Snapshots: A Medical Researcher

Augustana alumnus Dr. David Olson

Meet 2016 Alumni Achievement Award recipient Dr. David Olson '71, professor of obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and physiology at the University of Alberta. 

St. Paul, Minnesota, native Dr. David Olson followed in his grandmother’s and parents’ footsteps when he chose to attend Augustana. He left his home with marching orders that aligned with Augie’s motto: Enter to learn; leave to serve.

Those six words pack a lot of punch, Olson said.

“To me it means learn about yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, your passions and your abilities; learn how to think critically; learn to use information to see opportunities and needs; make good judgments; make a difference; and ... serve others.”

Olson graduated in 1971 with a major in biology and minor in chemistry.

After Augustana, Olson went to the University of Minnesota where he earned his master’s degree and then attended St. Louis University for his doctorate. His family then moved to London, Ontario, Canada, for his post-doctoral fellowship. It was here that Olson really sunk his teeth into the field of perinatology — the study of pregnancy, fetal development, birth and newborn health and development. He was the first basic scientist in the Pediatrics Department at Western University and he never looked back.

Today, Olson is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and physiology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. There, he was able to start a research center where most of his academic and scientific contributions have been made.

Looking back at his career, Olson counts achievements where he took the greatest risks as those that were the most valuable and served others the most. They were nearly always preceded by disappointments, he said, which over repetition taught him to take the risks that needed to be taken and to not be afraid of failure.

“Learning is about trying out options — those that you discover are not for you and those that are. It’s about engaging life, which frequently involves disappointments, but it also entails rebounding from them."

Dr. David Olson '71

“This is part of the territory involved with taking risks, and risk-taking is necessary for major advancement.”

For Olson, an average day involves moving projects along, from grant applications to planning international meetings to working on patents. Rewards, he said, are seeing students do well as they become independent, critical thinkers and knowing that the research he’s conducting is making a difference and improving women’s pregnancy health.

He believes his greatest professional accomplishment to be studying the relationship between chronic stress in women and its effect on preterm birth, which he started 10 years ago. His research is now providing an opportunity to work with his wife, Dr. Joanne Olson ’72, as part of an intervention study on the pregnant women who were evacuated from Fort McMurray, Alberta, in May 2016 due to the wildfires.

His greatest satisfaction is having lived a life of service and his wonderful, loving family, he said. He and his wife have two married daughters and three grandchildren. Olson’s father, Paul, was also an Alumni Achievement Award recipient.