SCIENTIST PLAYS MANY ROLES Rita Colwell is also entrepreneur, teacher and administrator

COLLEGE PARK — 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."


Calling Dr. Colwell "a remarkable individual," University of Maryland chancellor Donald N. Langenberg agreed that her personal approach often sets events in motion.

"She has infinite energy," he said. "She is full of ideas. She is always thinking of things one can do rather than why one can't do things. It's a combination of basic intellect, talent, boundless enthusiasm and a willingness to get involved to try to do something important."

But while co-workers have little difficulty defining the characteristics that have brought Rita Colwell to the top of her profession, they have more trouble with figuring out what motivates her and how she manages her many accomplishments.

"It has to be a physiological imbalance to have that much energy for that long," said Dr. Singleton. "I couldn't begin to do what she does."

Even her husband of 35 years, Jack Colwell, a physicist, expressed some bewilderment at what his wife is capable of.

"I ask myself," he said on the phone from their Bethesda home, "What's she trying to prove and to whom? She just has to keep achieving, I guess. It gets more and more intense as the years go on. Success breeds success."


Jack Colwell, an active sailboat racer, added that until about five years ago his wife was able to serve as his crew while racing, but she can no longer find the time. Her idea of relaxing at home he said, is "sitting down with a 6-inch stack of mail."

"The thing I always question," he said, "is that she never seems to say no to things, when she has every reason to say no. She has less and less time for herself."

Rita Colwell herself puts the question of "What makes Rita run?" in the context of the battle women scientists must fight to be taken seriously.

"It's hell, it's sheer hell," is her assessment of the obstacles she and other women scientists have faced through the years to earn the respect that comes much more readily to their male counterparts.

Her first "between the eyes," she said was when she was an undergraduate at Purdue University, majoring in bacteriology, and applied for a graduate fellowship. " 'We don't give fellowships to women; that would be a waste,' " the male department chairman told her, and it's a comment that has always rankled.

She studied genetics instead, then moving to the University of Washington, where she got her Ph.D. investigating bacteria in marine animals, setting her on the course that would be her life's work. As her career continued, she said, a constant presence has been the glass ceiling, the metaphorical barrier to the rise of women and minorities in the workplace.


"There is a glass ceiling, there's no question about it," she said emphatically. "I smash it!"

It's a smashing that is clearly inevitable because of the forces that drive her.

"My credo, I guess, is that I'm driven to understand, to know. Life is like solving a crossword puzzle, a mystery. If in the process one can help humankind, it gives it meaning.

"I'll follow a path to find meaning, and if there's an obstacle I'll get around it. I guess this translates to some people saying I'm aggressive. I've come up the hard way and I intend to succeed if my heart and soul tells me that's the way to go."

Dr. Rossi is the third daughter of Louis Rossi, a Beverly, Mass., construction worker. Her mother, Louise, died when she was 13 and she saw herself "at the crossover point. My oldest sister was just kind of expected to go to secretarial school, and she did. My next older sister went to art school, and that was OK. Then I came along . . ."

Growing up near the beach, she remembers long walks down the coast toward Boston with her dog. The sea always intrigued her.


"You know, the ocean has always been looked upon as a healer," she mused, "healing the soul because of the beauty of the sea, but healing the body too. The ancients went to the seaside for their health; [there are stories of] the benefits of a poultice of seaweed, which we now know is because there are fungi in seaweed that produce antibiotics.

"So our work now is really sort of rediscovering. It's part of our heritage."

She was accepted at Radcliffe but was only offered $800 in scholarship and the tuition was $1,200. Purdue was willing to pay her entire tuition, plus room and board, and she's never regretted the decision to attend. Especially since when she was a senior she met a good-looking graduate student named Jack Colwell.

"I was in love with the guy," she said about a decision to switch career plans from medicine to laboratory science when it wasn't possible for her and her new husband to attend the same university if she were to go to medical school. "I'm not trying to be a Pollyanna; I've taken a lot of twists and turns in my life anyway."

The twists and turns have brought prestige and honor: She's president of Sigma Xi, the international scientific research society; past president of the American Society for Microbiology; president of the International Union of Microbiological Societies; a member of the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame; the first woman elected to the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington . . . the list goes on and on.

And among her accomplishments, she is quick to list her pride in her two daughters, Alison and Stacie, both now in their 20s, and both actively pursuing scientific careers of their own.


But there is one goal Rita Colwell hasn't had time yet to really pin down. In college she took a yearlong detour from science to study creative writing, and she nurtures an ambition to write a novel.

"I shall finish my career by writing a novel," she said, no doubt at all in her voice. "I'm already sketching it out."

The subject? What else could it be? "I'll write," said Dr. Colwell, "about a woman scientist."


Born: Nov. 23, 1934, in Beverly, Mass.

Education: B.S., Purdue University, 1956; M.S., Purdue University, 1958; Ph.D., University of Washington, 1961.


Family: Married to Jack H. Colwell, May 31, 1956. Two daughters: Alison, 28; Stacie, 25.

Current home: Bethesda.

Current positions: President, Maryland Biotechnology Institute, University of Maryland; president of the board, Christopher Columbus Center of Marine Research and Exploration; professor microbiology, University of Maryland.

Past positions (partial listing): Vice president for academic affairs, University of Maryland (1983-1987); director, University of Maryland Sea Grant College (1977-1983); assistant and associate professor of biology, Georgetown University (1964-1972); guest scientist, National Research Council of Canada (1961-1963).

Feelings about U.S. competition with the Japanese in biotechnology: "Some people look on it as an intense competition, but I think we're beyond that now because the Japanese simply have a lot more money to invest than we do. I think the smartest thing we can do is not to Japan-bash but to figure out constructive ways of cooperating together."

Recipe for relaxation: "I spend Sunday mornings puttering around talking to my plants. They obviously love it because they're thriving."