Centennial Story 8: Jeffrey Olsen (BS, 1981; PhD, 1999)

Bernie May (MS, 1975)

Returning to the UW after two years in the army, I completed my BS in the newly created major in Molecular Biology. During my last year, I attended a class in Fish Genetics taught by Bill Hershberger. Fred Allendorf (then an MS student) gave a guest lecture on the use of genetic data from allozyme electrophoresis to address questions in fisheries management. Figuratively “a lightbulb went off in my brain” during that lecture. I knew instantly I wanted to spend the rest of my career doing just that. Fred invited any of us who were interested to meet his mentor Fred Utter across the bridge at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

After walking the halls in trepidation at NMFS, I poked my head in to say hello to Allendorf and suddenly this guy burst out from behind a file cabinet, stuck out his hand, and introduced himself as Fred Utter.  I joined the two Freds and spent two intense years studying allozyme variation in Pacific salmon. Utter treated all new students as full professionals when they walked in the door.  You had his full respect from day 1. I was barely there when he took Allendorf and me on a road trip to California to attend a conference where I met a host of other giants using genetic data derived from allozyme electrophoresis.

Bernie May 1974

Utter and I taught several short courses in allozymes to graduate students from a variety of disciplines during the second year of my MS. Some of those students joined Utter (including Jim Seeb [PhD, 1987] and Stew Grant [PhD, 1981]), and others took that knowledge into careers in many other disciplines. Funding for my research came from the Washington Department of Fisheries; partnerships between state and federal management agencies and university geneticists became a pattern. I appealed and was granted permission to have Utter be chair of my MS committee, with Joe Felsenstein and Bill Hershberger as committee members. Utter had simplified how allozyme electrophoresis could be done. My MS thesis included a manual for his methods and was copied hundreds of times.

I spent two years as a technician at the University of Maine after which I joined Jim Wright at Penn State for my PhD, completing the circle from whence Hershberger had done his PhD and Allendorf had been an undergraduate. Following a 14-year stint at Cornell running an interdepartmental allozyme laboratory, I spent 20 wonderful years at UC Davis training dozens of graduate students using genetic data to answer many questions posed by state, federal, provincial, and tribal fisheries management agencies, primarily in California. My 40-plus professional years have witnessed genetic data becoming a standard tool in fisheries research and management, following the pioneering work of Dr. Fred Madison Utter and the many students he influenced over his career at NMFS and SAFS.

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