Colwell Named a Fellow in the National Academy of Inventors

Tue Dec 13, 2016

Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS), was just named a Fellow in the National Academy of Inventors (NAI).

This honor recognizes academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in developing outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.

Colwell’s research and applied outreach have played a fundamental role in reducing the incidence and impact of cholera around the world.

“Rita Colwell’s tireless dedication toward improving human health by using computational resources is an inspiration to the entire UMIACS research community. We are very proud to call her a colleague,” says Mihai Pop, professor of computer science and interim director of UMIACS.

Technological innovations have played an important role in Colwell’s career. She was the first scientist to write a computer program that could identify bacteria, and her groundbreaking use of computational tools to study biology helped establish the field of Bioinformatics, a key area of scientific study today.

Colwell’s efforts to track and predict outbreaks of cholera also led to her pioneering use of satellite imaging. Working with imagery for the Bay of Bengal, she demonstrated that warmer surface ocean temperatures stimulate the growth of, and directly lead to, an increase in the number of cholera cases. This discovery led her to conclude that climate (on a macroscale) has significant impacts on certain human diseases, notably those transmitted by vectors like mosquitoes or zooplankton. Colwell was thus one of the first scientists not only to employ remote sensing for disease prediction, but also to recognize the impact of climate change on the waterborne microbial world.

Colwell is named on more than a dozen U.S. patents, most of them involving computational biology. In 2008, she founded the company CosmosID, which uses next-generation DNA sequencing to advance new discoveries in microbiome research. She is also a senior adviser and chairman emeritus at Canon U.S. Life Sciences Inc.

Colwell is the second member of UMIACS to earn recognition from the NAI; Distinguished University Professor of computer science Ben Shneiderman was named an NAI Fellow in 2015.

Colwell will be officially honored at a ceremony and banquet on April 6, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. With the election of the 2016 class, there are now 757 NAI Fellows, representing 229 research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutes.

Go here to see a video overview of Colwell’s research involving cholera.