Describe how your professional career and/or your personal experience) relate to water. Have you used space technologies to study water? If so, how did you first get in touch with space technologies?

My career has been devoted to providing safe water to residents of rural areas and especially in developing countries. The work has been done with a focus on cholera, the causative agent of which is Vibrio cholerae, an environmental bacterium. The discovery that my team and I made was that Vibrio cholerae is a natural resident of aquatic systems throughout the world. We determined those environmental parameters related to growth of the bacterium and its proliferation in the environment. We were able to link rapid growth of the bacterium in environmental waters to elevated temperature, notably higher temperatures occurring with climate change, and also other factors such as salinity and hydrography of ecological systems. We developed a model that employs satellite sensing and this work began in 1985, with publication of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (US) of environmental parameters, namely chlorophyll, temperature, and sea surface height. This allowed us to correlate these environmental factors with seasonality of outbreaks of cholera in Bangladesh, in the villages neighbouring the Bay of Bengal.

Prof. Colwell and her colleague JK, 1979 in Bangladesh
Prof. Colwell and her colleague JK, 1979 in Bangladesh


Thus, I was first involved with NASA in 1980, developing the early cholera model in 1985 continuing to the present with more sophisticated models.  The early work was done with NASA Ames, and subsequently with NASA Greenbelt, Maryland.

My interest in water, oceanography, and global health derives from my graduate studies at the University of Washington where I did my doctoral thesis on Marine Microbiology, becoming expert in Vibrio species, which are ubiquitous in coastal and open ocean water. Several species of the genus Vibrio are pathogenic for humans, notoriously is Vibrio cholerae. The inspiration to work on water and health derives from discovering the presence of vibrios in the Chesapeake Bay during microbiology studies in the 1960s, subsequently discovering the relationship of vibrios, particularly Vibrio cholerae, with zooplankton, namely and predominantly, the copepod. The research that continued thereafter focused on environmental parameters associated with growth, proliferation, and dispersion of vibrios, specifically Vibrio cholerae, in water. What is very exciting in this work is that this fundamental scientific research culminated in the ability to provide a public health solution for inhabitants of remote villages of Bangladesh where the water is untreated. We were able to show that by simple filtration of water, using sari cloth filters affordable to every villager, particularly women who are the primary providers of water and who prepare meals for their families, simple filtration could be used to remove plankton and particulate matter, hence the majority of cholera bacteria because those bacteria are part of the natural microbial flora of zooplankton copepods. Since cholera is dose dependent, approximately a million cholera bacteria per millilitre represents an infectious dose for a case of cholera. By reducing the numbers of cholera bacteria in the water by sari cloth filtration, we were able to reduce the incidence of cholera in those Bangladesh villages roughly 50%.

Could you tell us about your current work, your latest project or your proudest professional moment?

With respect to current work, what is most exciting is the capability to assist those populations in countries like Yemen by early prediction of the risk of cholera and to determine the geographical location in the country where risk is highest. This allows agencies like DFID of the UK and UNICEF to mobilize health officials and supplies to areas of high risk and thereby maximize the capability for preventing or reducing incidence of the disease.

What do you need to innovate?

The current need is to extend this research capability and practical application to countries of Africa where cholera is now of the highest incidence. What is needed to innovate is to obtain ground truth measurements, that is to be able to collect water samples at the time of high risk of cholera, and to correlate presence of cholera bacteria with the agent causing cases at the time of outbreaks. This requires cooperation with meteorological departments of those countries to provide data on water, weather, and climate.

What do you think is poorly understood or unresolved at the nexus of water and health? Why is this so? How do you believe space technologies add value?

What is not yet really widely known is the proven connection of cholera bacteria and the environment. Therefore if the capability of being able to determine risk of cholera and risk to public health, and prevent outbreaks of cholera were made known to public health workers, we would be able to mobilize public health personnel to move supplies and service to where risk is highest and public health intervention is needed the most.

What do you see as the main conflicts (of analysis, priority, or value) among those who research water (and space technologies) or work with water (and space technologies)?

The difficulty at the present time is that it is not understood how effective the use of sensors in satellites and remote analysis by satellites is for prediction of the risk of water borne diseases. Cholera is a paradigm for water borne diseases, particularly acute diarrhoea, but the model also is applicable to diseases such as zika, malaria, and other diseases that are vector transmitted.

As a Director of the National Science Foundation of the U.S. you have made clear that an educated society is crucial for development. Furthermore, you are a proponent of increasing the number of women and minorities in science and engineering. If there is anything you would like to share with an audience of professionals and practitioners, the young ones, those representing minorities of any kind, those from developing countries, proponents of global health, and those working there, where space technology, water research and health meet, what would it be?

As Director of the National Science Foundation, I was able to introduce new programs in  education, particularly STEM related education at all levels, from elementary education to post graduate. A literate public in an era of technology is critical. Inclusion of women and the underrepresented in science and engineering is very important and critical for national stability, a strong economy, and national security. If a public is healthy and literate the nation will thrive and its citizens will prosper. Thus, increasing the number of women and minorities in science and engineering are important aims, which are shared with  Space4Water Portal.

The next generation, including women and minorities of any kind in all countries developed and developing, need to participate in supporting global health, space technology, water research, and climate change. These intersect and by taking advantage of all dimensions of these in interdisciplinary challenges, we can significantly improve global health and the national welfare.