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.
Tara O’Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, says that in the late 1990s, Hopkins officials had considered closing that center for lack of funding. Then in the fall of 2000, the trustees of the Sloan Foundation awarded the center $3.5 million-the foundation’s first bioterrorism grant. Shortly thereafter Olsiewski was hired, and she has monitored that project ever since.
“She’s a great project director-smart, savvy, innovative, and realistic,” says O’Toole. “It’s extremely important to have scientists involved in this issue. It’s not just another national security problem.”
In June 2001 Olsiewski awarded her first grant, to the Center for Law and the Public’s Health at Georgetown University and Johns Hopkins University, where professors had been charged with updating state public-health laws to deal with bioterrorism. Four months later, anthrax-laced letters felled U.S. residents in Florida, New York City, and Washington, DC.
“It was her vision that the country needed legal preparedness for bioterrorism, even before September 11,” says Georgetown law professor Lawrence Gostin. “She is a marvel at pulling together the necessary resources.”
After the anthrax spores showed up, the law center suddenly found itself working on issues of immediate national importance. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked the center to come up with model legislation for states within weeks, not years as originally planned. The model, which authorizes states to enforce quarantines, vaccinate people, and seize and destroy property without offering compensation, has been used by 36 states to evaluate their public health laws. And already, 16 states have adopted all or part of the model.
With a smallpox vaccination initiative under national consideration and the anthrax crimes of 2001 still unsolved, Olsiewski’s work remains on the front lines. In one Sloan-funded project, the Rand Corporation is developing a report that will detail practical steps to guide civilians’ response to a bioterrorism attack.
In another project, researchers are developing software that will help city officials detect the presence of pathogens in the environment. The software will help monitor symptoms of illnesses within the population in order to identify patterns that indicate an attack. Scientists have yet to develop a way to observe the presence of lethal organisms in the air, so symptoms of illness provide the only warning. To track the development of unusual patterns, New York City has set up a computer reporting system that monitors emergency room visits, ambulance calls, and sales of over-the-counter medication.
Sloan recently funded a project of New York City’s Department of Public Health, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the University of Connecticut that will take that city’s system and develop software that can be easily used elsewhere. Olsiewski notes that the threat of bioterrorism is real and puts every U.S. resident at risk. “If you are worried about bioterrorism, you need something in place,” Olsiewski says. “All we have now are people reporting their symptoms. We are the canaries in the coal mine.”