Colwell stresses unity in international cholera fight

by Ashley Zuzek | 10/12/05 5:00am

Montgomery Fellow Rita Colwell touted the importance of global cooperation and interdisciplinary sciences in the fight against cholera during a speech Tuesday in Filene Auditorium.

Colwell is visiting Dartmouth through the Montgomery Endowment, which has brought a series of noted individuals to campus since 1977, including Bobby McFerrin and Pulitzer Prize winner Russell Baker.

Colwell, the former director of the National Science Foundation, has made great strides in battling the cholera epidemic that rages throughout much of Africa and Asia. She largely attributed her success in studying cholera to developing, what she termed, "a holistic approach to public health."

In doing so, Colwell said that international understanding of cholera has developed from a linear, reductionist approach into a better comprehension of the disease's full complexity.

"We need to consider a global approach to public health. We can no longer treat it as something that we deal with just in the United States," Colwell said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

"Infectious disease is a moving target -- as climate shifts, any disease with an environmental dependence, or vector, changes," she said.

Colwell discussed the impact of global climate change, citing El Nino as a particularly important environmental factor in the increase of disease worldwide. The spread of disease in numerous locations increased rapidly as global temperatures rose, causing the proliferation of the hantavirus in the American West, Chronic Wasting Disease in Colorado and tularemia in Sweden. Bangladesh, in particular, suffered from a large-scale, rapid increase in cholera outbreaks in 1997.

Colwell, along with her international colleagues, noted a connection between the warming of the seas and the outbreak of cholera.

"We were able to correlate sea surface temperature and sea surface height very directly with the number of Vibrio cholerae," Colwell said.

The combination of different disciplines came into play once scientists established a clear relationship between the growth of cholera-causing bacteria and environmental conditions,

Colwell and her colleagues determined that using old sari cloth was an efficient, cost-effective approach to filtering cholera-contaminated water.

Some potential subsidizers were concerned that men would not use the cloth, which is typically worn by women. A sociologist discovered in a survey, however, that the men had actually already been using old sari cloth to strain flies out of their beer.

This, Colwell said, was a true "example of interdisciplinary science."

Colwell, whose study included a variety of fields, including statistical mathematics and social behavioral sciences, stressed the importance of interdisciplinary science, or "hyphenated-science," during her six years as director of the NSF. She increased the funding for the NSF by 60 percent, largely because she encouraged the different disciplinary departments to cooperate in gaining funds.

Colwell also said she believes other disciplines are essential to educating the public, whom she said have roughly a junior-high level of knowledge about basic sciences.

"I genuinely feel that talented science writers are critical to the field," Colwell said. "The public doesn't understand the importance, excitement or contributions of science."

Given the chance, Colwell said she would also try to inform the public on the contributions of basic scientific research to political leadership and economics.

In the end, Colwell said her greatest success has been helping individual people.

"It's wonderful to be able to say that you have saved lives," Colwell said.

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