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Tom Slezak takes science personally.

After more than three decades in the bioinformatics field, Tom Slezak has built up a substantial “Rolodex” of contacts. Tom has worked extensively with agencies like the National Science Foundation, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His involvement has taken many forms, including participating on grant review panels or planning committees, speaking at conferences, and chairing or serving on national advisory boards.

Tom’s many professional commitments add up to a rigorous and often unpredictable travel schedule. “I sometimes joke that I travel ‘too much,’” Tom says, “but the truth is that personal relationships are what science, and particularly science funding, is all about. You have to spend real time with people to earn their trust and respect. This means actual face-time, not Twitter.”

In 2012, he was asked to join a National Academy of Science standing committee chartered by the Department of Defense (DoD) to advise the DoD on biodefense issues. Committee members discuss a topic with experts from around the country and then meet with upper levels of DoD management to brief them on the issue at hand. “This direct involvement is the neatest thing about a position like this,” Tom observes. “We work at a strategic level and make sure that people who make policy are kept up to date with current technology.” Tom has previously served on two National Academy of Science panels focused on aspects of biosecurity.

As the associate program leader for informatics for the Global Security Program, Tom leads a “fantastic” team of multidisciplinary experts that is currently focused on studying the mechanisms of virulence and antibiotic resistance. One of the group’s most exciting and visible projects is the Lawrence Livermore Microbial Detection Array (LLMDA), a glass slide that has 388,000 DNA probes on it that help scientists identify all sequenced bacteria and viruses. Lab researchers have used the array to examine harbor seals and sea lions for potential microbial causes of unexplained deaths, and collaborators in Europe have used it to examine human samples for viral causes of diseases.

Tom could never have predicted his career path when he came to the Lab as a computer science undergraduate summer student at the University of San Francisco in the early 1970s upon the recommendation of a professor. There were no programming positions available, so Tom took a job analyzing the Lab’s telephone system. He was excited to learn that UC Davis had a satellite campus at LLNL with a master’s program in computer science, but soon after he started the degree program, his computer science adviser lost funding and took a position in biology. Tom found his career calling “quite by accident” when he wandered into his adviser’s new office and was fascinated by what he saw. Says Tom, “The intersection of computer science and biology is where science in this century is going to see the most progress. I’m lucky to have had a front row seat the last few decades and a chance to play a small role in getting it going.”