Like every other employee at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Paula Olsiewski, PhD ‘79, has a blue satchel stowed in her office on the 25th floor of New York City’s Rockefeller Center. The bag, one element of the foundation’s preparedness plan against a bioterrorism attack, contains a gas mask, filter mask, radio, water bottle, flashlight, whistle, and map marked with rendezvous points across Manhattan.“I hope we’ll never need to use the bag,” she says, “but we need to be prepared.”
If anyone knows what it means to be prepared, it’s Olsiewski. Since 2000 she has been director of the bioterrorism program at the Sloan Foundation, a nonprofit institution established in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan when he was president of General Motors. (MIT Sloan School of Management is also named after the philanthropist.) As program director, Olsiewski identifies areas for study, finds researchers to carry out the investigations, works with the research teams to develop their programs, and helps allocate a portion of the $55 million that annually funds programs involving science, technology, workplace issues, and education for scientific and technical careers. By funding research projects and sponsoring conferences on civilian preparedness and defense against bioterrorism, Olsiewski serves as a bridge connecting agencies focused on public safety, public health, and homeland security. So far she has awarded more than $9 million to projects that address bioterrorism. “My role is purely catalytic,” she explains.
In 2000 when the Sloan Foundation’s president, Ralph Gomory, made defense against bioterrorism one of the organization’s priorities, he recruited Olsiewski, then president of Neo Tech, a technology consulting firm, to head the program. Since joining the foundation, Olsiewski has emerged as a national player on an issue of growing concern to U.S. residents anxious about lethal organisms such as smallpox and anthrax.
When Olsiewski came on board, she was by no means an expert in bioterrorism. She had worked as a biochemist in the biotech industry for 18 years, first at Enzo Biochem, a company that focuses on the manipulation of nucleic acids for therapeutic and diagnostic products for the herpes simplex virus. Subsequently, she went to Neo Tech, where she assessed technology for her clients, whom she represented before investment bankers and state economic-development officials. Steeping herself in the literature about bioterrorism and speaking with international experts, she quickly learned about the possible impact of deadly biological agents unleashed on an unprepared nation.