Q&A with Dr. Rita Colwell, UMD Distinguished Professor and 11th Director of NSF, Keynote Speaker for AGNR Cornerstone Event: Ensure a Clean and Healthy Chesapeake Bay

Image Credit: University of Maryland

October 10, 2019 Samantha Watters

The College of Agriculture and Natural Resources hosted its second annual AGNR Cornerstone Event, a nod to the college’s history as the University's founding institution. On October 29th, the Stamp Student Union was packed with faculty, staff, students, and government and public stakeholders at a major summit featuring key advancements and considerations in water quality and use, with a focus on Ensuring a Clean and Healthy Chesapeake Bay. The event featured experts on stormwater management, water use and reuse, our living natural resources and Chesapeake Bay aquatic life, water quality and safety, and much more. 

As keynote speaker, the college was thrilled to welcome world-renowned expert in global water quality and infectious disease, Dr. Rita Colwell, distinguished University of Maryland professor and 11th director of the National Science Foundation. Dr. Colwell is one of the world’s foremost experts in vibrios, and a pioneer for women in science. These distinctions have earned her the National Medal of Science awarded by President George W. Bush, the International Prize for Biology, the Japan Marine Biology Prize from the Emperor of Japan, the Stockholm Water Prize awarded by the King of Sweden for basic research and the Singapore Water Prize for her applied work, of which she was the first female double winner. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame at the same time as Hilary Clinton, and has a new book on the way about women in science. She has been awarded 62 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education, including her alma mater, Purdue University.

We caught up with Dr. Colwell prior to the event. We spoke across a stack of her awards collected for display at Purdue University’s women’s archives, and discussed the biggest challenges facing our global world and how next generation researchers play an integral role in the future of water and beyond.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing humanity today and how have they helped advance your thinking and professional pursuits?

A: The biggest challenge is water, it really is. Right now we are fighting over oil, but we’ve already got fights going on over water, who gets to use it, and this clearly is an agricultural problem. It’s a negotiation that has to be done between community use, agricultural use, and water recycling that is necessary for sustainability. It’s a trade off between water for drinking, domestic use, agricultural application, industry, recreation, you name it. And the assumption is that since 70% of the earth is covered with oceans, we must have plenty of water, but that water isn’t really available. Also, the tragedy of dealing with climate change means the glaciers are melting, and it’s a real problem because these glaciers feed fresh water drinking systems. We are going to be seeing huge climate change migrations away from areas drastically affected, and exacerbation of political problems that are all intertwined and connected by water.

Q: How does interdisciplinary science enter into solving these global issues?

A: Science has done a great job over the years tackling issues of reductionism - reducing problems to the molecular level, the galaxy level, and so on. But now, to solve the issues our planet is facing, we will need to be thinking at a much more holistic level. And agriculture is a prime example of the necessity of integration - it is a very complex system. The issues are complex, but they are solvable, and collaboration and machine learning can help us get there. It will be interesting to see what can come out of the analysis of interdisciplinary work across all these systems with the rise of big data approaches. Agriculture has the challenge of maintaining the small farm while figuring out how to feed the expanding population. It’s a problem that is an aspect of the global world, and crossing disciplines and data integration is the only way.

Q: In what ways do you feel that current and future water scientists can make an impact in a changing world, with a changing climate and changing priorities?

A: It’s not how or when, they just have to. It’s a sheer necessity. It’s not just knowing how much and where, but it’s how to allocate usage of water and how to share with competing priorities. The focus should really be on recycling processes to protect and reuse our water. We can apply biotechnology to our sewage treatment systems to not only clean the water but produce enough power through bioreactors to heat and light cities. We have to go forward to figure out how to apply the sciences of computation agriculture, water reuse, recycling, and engineering to integrate these systems in daily life. Ensuring water systems and a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay is far more complicated than just making sure you can see the bottom. It’s understanding that the Chesapeake Bay is a prime example of a resource that has to be protected and used in a sustainable way. It’s the only one we’ve got, and the history of the Bay and the resources are well worth protecting.

Q: What advice would you give the next generation of young scientists, policy makers, economists, and leaders hoping to make a difference in water quality and environmental stewardship?

A: The career you’ve planned is going to change many times, and you will have to constantly be relearning. You have to follow your interests - if you don’t really like what you’re doing, you won’t persevere. Also, it’s kind of a shame to be totally focused as a freshman and not sample other disciplines. Literature and art are sources of creativity as well as sources of satisfaction and stress release, and it makes you a stronger scientist. It’s a huge richness of the human spirit and human knowledge. For me, it gets a bit worrisome when a university experience becomes a training center rather than a learning center. You really have to develop the skills to be innovative and flexible in your studies and to keep an open mind in your career. The nature of life is change, and thinking broadly keeps you receptive as a scientist and human being to new ideas.

Q: When you look back on such a decorated career, what have been your proudest moments and why?

A: My proudest moments are my two children and my grandchildren. I’ve been very fortunate that I was married to my husband, who was a physicist, for 62 years. And my two daughters are scientists, a botanist and a pediatrician. And the University of Maryland has been very good to me. I’ve loved being here. It’s a very progressive state and University. I’ve been able to do a lot of things here that I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to do in another institution. 

For more information on the AGNR Cornerstone Event, visit go.umd.edu/chesbay.