Break down barriers for women in STEM fields, says former NSF director

Rita Colwell
Rita Colwell

Obstacles still exist to the full participation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to Rita Colwell, former director of the National Science Foundation. Failure to address these barriers threatens the ability of the world to solve pressing problems in the environment, human health and other fields.

Colwell considers this issue from a perspective as one of the world’s most productive and well-respected scientists. She has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland and at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public health. She has authored or co-authored 17 books and more than 800 scientific articles.

Colwell will bring her observations to Oregon State University on April 21. She will give two lectures, one on women in science (3:30 pm, 112 Kearney Hall) and another on the oceanographic factors that drive cholera epidemics (7 pm, LaSells Stewart Center), a topic of her Ph.D. work at the University of Washington and her ongoing research around the world. Both lectures are free and open to the public. They are supported by the Oregon State ADVANCE program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“I think right now it’s become abundantly clear that if we don’t include women especially in science, technology, engineering and medicine careers, we will lose an important component of the intellectual capacity of the country,” she adds. “Probably the most difficult message I’ve had to absorb has been that it’s not only men that have made it difficult for women, but it’s also women,” says Colwell.

Colwell is an expert on cholera, a disease that still infects 3 to 5 million people and kills more than 100,000 annually, according to the World Health Organization. She has worked in India, Bangladesh and Latin America.

“I’ve always taken a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to science, everything from the molecular to the social sciences,” she says. “In the 21st Century, we cannot carry out even the most intricate science without considering the human potential and the human effects.

“We’re finding this to be the case in understanding the need for a diverse environment to maintain human health. Exploiting the environment to the point of obliteration will have very serious consequences for us as a human society.”


For an in-depth look at Colwell’s career, see “Wonder Woman” in the University of Washington alumni magazine, Columns.