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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Paula Olsiewski

This chemist made the leap into biotech, then entrepreneurship and beyond

by Emma Hiolski
November 1, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 44


Credit: Courtesy of Paula Olsiewski
Paula Olsiewski’s graduation photograph appears on the front page of the local newspaper in 1971.
Credit: Courtesy of Paula Olsiewski

Early love for chemistry

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.


Applying chemistry to biological problems

Credit: Charles Deber
Paula Olsiewski stands next to a fume hood in a chemistry laboratory.
Credit: Charles Deber


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.


From lunch to working in biotech


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.

Helping bridge the academia-industry divide


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.”

Connecting scientists to philanthropic research

Credit: Michael Frost
A portrait photograph of Paula Olsiewski.
Credit: Michael Frost


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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