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Researcher Awarded $1M From NASA to Develop Disease Forecasting Center and App

Rita Colwell’s Distinguished Career Culminates in Project Predicting and Preventing Cholera

By Maria Herd M.A. ’19

Rita Colwell portrait

NASA funds awarded to Distinguished University Professor Rita Colwell (left) will support the launch of a disease forecasting center at UMD that will help to predict outbreaks of cholera (below) and other deadly infections.

Rita Colwell photo by John T. Consoli; cholera photo by iStock

NASA has awarded $1 million to a renowned University of Maryland expert on cholera prevention and transmission to develop the first internet and app-based decision-making systems for infectious diseases, followed by a climate disease forecasting center.

The project led by Rita Colwell, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, will be the application and culmination of her five decades of research on the bacterial infection of the small intestine, typically spread through contaminated water. Known as the 19th century’s pandemic, cholera has killed hundreds of millions of people and still takes 130,000 lives every year, mostly in underdeveloped countries with poor sanitation or areas hit by natural disasters.

Colwell discovered that the source of Vibrio cholerae bacteria is water abundant with plankton, and that it can linger there between epidemics by entering a state of dormancy. Her discoveries helped establish a new field—bacterial zoonosis—and changed scientists’ understanding of how diseases can be transmitted from aquatic organisms to humans.

She also developed state-of-the art techniques using satellite images to predict outbreaks, so that countries with limited budgets can mobilize health care workers and resources to stop the disease. Through remote sensing, computational biology and genomics, Colwell’s scientific advancements have saved thousands of lives and improved public health on a global scale.

[With Quiet Resolve, a Scientist Who Changed the World’s Understanding of Cholera Stands Up to Her Field’s Sexism]

cholera

Now her life’s work will become digestible in one app, and lay the framework for the first climate-related disease forecasting center, a collaboration that will include NASA, the United Nations, NOAA, the United Kingdom and the University of Florida. It will be located at the University of Maryland.

“This project is truly exciting as it will provide a means of predicting the risk of epidemics on a global basis. The impact may well prove to be enormous as it will enable pre-emptive action, notably to save lives,” she said. “Our newer models to be developed may be able to predict the intensity of given outbreaks, a very important factor for public health intervention.”

Antarpreet Jutla, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida and Colwell’s co-principal investigator, said the $1 million award will support their long-term vision of predicting infectious diseases.

Leveraging his mathematical skills, her expertise in microbiology, and NASA’s satellite and weather data, Jutla and Colwell have over the past decade developed interactive maps for locations all over the world—the Chesapeake Bay, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Senegal, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Yemen—that can predict outbreaks with 90% accuracy.

Their sophisticated models are currently in use, with the latest prediction of an outbreak in war-torn Ukraine. Colwell also warns that “climate change is bringing cholera to new parts of the world, making this type of prediction system more important than ever before, especially because it provides an opportunity for early intervention.”

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