EXCLUSIVE! A Personal Interview with Rita Colwell in Advance of Her Book “A Lab of One’s Own”
Rita Colwell is perhaps best known for her research on the pathogenic bacterium Vibrio cholerae. But the designation of pioneer is a label befitting Colwell for far-reaching contributions to many other areas, including her decades-long fight against sexism in a male-dominated field.
Colwell’s unique perspective on sexism in science is now able to be explored in her book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science, which will be released on August 4th.
Colwell has served as a long-standing member of the faculty of the University of Maryland since 1972 and was the first woman to serve as director of the National Science Foundation (from 1998–2004). As the president of the Rosalind Franklin Society, Colwell continues her leadership for the recognition and promotion of women in science.
Julianna LeMieux, GEN’s senior science writer, recently had the chance to ask Colwell about her career, the lessons she learned along the way, the messages she would like to pass on to the next generation of female scientists, and why she wanted to add another book to her already impressive CV. The interview, which appears below, has been edited for length and clarity.
What prompted you to decide to write a book now? What was the motivation or inspiration?
Colwell: I’m at a stage in my life where I can be as fully candid as I wish. With regards to sexism in science, I believe some things have changed, and some have not. Therefore, I thought it would be a good opportunity to provide a bit of guidance for the next generation, or two, of women.
There are experiences I can share about different stages of my career that describe an overall pattern of incidents that many women face. I wasn’t really, initially, enthusiastic about writing a book advising women in science. And it’s turned out to be rather more metaphorical than an instruction manual. It’s certainly not a catechism.
The book has taken about five years. It all started when my co-author [Sharon Bertsch McGrayne] called and said she would like to write about my work on cholera. I had been thinking about writing a book anyway, so it was a good opportunity to collaborate. But then it morphed into a kind of autobiography and focused more on women in science. It made sense because so many of my experiences have been shared by others. In fact, the general message of the book is that the experiences that women have in this vein are not unique. There are so many women who have experienced some of the same offensive behavior that I have had to deal with. Superb scientists such as Jocelyn Bell, Maria Meyer, Nancy Hopkins, and so many others. They faced similar traumas and kept on going.
And, it’s not their fault—it’s the system.
In your career, what helped you to persevere? What was the key?
Colwell: Just sheer, dogged determination to succeed. I knew I could. I had been supported by so many others and so well as a young student. They gave me the confidence that I could do it and I felt very strongly that when I was told that I couldn’t, or obstacles were put in my way, I was absolutely set to succeed. I was not going to give up. There were times when, sure, I would be a bit despondent.
But I climbed out of that trough even more determined and invigorated to make sure I got done what I needed to do.
Sexism can take many forms. What are the most damaging, do you think, for women in STEM?
Colwell: What is really discouraging is to make a discovery or have a really innovative idea and have it automatically discounted—not even discussed, just pushed aside—as if it could not possibly matter because it was a woman who had the idea or who made the discovery. A snide, critical remark that discounts everything you’ve done is the harshest kind of put-down, especially when it happens over and over and over again. That is tough. And, especially hard when it is from individuals for whom you know that your own colleagues don’t have the highest respect for their science. And your colleagues don’t call them out for it. But being sexist is a character flaw.
In contrast, there are people like John Liston and Buck Greenough. Both are men of immense accomplishment. Buck is a medical doctor who has worked tirelessly in developing countries, and has tremendous compassion and empathy. Helpful suggestions from Buck meant so much because they were given to be supportive. And, that’s really empowering. Unfortunately, I didn’t find as many John Listons and Buck Greenoughs in the world as I would have wished. But there are many such men out there and it is so important when they step up.
In what ways has sexism in STEM gotten better? In what ways is it the same?
Colwell: I don’t think that today’s misogyny is as overt, or unabashed, as the kind that we had to deal with years ago. I don’t think any department chair today would tell a female student with a straight A average that they “don’t waste fellowships on women” which is what I was told when I was an undergraduate just starting out on my career.
If you read the report from the National Academy of Sciences, it describes misogyny and sexism that one might characterize as ranging from the criminal to the clueless. The clueless make remarks that are intended to be kind, like, “Oh, don’t you look pretty today.” Well, I never wanted to be told I looked pretty. I would rather hear that my idea was intriguing or brilliant. I would never think of commenting on a male colleague’s appearance in the laboratory. It’s a double standard.
What are your thoughts on the unusual moment that we are in right now with the growing divide between male and female researchers (and especially researchers studying COVID-19) with children staying home and work-life balance taking on a whole new meaning?
Colwell: It’s a really difficult situation because, even if you are lucky enough to have someone to help take care of your young children, it may mean that you’re exposing them to COVID-19. So today scientists and physicians with young children have to deal with a heavier weight of guilt and fear.
I raised two children, but I had help at home. I also had an incredibly supportive husband. We were married for 62 years and I miss him intensely every single day since his passing. He was a source of good advice and always helpful in every way.
When I had my second child, she was born in November during the Thanksgiving holiday. In those days, it was assumed that if you were really serious about your job, you would go right back to work. I was back at work within two weeks. It was just before Christmas and at the department holiday party, one of my colleagues came up to me and very kindly said, “I’ll be happy to teach one of your classes when you have the baby.” I looked at him and said, “I had the baby and I’m already back teaching.” He was kind… but clueless.
