Rita Colwell in the lab.

The Undark Interview: A Conversation with Rita Colwell

Rita Colwell is a pioneering microbiologist whose work on cholera helped illuminate the interplay between the environment and public health. She was also the first woman to serve as director of the National Science Foundation, and is currently a Distinguished University Professor at both the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In her half-century-plus in the sciences, Colwell has also seen very clearly the array of obstacles confronted by women as they try to navigate a traditionally male world. (When she applied for a graduate fellowship in bacteriology, she says was told, “We don’t waste fellowships on women.”)

“A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science,” by Rita Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages).

Colwell’s new book, “A Lab of One’s Own,” co-authored with writer Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, documents much of what she has seen and heard over the years, from sexual harassment to the invisible structural obstacles placed in the way of women working in the sciences. (The book’s subtitle is “One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science.”)

Not long ago, women were discouraged from studying science at all; those who did pursue such studies were seen as oddities. Later, when the numbers of women earning science degrees began to rise, they found themselves receiving less funding than their male colleagues, and less likely to land a position as a professor or a lab director. (It wasn’t that long ago, Colwell recalls, when a grant application could be turned down because a man on the granting committee simply didn’t like women scientists.) But Colwell also found allies along the way, and her book is something of a celebration of what can be achieved when science strives for inclusivity.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UNDARK: Though sexism has a long history, you write that the 1950s and ’60s saw “unprecedented” levels of sexism in the sciences. What was going on at that time?

Rita Colwell: The attitude was, a woman worked in the home — period. A woman couldn’t even get a credit card in her own name; she had to have her husband, or her father, vouch for her. In general, the understanding was, if you were [a woman] interested in science, that was peculiar. It wasn’t unusual for women to go to college — but most did not go from there into any kind of work, unless it was nursing or teaching. It was a very limiting time, for women. A lot of this was unspoken; it was just sort of assumed.

UD: Regarding graduate education, you say that women were simply seen as “not worth investing in.” What does that mean?

RC: The expectation was that you would get married and have children. If you weren’t there, with your children, you were seen as a bad mother. You went to college to find a husband; that was the expectation.

UD: You point out that not only could one face obstacles for being a woman Ph.D. student, you could face a backlash if you supervised too many women Ph.D. students. What was that about?

RC: The assumption was that anyone who was really brilliant, with great ideas, would work for a male professor. So if you took women students, it was assumed they weren’t the best and the brightest. Having women students would mark you as “not serious”; your students were just going to get married, and you’re just wasting all this time.

UD: As you say, a lot of this was unspoken — but eventually there was solid data to quantify this discrimination. How did that come about?

RC: It was in the ‘90s that Nancy Hopkins at MIT carried out her now-famous experiment: She measured the labs, and discovered that the men had almost twice as much space; they also got the bulk of the research money. More women were entering these careers [in the sciences], but men got most of the funding and most of the space.

Later, Jo Handelsman did the experiment where they sent identical letters to male researchers [from recent graduates applying to be a lab manager], the only difference was that some were signed “John” and others were signed “Jennifer.” The question was, would you hire this person, and what would you pay them? Far fewer said they would hire the woman; and the salary they were prepared to offer was much, much lower.

But I’d like to emphasize one thing: Once I was able to break through, at each stage of my career, there was tremendous support. My father was very education-minded; it didn’t matter if you were a girl or a boy; everyone went to school. My husband, a physicist, was a fantastic supporter; we were married for 62 very happy years. And my Ph.D. supervisor, John Liston, was absolutely the best. He was a newcomer to the University of Washington, starting a new program in marine microbiology — so I ended up being the first graduate student with a Ph.D. in marine microbiology, possibly in the whole United States.

The assumption was that anyone who was really brilliant, with great ideas, would work for a male professor. So if you took women students, it was assumed they weren’t the best and the brightest.

UD: You’re known for your groundbreaking work on cholera, but it was also fascinating to read about your work investigating the 2001 anthrax attacks, in which a number of politicians and journalists were mailed packages containing the deadly substance in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. How did you end up on the front lines of that investigation?

RC: I was appointed [as director of the National Science Foundation] by Bill Clinton, and I served two years under Clinton and four under George W. Bush. In October or November [of 2001], we heard about anthrax attacks. I remember saying, “We’ve got to sequence that bacterium, or we’ll never know who did it.”

I had been working on an advisory board for the CIA, so I was able to call on some colleagues, and we formed an inter-agency group. We decided not to make the group official, so that we could keep it a secret. And we worked for five years on this classified project. And using molecular genetics, we tracked down the source. Now, we’ll never know whether the perpetrator was in fact Bruce Ivins, and if he worked alone, or with others. [Ivins died in 2008.] He was an anthrax microbiologist, and the source turned out to be in his lab.

UD: You were using a computer in the late 1950s, long before they became ubiquitous in the life sciences. Did you have a sense that computers would eventually impact every branch of science?

RC: At the University of Washington, I wrote a computer program — the first in the country, for bacteriology — using the old IBM 650, which has less power than the chip in your microwave oven. When I was working with that computer, I had to program it, and I didn’t know diddly. But in my husband’s lab, there was a postdoc named George Constabaris, who taught me. And there was another chap who was using the IBM to do pipe-fitting for the ships in Seattle harbor. He was programming how to cut and fit pipe most efficiently.

So it was clear to me that this was an amazing tool. I used the computer for taxonomic purposes, for identification — which now everybody does. It’s amusing — I used to give talks about species of bacteria, and people would yawn. But now the hotshots in Silicon Valley know the differences between different kinds of bacteria. It was clear to me that we had to have massive computation [in the sciences]. I was able to get into the NSF budget, over my term, $2 billion, for computation, for universities — to start building the internet railway, so to speak.

UD: So much has changed in science, and in the culture of science, over your career. Today, are you optimistic — or at least, more optimistic?

RC: I would say it’s cautious optimism. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next administration; it could be a disaster for women. I strongly encourage girls to go into science. I abhor the assumption that girls can’t do math; it’s absurd. Or that if you’re African American you can’t do math or you can’t do science — it’s crazy. There’s still sexism, which ranges from the criminal to the clueless. Like when someone comments to a woman scientist as she’s going up to the podium to give a talk, that she looks attractive. That’s the last thing you want to hear. You want to hear “That’s a great idea,” or “Can we collaborate on the next stage of this experiment?”

Dan Falk (@danfalk) is a science journalist based in Toronto and a senior contributor to Undark. His books include “The Science of Shakespeare” and “In Search of Time.”