‘We’re in one of the cataclysmic times of change’: first female NSF director on discrimination and COVID-19

One-time head of the US National Science Foundation Rita Colwell speaks out on sexism — and how her experiences as a leader in science can inform pandemic response.

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Two opposing protesters wearing face masks argue during a demonstration, one wears an American flag shirt

Protests have erupted in the US and beyond over issues such as racism and COVID-19 shutdowns.Credit: Frederic J. Brown/AFP /Getty

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.

You’ve been a scientist since the 1950s. What’s changed, and what hasn’t, regarding sexism in science?

When I was an undergraduate, I went to the department chairman to ask for a fellowship to allow me to do a master’s. I was told, quite bluntly, that they didn’t waste fellowships on women. I don’t think any chair, dean or faculty member would say that today. It would probably be nuanced, to the effect of, “we don’t have any available”. That makes it less obvious, and I'm not so sure less hurtful — because it still deflects the career path.

What do you want early-career female scientists to take away from your book?

That you’re not alone. Your experiences that you endure are shared. Like other women, I assumed the problems I have had were some sort of problem of mine. But in fact, it's really the system.

Rita Colwell posing for a portrait

Rita Colwell served as director of the US National Science Foundation from 1998 to 2004.Credit: Thomas Henrikson

What should institutions do to improve the situation for women?

Agencies, particularly funding agencies, can have a tremendous effect. The NSF has really been a leader, tracing back to when Mary Clutter, who was an assistant director, forcibly mandated [in 1989] that committees and scientific meetings that received funding had to have female representatives on the committee and female speakers at the meeting.

NIH [the US National Institutes of Health] was participating a little more grudgingly. It seems to be moving a bit more now, but not as swiftly as some of us maybe would wish. But at least it is doing internal review, and found that harassment and problems related to less-represented groups do exist. And it is slowly making changes as well.

Racism in science is also deeply entrenched. Why is it important to change that?

There’s tremendous talent distributed throughout the population, and the country needs all of it. It’s really important to draw from 100% of the population — and not 50% or less. The challenges we're facing right now are huge. We’re in one of the cataclysmic times of change.

In 2001, you helped to hunt down the source of the US anthrax attacks. What lessons from that could help scientists investigating COVID-19?

The anthrax episode was a fantastic experience showing patriotic cooperation among agencies and among branches of Congress. Because I was director of the NSF, I was able to have a leadership role, and because I was a microbiologist, I was poised to recognize immediately that we had to sequence the bacterium that had been sent out as a bioweapon. I had a phone call with Tony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who was up to his ears in direct advice to the White House and the president — as he is today. The group met every week for an hour in a classified meeting. We had maybe 16 or 17 agencies represented.

The lesson was collaboration and cooperation. No single agency could solve the problem. There was shared trust and shared commitment, and no politics in any of our decisions. It would be very, very hard to do now. We have seen a political hardening. When a single perspective and a single direction are chosen, it neglects other parameters. When you have a good interdisciplinary approach, you can cover all of the potential aspects, and you're much, much more likely to succeed much more quickly. If we had been able to have an inter-agency, intergovernmental interaction straight away in January or February, I believe we would not have 150,000 COVID-19 deaths — and climbing — in the United States.

How has your laboratory changed its emphasis in response to COVID-19?

I have been working on cholera for my entire career. It is an aquatic bacterium distributed in the environment. Twenty years ago, we developed the use of satellite sensing to monitor environmental parameters that allowed us to track and predict cholera outbreaks. We’re modifying that model for COVID. It’s very interdisciplinary. That’s the power of understanding diversity — human, as well as environmental — and protecting both.

We’re also working with the state of Maryland, analysing samples from wastewater-treatment units [for traces of the virus]. It becomes an early-warning capability and a means by which strictures to maintain or control COVID-19 can be lifted.

What role should international scientific collaboration have in fighting the pandemic?

Diseases don’t carry passports, and they don’t behave like tourists clearing the border. It’s almost anti-human not to understand that we are a global society, and that the benefit of science — for example, vaccines — needs to be shared. And it needs to be shared empathetically in a way that makes it affordable for the poorest citizens of the world.

Again, it comes down to brains: 100% of the brains of the world are much, much more effective than a few percent of the brains of the world to solve a problem. We’re all in this together. I just wish that could be understood better.

Nature 584, 180 (2020)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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