Rita Colwell's interests focus on global infectious diseases, water and health. Colwell developed an international network to address emerging infectious diseases and water issues, including safe drinking water for both the developed and developing world, in collaboration with Safe Water Network, headquartered in New York City.
She served as the 11th director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1998 to 2004. One of Colwell's major interests is K-12 science and mathematics education, graduate science and engineering education, and the increased participation of women and minorities in science and engineering.
She has held many advisory positions in the U.S. government, nonprofit science policy organizations, and private foundations, as well as in the international scientific research community. Colwell has authored or co-authored 19 books and more than 800 scientific publications. She produced the award-winning film, "Invisible Seas.” Colwell published a book in 2020, "A Lab of One's Own: One Woman's Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science.”
In addition to her appointment at UMD, Colwell is a Distinguished University Professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, senior advisor and chairman emeritus at Canon US Life Sciences, Inc., and president and chairman of CosmosID, Inc.