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The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: Two Careers on the Launch Pad

The First 50 Years of Sea Grant: Two Careers on the Launch Pad

Rita Colwell was the first director of Maryland Sea Grant

Laura Wilson

By Michael Fincham, Maryland Sea Grant 

Rita Colwell likes to say that Sea Grant helped launch her career in marine microbiology, but it’s more accurate to say she launched Sea Grant’s career in Maryland. When she began serving as the first director for Maryland Sea Grant (MDSG) in 1977, she defined MDSG’s core values and shaped its social mission. Those values would include a commitment to supporting fundamental research, and the program's social mission would focus on finding ways to apply those research findings to real-world problems.

By 1977 Colwell was already a fast-rising marine microbiologist -- but Sea Grant would play a key role in rescuing one of her early research efforts. Working with various species of vibrio bacteria from the Chesapeake Bay, Colwell’s lab discovered that Vibrio cholerae, which can cause cholera, was a natural part of marine environments. 

Rita Colwell. Image: Michael Fincham, Maryland Sea Grant.

Her findings challenged conventional medical wisdom. Medical researchers believed that the main reservoir for Vibrio cholerae was the human intestine and the main source for cholera was drinking water contaminated by sewage. If Vibrio cholerae was naturally present in marine systems, then improved sanitation would not permanently eradicate the threat.

Her research also worried the seafood industry. “We were able to show that the cholera is a vector-borne disease,” Colwell says, “and the vector happens to be the copepod.” Copepods are a type of zooplankton that can be ingested by oysters and blue crabs, two of the Bay’s most famous and profitable seafood harvests. If seafood carrying this vibrio species is not well-prepared, the species can attach to the intestines of humans, and the results can include diarrhea, dehydration and – without prompt treatment -- death.

Her research gained media attention, and then she got a call from her funding agency. Her findings could damage the reputation of Chesapeake Bay seafood and her funding would be reduced by half.

Colwell found other funding with help from Ned Ostenso, the distinguished geophysicist who became director of the National Sea Grant College Program the same year Colwell became the first woman director of a state program in the Sea Grant network. Ostenso quickly became an advocate for Colwell, and the result was a two-year grant of $250,000. It may not have been a career launch, but it was clearly a career boost.

It was also a smart investment in basic research. Over the years her research team would track the connections between cholera and environmental factors such as salinity, weather and sea surface temperatures. And Colwell would personally test and popularize cheap, life-saving approaches for protecting villagers in India from cholera infections. 

Rita Colwell during the early days of Maryland Sea Grant. Image: Michael Fincham, Maryland Sea Grant.

Colwell brought that commitment to fundamental science to MDSG. The solution to the practical problems facing <st1:place w:st="on">Maryland’s fisheries for oysters and blue crabs and striped bass would come, she believed, from more basic research on the life cycles of marine plants and animals and from a deeper understanding of the biological oceanography of coastal waters.

As a Sea Grant director she was also committed to building a broadly based program. Members of the program’s first advisory board argued it should devote most of its modest funding and its small marine advisory service to oyster decline. Colwell thought otherwise. She created an ambitious program that addressed oysters, marine microbiology, water quality changes, blue crab and striped bass declines, and the various legal and social and economic issues affecting traditional fisheries.

Under Colwell's leadership MDSG extension agents and specialists began working with watermen and seafood processors and laid the groundwork for an oyster aquaculture industry that is now expanding rapidly in the state. Her communications team organized reviews of the oyster literature for the science community, published newsletters and magazines for the general public, and produced film documentaries for television broadcast.

MDSG was set on its path and so was Rita Colwell. She would serve as MDSG's director for seven years, then create and lead the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. She served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Society of Microbiologists and the International Union of Microbiological Sciences. Over the years Colwell received 55 honorary degrees and was honored by the Emperor of Japan, the King of Sweden, and the President of the United States. From 1998 to 2004, she served as the first woman director of the National Science Foundation, one of the main funding sources for basic research in the United States.

Colwell now serves as Distinguished University Professor both at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health and at the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. Her current goal is developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world.

The research that Sea Grant helped rescue is clearly not finished.

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