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Mentoring Fellows at the EPA: Q&A with Mike Slimak

Fellowship Experiences: Mentors & Supervisors

Michael Slimak, PhD, is the Associate Director of Ecology at the Environmental Protection Agency in the National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA), Office of Research and Development. He has been mentoring AAAS Fellows at the EPA for more than 20 years, along with the mentors of many Fellows.

One of the numerous Fellows that Mike has mentored is Jordan West, who was hired by NCEA after her fellowship and is now a senior ecologist for the Global Change Research Program. Jordan described Mike as having “a deep understanding of the valuable resource Fellows represent.” She explained, “His emphasis is on not just bringing people in to serve the EPA, but also to provide an enriching experience that will benefit them after their fellowship ends. This philosophy supported my own wonderful experience as a AAAS Fellow, and I strive to emulate this approach now that I am a mentor.”

Another former AAAS Fellow in NCEA, Jeff Albert, recalled Mike’s support for Fellows, “I remember him giving me pep talks in his office. Mike has amazing insight in the area of evidence-based climate change policy, and is deeply respected throughout the agency and the climate change community. Throughout my fellowship I was treated like a scientist in residence.”

Mike Slimak recently shared his insights on the affect AAAS Fellows have on their host offices, as well as his approach to mentoring Fellows to make the most of the experience.

How long have you been working with AAAS Fellows at the EPA, and how many Fellows have served in your office over the years?

I have been heavily involved with the AAAS Fellowships at the EPA since 1987, when I first joined the Office of Research and Development. At that time the fellowships at EPA were three-month, summer assignments. In 1996, the Office of Research and Development was hosting four or five AAAS Fellows. That was when the fellowships became a year-long experience at the EPA. Since then, there have been between one and five AAAS Fellows every year, for a total of about 30 in my office. Throughout that time, the high caliber of the AAAS Fellows has remained constant while administratively the program has evolved and improved.

NOTE: Since 1987, more than 150 AAAS Fellows have served in offices across the EPA.

How have you and your office benefited from hosting AAAS Fellows?

First, Fellows bring fresh perspectives on various topics, new ideas, and enthusiasm. Often they come to their fellowship naive to public policy, but that can be a good thing because they are not afraid to pursue their ideas.

In 1997, Susan Basso arrived from Harvard University with expertise related to climate change. With this knowledge, she was able to help Vice President Al Gore with the first national assessment on climate change. In 2010 we are forming a Biofuels Assessment Team and we are hosting AAAS Fellow Caroline Ridley, who will be able to contribute her expertise to this area. Both Susan and Caroline are examples of Science & Technology Policy Fellows bringing much needed excellence, understanding of the scientific method, and deep knowledge of subjects important to the EPA. In return for their contributions, they gain from us a policy perspective. It is a mutual, symbiotic relationship.

As a mentor, what practices work best for you?

What has worked best for me is close and frequent communication. I always knew what the AAAS Fellows were working on because I would have them give seminars on their projects to the full staff. It is also important for Fellows to get involved and work together with their mentors. While a mentor, I made the effort to take Fellows to as many important meetings as possible so that they could learn from direct observation.

The National Center for Environmental Assessment is a small office, and the AAAS Fellows become an integral part of the group. Fellows are not isolated or seen as different. This helps to make the fellowship a good experience for everyone. Over the years, the S&T Policy Fellowships have become one of the most significant ways we have brought in scientists and engineers who may ultimately be hired as EPA employees.

I have been both a mentor to the Fellows and a resource to other Fellows’ mentors. At the beginning of the fellowship year, all of the AAAS Fellows at EPA and their mentors meet regularly to share experiences and discuss what is working well. As the year progresses, mentors spend more time with their assigned AAAS Fellows. Although I no longer work directly with Fellows as much as I did in the past, I continue to guide mentors on strategies to make the fellowship a mutually beneficial experience.