April 17, 2002

NSF Director Talks on Biodiversity

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Rita Colwell ’60, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), spoke on the role of biocomplexity in environmental science in the coming century last night in a lecture titled, “Biocomplexity in the Environment: A 21st Century Odyssey.”

“A new synthesis is emerging, one that draws on major advances across the disciplines [and] uses our new tools of information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology to develop a robust and predictive environmental science,” she said.

Colwell, the 2002 Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecturer, added, “I [came] to speak about the promise of environmental science in the 21st century.”

The lecture was sponsored by the Cornell Center for the Environment and was presented at the David L. Call Alumni Auditorium in Kennedy Hall.

Colwell drew on examples from microbiology and ecology to illustrate biocomplexity.

In her own research on cholera, she found that the causal bacterium was vectored by a marine copepod and that outbreaks of the disease in impoverished nations could be predicted by changes in ocean levels and temperatures.

Other examples included the similarities between the shape of hurricanes, galaxies and orbiting stars, the relationship between size and metabolic rate of living things from mitochondria to elephants and the emergence of infectious diseases due to global climate change in areas previously inaccessible to them.

“Understanding demands observing at multiple scales. Complexity principles emerge at various levels whether studying a cell or an ecosystem. These features appear in systems as diverse as the atmosphere and the basic functions of the human brain,” she said.

Finding such patterns allows scientists to predict the effects of natural phenomena of great importance, such as global warming.

“Prediction is key — to foretell events today, we attempt to read not tea leaves but the messages of complexity. Biocomplexity lets us take the broader view and new technologies help us to do so. When we’re able to predict outcomes, our options are dramatically increased,” she explained.

Colwell also discussed a marine bacterium called Trichodesmia.

This microorganism removes atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and stores it in the ocean. Colwell wondered how changing environmental conditions will affect this regulator of global ecology.

“It’s very interesting how you can trace from the microscopic to the planetary in not too many steps,” Colwell observed of this relationship.

She also noted the role humans have in biocomplexity.

“The ozone hole which now appears over Antarctica every year is a reminder that the cumulative effect of billions of individuals’ human actions can have far-reaching consequences, even though they’re unintentional,” she said.

Colwell emphasized the importance of basic research in producing solutions to current environmental problems, ranging from nuclear waste to emerging infectious diseases. As an example, she pointed to recent research conducted on microbes in abandoned mines, which could lead to useful information on bioremediation.

Colwell also saw much potential in using microorganisms as monitors of the environment.

“These minute organisms may very well be the new canaries in the mineshaft, giving us forewarning of subtle environmental changes, from the local to the global.”

Colwell concluded by reiterating her belief that biocomplexity will be key to great advances in science during the 21st century.

“Biocomplexity is the lens that brings into focus the larger picture of our planet,” she said.

After the lecture she answered questions from the audience on topics ranging from the source of NSF funding (“taxpayers’ dollars”) to Colwell’s opinion on hazardous waste disposal (“the solution lies in the technology that created the problems”).

Prof. Nelson Hairston, ecology and evolutionary biology, is involved in organizing a biocomplexity initiative at Cornell. He commented on her speech at the reception following the lecture.

“It’s really applicable to the biocomplexity initiative at Cornell. We’re fairly close to her mark in terms of her vision of what biocomplexity is, which is good because she’s a great intellect and because she’s got the money,” he said.

He also noted he was a bit surprised at the absence of references to the importance of evolution in her speech.

Assistant Prof. Jeb Sparks, ecology and evolutionary biology, also gave his opinion on Colwell’s lecture.

“She’s exactly right on — the time of integration is what’s really coming and she’s identified that as a priority for NSF,” he said.

He also commented on the practical application of her initiatives for environmental scientists.

“In the past it’s been difficult from a funding point of view and a technology point of view to find multiple researchers from different areas of science working on similar problems. But now with these biocomplexity initiatives it enables these people to come together to answer a single question.”

In an interview after the lecture, Colwell expressed her delight in the opportunities her job has given her in the four years she has been director.

“The science and engineering have been great!” she said, recounting her experiences in a submarine which traveled to the bottom of sea, landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and attending a dedication in Chile for a telescope.

Archived article by David Hillis