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October - December 2004
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GIS Fosters a More Integrative Approach

Dr. Rita ColwellRespected scientist and educator Dr. Rita R. Colwell was the keynote speaker at this year's user conference. Colwell, a marine microbiologist and epidemiologist, has conducted research around the world, most notably in the polar regions. A past director of the National Science Foundation, she is the chairperson of Canon U.S. Life Science, Inc., and a distinguished professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. Colwell holds a bachelor's degree in bacteriology and a master's degree in genetics, both from Purdue University, and a doctorate in oceanography from the University of Washington as well as 39 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education.

She spoke to conference attendees about the importance of interdisciplinary work in science, engineering, and technology and the significance of research that is done at many levels and scales of measurement. "Geography is the original multidisciplinary field," she said. Previously, science used a reductive approach but better tools for recording and analyzing data, including GIS, have fostered a new approach to research that considers biocomplexity. "Biocomplexity is the study of the interactions between biological systems and the physical environment," said Colwell. Advances in computing are allowing scientists to pursue this more integrative approach to understanding the world.

Currently, Colwell is developing an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world. In particular, her work on cholera over the last 25 years has deeply affected her. She believes GIS can help improve the human condition by aiding the study of cholera. During her presentation, John Calkins of Esri demonstrated a GIS model using Colwell's data to show the projected incidence of cholera for a current outbreak of the disease in Bangladesh.

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