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About Rita R. Colwell

May 1999 Commencement Speaker

As the 11th director of the National Science Foundation, microbiologist and marine scientist Rita R. Colwell has been recognized for her work to include K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education and the increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.

She has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 700 scientific publications and produced the award-winning film, Invisible Seas. Prior to her tenure at NSF (1998-2004), she was president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and professor of microbiology and biotechnology at the University Maryland. A geological site in Antarctica – Colwell Massif – has been named in recognition of her work in the polar regions. In 1991 she was named to the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame.

Colwell earned a bachelor's degree in bacteriology and a master's degree in genetics, both from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the University of Washington. 

She served as a member of the National Science Board from 1984 to 1990, and has served as chairman of the board of governors of the American Academy of Microbiology, as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Society for Microbiology, and International Union of Microbiological Societies. Colwell is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences; a foreign fellow of Bangladesh Academy of Sciences; and an honorary member of the microbiological societies of the UK, France, Israel and Bangladesh. 

In 2006 she received the National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush and in 2010 received the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize for her contributions to solving water-related public health problems. She has been awarded 48 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education.

She is a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland College Park and an adjunct professor in the John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. She has been developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world. 

Colwell was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Public Service from Coastal Carolina University during the commencement ceremony.