I tried, in my way, to spend as much time as possible with my daughters. When my oldest reached 14, I brought her with me on a lecture tour I had scheduled… to Tokyo, Bangkok, Bombay, Paris, and London. I received permission from her school for her to do her assignments while we were away. So she packed her backpack with her books and papers, and we traveled together for three weeks. That way, she got to see that the whole world is not like Montgomery County, Maryland. And I took my younger daughter, who aspired to become a physician, with me on one of my travels to Bangladesh and to Mali, Africa. She eventually went on to medical school, earning an MD/ PhD, the latter in Tanzania on women’s health.
What are you doing now during COVID-19, while staying with your daughter in Halifax, Canada?
Colwell: I’m doing some very interesting work now on COVID-19. The company that I founded, CosmosID, is carrying out some studies with the Maryland Dept. of Environment and Dept. of Health to detect SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater as a measure of success of public health measures to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 and to inform future public health decisions. It has been shown by others that asymptomatic individuals shed virus in the stool and that people who exhibit symptoms can shed the virus for several weeks long after recovery.
I’ve also been doing a lot of work using satellite sensors to predict cholera epidemics. And, that has proven really successful. We’ve been working with a British aid agency, UNICEF, and NASA to provide prediction of cholera risk in Yemen so that supplies, personnel, and safe water can be delivered effectively. We are working hard to utilize a similar model for COVID-19.
You’ve accomplished so much. How many hours of sleep do you need?
Colwell: Ha! During my heyday, I would get by on four or five consecutive hours of sleep, which is how I could do so much traveling. But I prefer six or seven hours, just like any other normal human being.
You talk about working on the Anthrax project in the book. Why was that such an important project?
Colwell: I chaired a team of representatives from all of the agencies, including NSF, NIH, DHS, USDA, DOE, DoD FBI, CIA, and others, who contributed to tracking down the perpetrator of the Anthrax bioterrorism crime. We had no formal directive because we knew, if we did, we would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the FBI and CIA who were conducting a criminal investigation could not participate. So, we worked voluntarily, meeting every week for five years. We were men and women working together, meeting every week in classified surroundings for an hour on Friday afternoons. Then, every month after that. It was five years in total that it took to track down the source of the anthrax. We worked together extremely well. For all of us, we consider it one of the highlights of our careers.
Besides the anthrax work, what has been a highlight of your career?
Colwell: The most enjoyable experience I’ve had was when I received the Stockholm Water Prize in 2010 because the King of Sweden officiates and the event is treated like the Nobel Prize ceremony—with the men wearing tuxedos rather than “white tie and tails”. I did also have the opportunity as Director of NSF to attend a Nobel ceremony and at that event, Jack [my husband] looked smashing in his tie and tails. But, the reason why the Stockholm Water Prize was such a highlight is that I brought my entire family, my children, and grandchildren, with me on the trip and we spent two weeks in Sweden having the best time.
Is there any place in the world you would like to visit but haven’t yet?
Colwell: I’m regretful that I’ve done so much work in Peru, but never had enough time to go to Machu Picchu. I was in Peru several times to study cholera, in the early 90s when a major cholera outbreak occurred in Latin America. So that’s on my list.
Do you have a favorite guilty pleasure?
Colwell: Vanilla ice cream.
Do you participate in sports or yoga?
Colwell: I started jogging when I was in my 30s which has been a very good thing to do. I like that it keeps me in shape, but what I really enjoy is running in different countries all over the world. I’ve run in Bangladesh, European cities, Ireland, etc. I enjoy running when I go to meetings, because you get to really see a city as it is. In a car, you don’t really get to know the sights, sounds and personality of a city.
Also, my husband and I raced sailboats for 25 years. We were dinghy racers. My job was to handle the jib and the spinnaker. He was the tactician and his hand was on the tiller. He was a real champ. We must have collected 40 trophies over the years.
You have received numerous, prestigious awards during your career, for example the National Medal of Science bestowed by President George W. Bush. But women are far less likely to be nominated and win awards. What impact do you think that has on women in science?
Colwell: It’s depressing when outstanding women are overlooked. I know for a fact that I was deliberately prevented from receiving a specific award at a point very early in my career when it would have mattered a lot. But again, I look at it as a flaw of those who stand in the way of women from receiving awards.
It makes a big difference in a career for deserving women to receive awards and prizes, recognizing their outstanding research. This is where the Rosalind Franklin Society and its benefactors are providing a really important service.
But I should also say that I have learned it is very time consuming and a lot of work to nominate individuals for awards and to write the necessary letters for promotions and other recognition. My assistant, Vickie Lord, and I find ourselves devoting sometimes a day a week, at least, writing letters and preparing nominations. I’m always delighted when the individuals that I nominate win. But it is a lot of work. Fortunately, women scientists are recognizing that this is an important part of our responsibility… to help younger scientists, especially women scientists, coming up in the ranks.
What advice do you have for women in STEM today?
Colwell: I would say to find a posse, or create one, and persevere. I’m very pleased that the ADVANCE program (Organizational Change for Gender Equity in STEM Academic Professions) at the NSF that I helped launch has funded programs all around the country where women have an opportunity to get together and talk and share experiences. Knowing that you’re not alone is a big help.