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Rita Colwell is the former director of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) — the first woman to hold that post — and a leader in cholera research. In her new book, A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science (written with Sharon Bertsch McGrayne), she opens up on one topic she hasn’t said much about publicly: her battle to improve the situation for women in science. “I reached an age and stage in my career where I can be as candid as I wish,” says Colwell, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland College Park. She spoke to Nature about discrimination, and how her experiences as a researcher and agency leader during the 2001 anthrax bioterror attacks can inform the response to the coronavirus pandemic.