despite having both the scientific smarts and the scientific degrees, women are still not getting ahead. Once women earn their PhDs, they receive only 39 percent of postdoctoral fellowships, the stepping stone to a career in academic science, and have only 18 percent of the professorships. How can this be? It’s not for lack of interest…women have been actively excluded from science for decades.”

Colwell asks:

“How can we achieve true equality within the scientific enterprise so that men and women can thrive and compete as equals?”

We do not need to cater to women in science. We need only give women an equal chance to achieve.

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