Science Alumni Spotlight: Brian Olson

September 28, 2022

Olson, an innovative educator, is pursuing his dream career at the County College of Morris.

Brian Olson headshot photo

Brian Olson (Ph.D. ‘22, Biochemistry) built his career on imagination and innovation while a student at the CUNY Graduate Center. Before graduating, he was already working in a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at the County College of Morris.

Olson is known for innovations in consumer product formulations, drug discovery, and education. His projects often involve collaborations that require diverse expertise among collaborators. He’s currently creating immersive experiences for environmental science courses and constructing a miniature dollhouse death scene for training students for death investigations in his forensic science course. The forensic science project follows the virtual reality death scenes created for his class that was featured on PBS/NJTV.

As a member of Professor Thomas Kurtzman’s (Biochemistry, Chemistry) lab, he authored a publication early in the pandemic that provided data to aid in the development of drugs against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID. Olson also conducts socially relevant research into the development of painkillers less likely to cause a drug overdose.

He credits his success in graduate school to Kurtzman, who provided guidance, advice, and support, and was committed to helping his graduate students follow their chosen careers.

Olson charted an unconventional career path. Having grown up in a small town in Arizona, he wanted to experience more of the world, so he moved to New York City to attend the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

“I’m a huge advocate for community colleges because these schools focus on teaching,” he said. “You can start at a community college and end up with a doctorate if you’re willing to work hard.” 

Learn more about the Ph.D. Program in Biochemistry

He urges students to find their passion and choose their future careers as early as possible. During his second year of graduate school, he decided on a career in teaching at a community college. Rather than follow an expected path, he spent the next several years teaching a variety of courses in several departments and across several institutions to maximize teaching experience that translated into notable experience and future opportunities. He volunteered for committees, attended teaching workshops, and applied for grants — anything expected of a professional educator. The result was a competitive curriculum vitae well before graduation. 

Olson advises graduate students to build their résumés or CVs long before graduation.

“All the time you’re in college, think about that future job,” he said. “Look for a CV or résumé template that fits the career you want and make your own CV for that career. Then look at the spots where you’re missing skills, techniques, experience, education, etc., and fill in the gaps. You should update your CV or résumé two to three times each semester while always searching for opportunities to improve your application. Speak to your adviser about your career goals as early as you can. Start applying for jobs two years before you graduate, land the interviews, and do your best. Doing this allowed me to bomb my first few interviews. When it really mattered, I knew what I needed to do and successfully interviewed for a tenure-track job before graduating from the Ph.D. program." 

To Olson, one of the great draws of CUNY is the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. “When you attend a CUNY, the world travels to you,” he said. “That’s the best part.” 

When he’s not developing innovations for science education, Olson loves to travel, especially to visit places like the Amazon rainforest and archaeological sites to see the wonders of ancient people.