Rice biochemist honored by biophysical society

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Rice biochemist honored by biophysical society
Olson’s dedication to students recognized with Emily M. Gray Award

Rice biochemist John Olson is the winner of this year’s Emily M. Gray Award from the Biophysical Society. The award is the international professional organization’s top award for education and outreach.

Olson, the Dorothy and Ralph Looney Professor of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, has won five teaching awards at Rice, including three George R. Brown Awards. He’s taught one of Rice’s largest biosciences courses, the junior-level BIOS 301, every fall since 1975 – except for the three years he served as department chair in the mid-1980s. The course is required for all biosciences majors and has a current annual enrollment of about 200. In addition, Olson has taught BIOS 352, physical chemistry for biosciences, each spring since 1988, the year that many of this year’s incoming freshmen were born.

"Professor Olson is an exceptional teacher and mentor," said Kathleen Matthews, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. "He cares deeply about students and spends tremendous time and energy in providing state-of-the-art lectures and experiences for students in his classes. He also is a wonderful mentor in his laboratory, engaging undergraduates as well as graduate students in his research efforts. I believe that it would not be possible to identify a more worthy recipient of the Emily Gray Award!"

In addition to his teaching, Olson was recognized for his mentoring. Since arriving at Rice in 1973, he has advised 22 Ph.D. graduates and is currently mentoring four doctoral candidates. In addition, 28 other graduate students from Rice and other leading universities around the world have carried out significant portions of their thesis work in his laboratory. He has also mentored 40 undergraduate researchers and interns – all but three of whom have gone on to pursue careers in science or medicine.

"I was both surprised and humbled to be selected for the 2007 Emily M. Gray Award," Olson said. "Emily was the Executive Director of the Biophysical Society when I arrived at Rice in the 1970s, and she worked very hard for 25 years to create scholarships, educational programs and travel awards for graduate students and young faculty. It is nice to be recognized for being in the ‘trenches,’ teaching the ‘hard-core’ courses in biochemistry and physical chemistry and running predoctoral training programs."

Olson said his service as director of large NIH-sponsored graduate student training programs – like the Houston Area Molecular Biophysics Predoctoral (HAMBP) Training Grant program – likely played a role in his winning the Gray Award. HAMBP provides fellowships for students from Rice, Baylor College of Medicine, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Houston, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, and the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston.

"Part of this award should be shared with the others who started the HAMBP Training Grant program in 1986, including Graham Palmer and Kathy Matthews at Rice, Finn Wold at UT Medical School at Houston, Flo Quiocho at Baylor College of Medicine, Monte Pettitt at the University of Houston and many others," Olson said. "HAMBP was one of, if not the first successful inter-institutional graduate training grant in the U.S., it has served as a model for many other NIH- and NSF-sponsored predoctoral fellowship programs, and it is still going strong after 20 years."

As winner of this year’s Emily M. Gray Award, Olson will present the annual keynote address at the student symposium at the society’s annual meeting next March in Baltimore.

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