Health Scientist and Former ORISE Fellow Relishes Mentor Role Meet Sara Wolicki


Sara Wolicki uses data science to bridge the gap between public health science and practice. Photo Credit: P. Villa Photo.

Directly out of undergrad, Sara Wolicki worked as an accountant at a Vermont ski resort. She loved working with numbers and enjoyed the time with her coworkers, but something was missing. Wolicki found that missing piece in the field of public health - epidemiology and evaluation specifically - and never turned back. She received a Master of Public Health from the University of South Florida in 2015, fully transitioning from the business world to a STEM field.

In 2015, Wolicki started a fellowship at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and after a few years, connected with a colleague that told her about the ORISE program. She interviewed and accepted the role and was on the team as an ORISE fellow for three years.

The CDC Research Participation Programs are educational and training programs designed to provide students, recent graduates and university faculty opportunities to participate in project-specific CDC research, current public health research and developmental activities.

Now a health scientist with the CDC’s Injury Center in the Division of Injury Prevention, Wolicki’s responsibilities include data management, program evaluation, and information dissemination; all with the ultimate goal of helping to narrow the gap between research and practice.

“I am an applied scientist and have a lot of variety in my work but everything I do relates back to closing the research-to-practice gap,” she says. Wolicki accomplishes this by rooting all of her work in community-based, participatory methods. “In business school, I learned the importance of knowing my customer. I still center myself on all projects by thinking about who is my ultimate customer for this work and trying to ensure it meets their needs.”

As an accountant, Wolicki also performed data analysis and report writing work. However, she was missing the “so what” factor that her CDC role provides. “I love the variety of my role now. Not only do I get to do the analysis, now I share the information via abstracts, manuscripts, white papers, panel presentations, blogs, infographics, etc.” She gets to find out what works and what doesn’t for public health professionals, and Wolicki loves leveraging CDC resources for public health support.


CDC Mentor Sara Wolicki pictured with her current ORISE Fellow, Christiana Ziworitin-Ogola. Photo Credit: Sara Wolicki

In addition to her regular duties, Wolicki has stepped into the mentor role for current ORISE fellows, a position she once admired as a fellow herself.

“I had amazing mentors as a fellow at CDC,” Wolicki says. “I learned so much from them and I want to make sure I pay that forward as a mentor now.”

Wolicki remembers a time when a candid conversation with her mentor affected her career path. She was called into her mentor’s office and told that perhaps she had exceeded the learning potential of her current fellowship.

“At first I was heartbroken because I loved my fellowship,” Wolicki says. “But after a few weeks of processing what he said, I realized he was pushing me to my next step.” Fellowships don’t last forever, and his words of encouragement allowed Wolicki to search for her next opportunity.

This mentor also encouraged Wolicki to talk about her job search and helped her find a good fit for her next role. “He and I worked really well together, and he had been at CDC for over 20 years, so he knew about the organization’s culture and which groups would be a good fit for my working style,” she says.

Wolicki remembers this conversation as key for her taking the next step. “If he had not prompted me,” she says, “I don’t know if I would have had the courage to ask for help. This conversation opened the door, even though it was hard to hear at the time.”

Wolicki is relishing her new role as a mentor and wants to provide the same level of encouragement and support for her ORISE fellow. “As a mentor, I want to encourage candid career conversations,” she relays. “I see my role as helping my mentee get as much out of the fellowship as possible; setting them up for success in whatever their next step is.”

The CDC Research Participation Program is managed by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) under an agreement between CDC and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.