High up near the rafters, Leah Freeman Sloan finds the perfect balance between challenge and reward. A few years ago, Sloan visited a gym that specializes in circus-themed arts — trapeze, hula hoops, and something new for her, aerial silks. Almost instantly, Sloan took a liking to scaling the long, ropelike strands of silk that hang from the ceiling, and now, she frequents the gym several times a week, getting an aerobic burst but also mental clarity. “It’s an amazing luxury to be able to tune out all of the notifications from devices going off around you,” she explained. “I have to stay focused on only one thing and be fully absorbed.” Sloan’s daytime routine also involves coordinating many moving parts while staying focused in the present. She’s currently on a special assignment working as a program manager for two Biosciences Area programs: the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), which focuses on developing biofuels from stored carbon in plants, and the Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU), which enables the commercialization of bio-based products.
Sloan studied English at the University of San Francisco (USF) and went on to explore a myriad of jobs: from cataloging incoming books and periodicals at the USF library and writing with a newspaper, to painting theatrical sets. “I always wanted to work somewhere that benefited the world instead of taking from it,” Sloan said.
Matching skills to problems
In 2014, a friend passed along a link to an open administrator position with the Energy Technologies Area at Berkeley Lab. For Sloan, working in a role that supports scientific research related to combating climate change seemed fulfilling on a personal level. And although she didn’t specialize in science, Sloan began to understand how her skills were essential to the program achieving its mission.
“When I was growing up, my science heroes were always this lone person, like Rachel Carson and Jacques Cousteau,” she said. “I didn’t think about how these people have huge teams. In reality, it’s all about team science.”
At JBEI, Sloan manages the organization and generation of a dashboard that represents all of the group’s research metrics — how many projects are running, who’s involved, and the progress of each experiment. The focus is on green energy and biofuel production for vehicles that can’t be made electric, like container ships and airplanes. To date, this program has produced nearly 1,023 publications and over 100 patents; Sloan is also responsible for tracking and maintaining a record of each accomplishment.
With the ABPDU, Sloan’s role is more externally focused. She spends a lot of her time onboarding collaborators interested in accessing the program’s resources. As a collaboration facility, the ABPDU works with partners around the world to deliver tools and expertise that help sustainability-focused research projects scale to meet market demands. Sloan’s contribution as a program manager with ample administration experience entails coordinating communications across the user community and ensuring that new collaborators are prepared as they embark on their research journey with the ABPDU.
‘The Lab needs all kinds’
The world of program management is newer to Sloan, but a natural fit for her skills. In 2016, Sloan, then a JBEI administrator, stepped up to help with the program’s funding renewal. “We had this massive proposal to get together for DOE in a limited time span,” she said. While on the project, Sloan began attending meetings with JBEI executives and understanding how the program functions at a higher level. “After that, people realized I was interested in that sort of thing and wanted to learn more.”
Sloan’s supervisor at the time, Nick Everson, encouraged her to continue exploring this new area of interest. Soon after, Sloan leveraged the Lab’s tuition reimbursement program and enrolled in a project management certificate course through UC Berkeley Extension. “It really helped me grow and understand how the whole [JBEI] program works, not just the administrative tasks,” she said.
Sloan’s current supervisor, Justin Heady, is also committed to her growth and she continues to take on new responsibilities at both JBEI and the ABPDU. More recently, Sloan became the librarian of the JBEI publications, she explained. This required her to do a major overhaul of the way that the list of over one thousand entries (and counting!) was named and organized.
For Sloan, it feels good to know her own strengths and how to match them up with a problem in the world that needs solving. “All of us have something to contribute to the scientific community, whether we’re a researcher or not,” she said. “The Lab needs all kinds of skills.”
Read other profiles in the Behind the Breakthroughs series.