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Rita Colwell, one of the nation's best known and most highly respected scientists, will speak on the Old Dominion University campus Dec. 5 as a joint presentation of the College of Sciences Distinguished Visitors Lecture Series and the Daniel E. and Helen N. Sonenshine Endowed Lecture Series.

ODU's Consortium for Maritime Research also is a sponsor of the scientist's visit.

Colwell is perhaps best known for her leadership of the National Science Foundation. She was NSF director, 1998-2004, and as such was also co-chair of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council. She now holds distinguished university professorships at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is the chief executive of Canon US Life Sciences, Inc.

In these roles, and in others, she has promoted mathematics and science education in the United States, as well as increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. She is trained as a microbiologist and her research interests include emerging infectious diseases and the quality of drinking water worldwide.

For Colwell's public lecture, which will be at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 5 in the auditorium of the Mills Godwin Jr. Building, the topic will be "Oceans, Climate and Health: The Cholera Paradigm." This lecture is free and open to all.

In public appearances and professional meetings during recent years, Colwell has called attention to her hypothesis that environment plays a key role in the spread of some infectious diseases, including cholera.

As early as the 1960s, when she was a young faculty member at the University of Maryland, Colwell pioneered research about the cholera bacterium in the Chesapeake Bay and sought to explain how cholera outbreaks in human populations might be tied to seasonal increases in host organisms such as plankton. Now, her research posits a cause-and-effect progression from global and ocean warming, to an increase in plankton blooms, to an increase in cholera bacteria found in drinking water, to outbreaks of cholera. (Plankton is composed of microscopic organisms, including algae and protozoans, that float in great numbers usually at or near the water's surface.)

Colwell says that monitoring of water temperature and other climate-related data by satellites can provide early warning of when, where and how intense an epidemic will be.

Earlier in the day on Dec. 5 and again the morning of Dec. 6, Colwell will have small-group meetings with science faculty and students. At 3 p.m. on Dec. 5 in 101 Mills Godwin Jr. Building, will present a seminar titled "Prospects of Marine Biotechnology." Although this seminar is designed for faculty and students, the public is invited and there is no charge to attend.

Colwell is a leader in marine biotechnology, which is the application of molecular techniques to marine biology for the harvesting of medical, industrial and aquaculture products from the sea. Her article on marine biotechnology in the journal Science in 1983 and her role in establishing the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in 1987 helped to spur research and commercial interest in the field.

Colwell, who earned degrees from Purdue University and the University of Washington, has been awarded 47 honorary degrees, as well as the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star, from the Emperor of Japan. A geological site in Antarctica-Colwell Massif-was named in recognition of her work in the polar regions. She also has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of Canada, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

This article was posted on: November 27, 2006

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