The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Bob Olson Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Mike Dicianna.

November 14, 2014


Robert Eldon Olson was born in 1940 in Thief River Falls, a small town in northern Minnesota. Olson's family lived there until he was six, at which point they moved to Minneapolis, where he grew up. As a boy, Olson was always interested in science, especially biology.

Olson attended Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota for his undergraduate work. He first became interested in parasitology at Concordia, while studying biology. After completing his bachelor's degree in 1962, he moved on to Montana State University, where he taught classes in fisheries and conducted master's research on the impact on fish of certain parasites. He completed his master's degree in zoology in 1964, then relocated to Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan to receive specialized training in parasitology. The following year, Olson returned to MSU to begin his Ph.D. program, studying the lifecycle of a relatively unknown parasite that infected trout. He received his doctorate degree three years later, in 1968.

Once finished at Montana State, Olson moved farther west to Newport, Oregon, taking a position as a resident research associate at what is now known as Hatfield Marine Science Center. When he arrived at Hatfield, which was then simply called the Marine Science Center, Olson began conducting work in a parasitology lab that had been established three years earlier by Ivan Pratt, a faculty member in the Oregon State University Zoology department.

Olson also became involved with teaching early on, when he helped to organize a class on marine symbiosis. Early classes were hampered by the need for students to travel back and forth between the Marine Science Center and OSU's main campus in Corvallis. This began to change in 1972, when the Marine Science Center's first residential building was built. In 1977, with the hire of Lavern Weber as director, the Center renewed its emphasis on developing its academic curriculum, and within a few years students were staying at Newport for an entire term, taking classes offered by both Fisheries and Wildlife, and Marine Biology. Olson led coursework in both departments, focusing on parasites and diseases in Fisheries and Wildlife and on marine birds in Marine Biology. Olson also changed departments shortly after Weber arrived, moving from Zoology to Fisheries and Wildlife.

Olson was likewise involved with teaching in the Seataqua Program. This collection of short courses on coastal topics was created by Don Giles, OSU's extension agent in charge of marine education for the public, but it was Olson who taught the first course, in 1972, on coastal birds. He continued to lead this course every year for the next fifteen years.

Starting in 1979, Olson began serving as the Marine Science Center's educational coordinator. In this, he administered the efforts of an array of professors teaching in the center's instructional programs, and was also instrumental in public outreach activities. Olson held this position in an unofficial capacity until 1985, when the post was formally established and he was hired to fill it. This job, as well as his own classroom teaching, filled most of Olson's professional time for the duration of his career. He remained Hatfield's educational coordinator until his retirement from OSU in the early 2000s.

Olson's scientific research was focused on parasitology and made extensive use of the fish disease laboratory at the Newport Aquaculture Laboratory, which was built in 1979. Beginning around that time, Olson also collaborated with the Salmon Disease Research Program, operated by OSU's Microbiology Department. Over the course of his career, he was likewise involved in certification work for private and public aquaculturists who needed their fish stock to be evaluated as disease-free before it could be sold. In 2008 Olson received an unusual though highly appropriate honor, when one of his graduate students from the mid-1970s discovered a new type of parasite and named it after him, trypanoplasma bobolsoni.