Growing up in Stoughton, Mass., Paula J. Olsiewski grew salt and sugar crystals and did other home experiments with a Gilbert chemistry set. In high school, two years of chemistry courses with a great instructor sealed her love for the lab. “He gave us interesting and challenging experiments, and I have fond memories of staying after school to complete them.” Olsiewski was valedictorian of her high school class and delivered an impassioned graduation speech about equal rights for women, earning a front page appearance in the local newspaper.
Olsiewski majored in chemistry at Yale University, starting just two years after the university became coed. “I always liked a challenge,” she says. She landed a work-study job doing organic synthesis at Yale, but it was her summer job synthesizing peptides with Elkan Blout at Harvard Medical School (left, '74) that sparked her interest in biological chemistry. “I really loved chemistry, but I thought it would be fun to work on biological problems,” she says. For her Ph.D., Olsiewski studied enzymatic reactions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she was one of only 10 women in a class of 50 students.
During her postdoc at New York University, Olsiewski went to lunch with a colleague and his friends who worked for a small biotech company. “Life is a job interview, and I always try to be open to new opportunities,” she says. “I can never know too many people.” Six months later, Olsiewski was working for that company, Enzo Biochem. She learned how to develop therapeutic and diagnostic products, run clinical trials, and navigate the process of U.S. Food & Drug Administration approval. She worked her way up to become vice president of product development.
After leaving Enzo, Olsiewski started a consulting practice to connect technology developers with academic and government research. The large professional network she’d cultivated helped her find work during what she calls her “entrepreneurial phase.” For one client, she directed the New York City Biotechnology Initiative, fostering relationships between academia and industry to promote regional biotech company growth. “That was a lot of fun being a matchmaker there.”
Olsiewski continues to play matchmaker for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where she’s been a program director for 17 years. She conceives of cutting-edge research programs, then searches for scientists to carry them out. For 10 years, Olsiewski ran a biosecurity program to fund research to reduce the threat of bioterrorism. In 2016, she created the Chemistry of Indoor Environments program to elucidate the chemistry taking place where people live, work, and play. “That brought me back to chemistry.”
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