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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Mark Olson

Nonconventional career track leads supramolecular chemist from Texas to China

by Emma Hiolski
August 30, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 35


Credit: Courtesy of Mark Olson
A photo of chenist Mark Olson holding a vial.
Credit: Courtesy of Mark Olson

Early science exposure


Mark A. Olson grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the youngest child by 18 years in his Mexican-Norwegian family. His mother was a nurse and his father was a middle school math and science teacher. “He was always quizzing me in the car,” Olson says of his father. “That was always a fun game to play with him.” By the time college was on the horizon, Olson wanted to become a pediatric cardiologist.


A moth to a flame


Olson started as a biology major at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, an undergraduate-only institution federally designated as Hispanic serving. One evening, glittering lights emanating from a darkened chemistry lab caught his eye. Upon learning the cost of the lights’ source—gas chromatography/mass spectrometry instruments—he thought, “Holy cow, this little box is that expensive?” Intrigued, Olson began working in that lab, mentored by Eugene and Fereshteh Billiot. “Once I was steered in the direction of chemistry, they were the ones who really catalyzed everything,” Olson says. He presented his research at national and international conferences and did a summer research project at the California Institute of Technology.

Sun to snow


Drawn by the warm Southern California climate, Olson began his doctoral work at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the lab of 2016 Nobel Laureate Fraser Stoddart. In late 2007, however, Stoddart’s lab moved to Northwestern University, just north of Chicago. Olson acclimated to the harsh midwestern winters and polished off his dissertation research in supramolecular chemistry a few years later.

Teacher-scholar philosophy


A photo of chemist Mark Olson working with undergraduates in front of a chemical safety hood at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.
Credit: Courtesy of Mark Olson

After completing his doctorate, Olson went straight to a faculty position at his alma mater, Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi. While it’s unconventional to skip a postdoc, Olson says it was a great decision for him. As a professor, he honed his lecturing and mentoring skills and directed an undergraduate research program. “I’m so grateful I had that experience,” Olson says. “It solidified the teacher-scholar aspect of what professorship should be.” wanted to focus more on expanding his research group.

Research abroad


A photo of chemist Mark Olson standing with his lab group at Tianjin University in China.
Credit: Courtesy of Mark Olson

In 2014, Olson secured a professorship at Tianjin University in China and received a Thousand Talents Plan designation from the Chinese government. He and his wife moved to China with their three children, taking only what they could carry in suitcases. Now he manages a lab, teaches chemistry courses in English, and conducts research in soft-matter supramolecular chemistry. The main differences from the U.S. are the cultural ones outside the lab, he says. But he still has time to quiz his kids the same way his father once quizzed him.

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