Rita Colwell is also entrepreneur, teacher and administrator


October 13, 1991|By Randi Henderson

COLLEGE PARK -- When Rita Colwell reaches each morning for the hat she will wear that day she is faced with a multitude of choices.

Will she be wearing -- figuratively, that is -- the hat of the research scientist? Or will it be that of the college administrator? Or perhaps the entrepreneur, the teacher, the fund-raiser, the world traveler? The mother, the wife, the jogger?

Most likely it will be two or more of the above, for rarely does a day go by in which Rita Colwell doesn't function in a diversity of roles.

And in a diversity of places also, because it is an unusual week in which Dr. Colwell doesn't leave her College Park office to follow pursuits in Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington. Or -- to name some of the spots she has hit in just the past few months -- Ecuador, Mali, England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, the Soviet Union. Next month will find her at the South Pole.

This weekend, however, her attention will be focused on Baltimore for two events: today's ground-breaking ceremonies of the new Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration at the Inner Harbor and the beginning -- also today -- of a four-day International Marine Biotechnology Conference.

The relevance of both events to her life's work is obvious. Rita Colwell, 56, is the person who applied high-tech to marine studies, coining the phrase "marine biotechnology" in a 1983 article in Science magazine. Since then she has been in the forefront of a field of international scientists who have delved into the microscopic secrets of the seas, looking for medical and industrial applications of knowledge found in the coral reefs, fish molecules, oyster larvae and countless other repositories in the oceans.

And -- donning the entrepreneurial and administrative headgear -- Dr. Colwell is president of the board of directors of the Columbus Center, a $130 million city, state, federal and private partnership that will be constructed on 11 acres on Piers 5 and 6 and will contain research laboratories and public displays.

Her primary title these days is president of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute. MBI is an umbrella organization of the University of Maryland that oversees the work of six different scientific centers around the state -- including the Center of Marine Biology (COMB), now located at the Community College of Baltimore, but set to move into the Columbus Center when it opens in 1994.

Dr. Colwell estimates that she spends at least one-fourth of her time on Columbus Center business and it takes just a mention of the center to get her off and running with enthusiastic predictions about what the facility will be and what it will mean for Baltimore.

"It's a new concept," she explained, "essentially a very high technology city within a city. A place where we bring the cutting edge of technology, which the average citizen doesn't understand, right into the heart of the city.

"And we're opening it up in a way for the lay public to come in and mingle. The concept is to have a design of a building to which the public can come in off the street and actually see the scientists at work."

The scientists, she continued, "won't be like fish in a tank, but some of the labs will just be glassed in." For the public to be able to see scientists at work, she hopes, will help "demystify and provide a positive approach to biotechnology, because there are many good things coming from it."

Her own research well illustrates her point. In one of the many projects she juggles in her laboratory, she is close to finding the causative agent for cholera, something her research has shown is found in the sea.

Talking to Dr. Colwell in her College Park office, surrounded by a clutter of papers and journals and textbooks and -- somehow not at all incongruously -- pictures of her two daughters, one gets the sense that if the choice were hers, all of her time would be spent in the laboratory looking for the causes of disease and other boons for mankind. But, she said, life is never that easy.

"It's not really a case of choosing," she explained. "It's more like fate decreeing that if you really want to move science forward, it's necessary to be involved in the fray in order to have the resources to do the science.

"I had a vision of a way for it to be done. So I became very much consumed by this vision. That's what is driving me."

Visionary, in fact, is a word often used by Dr. Colwell's colleagues when they describe her style and her work.

"Her forte really is her vision; she's truly a visionary," said Fred Singleton, executive director of COMB, who did his Ph.D. work under Dr. Colwell and has run COMB since 1985, when it was barely an idea off the drawing board. "She saw the concept of this institute long before anyone else. And if you look at her science and her laboratory, it's the same thing. She's always two or three steps ahead of the game."

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