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Fall 2004
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Former Director of the National Science Foundation

Dr. Rita Colwell Shares Her Science of Cholera With Esri Users

Dr. Rita ColwellAs a marine microbiologist and epidemiologist, Dr. Rita Colwell has conducted research around the world and helped communities strive for better living conditions. As an educator and scientist, Colwell has committed herself to raising the level of instruction for her students, earning her 39 honorary degrees from 18 institutions. As a pioneer, Colwell embarked on a journey as the first woman and first biologist ever to become director of the National Science Federation. Through Colwell's extensive work in the polar regions, an area of Antarctica was named Colwell Massif. She has described the polar regions as the "planet's last frontiers that call for major exploration." In honor of her participation at the Twenty-fourth Annual Esri International User Conference, ArcNews presents a special section about science and GIS in Antarctica.

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Predicting cholera outbreaks in Bangladesh

Colwell took the conference audience on a voyage to Bangladesh as she described her work over the past 25 years to find solutions to the continuing cholera outbreaks that have plagued the people who live there. Hundreds of people are hospitalized every day in local hospitals because of the life threatening disease. She began by mentioning Dr. John Snow, a London physician; in 1854, he mapped the location of people infected with cholera to reveal a correlation between specific water pumps and incidents of the disease.

In a similar manner as Snow, Colwell used spatial analysis and the language of geography to understand cholera. By examining the relationships between weather, sea temperature, the population of copepods (shrimp-like microscopic organisms in which cholera bacteria naturally occur), and how people in Bangladesh live and interact with their environment, Colwell was able to consider multiple factors. click to enlargeHer analysis of collected data enabled her to devise a simple solution that has helped reduce seasonal cholera by nearly 50 percent. Filtering water with a folded piece of cloth, typically used in making women's clothing, reduced the number of copepods and other particles.

Despite the relevance of her find, Colwell still faced several obstacles. Bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and specialties, as well as being faced with resistance to her ideas and theories, Colwell continued her work of merging health and geography to create a new form of epidemiology that combines computer modeling, data sharing, and GIS. Colwell used her experience of overcoming obstacles to urge the audience, "Never, never give up. You must persevere."

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.

For more information, contact John Calkins, Esri-Denver (e-mail:, tel.: 303-449-7779, ext. 8234).

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