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Meet Your Mentor: Biology Instructor Henry Olson

Picture of campus

May 25, 2017

By Tori Flores, Public Information Office Work Study

Meet South Seattle College instructor, Henry Olson. Henry grew up in Portland, Oregon until the age of ten when he moved to Ireland for three years before moving back to the states. After graduating from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia, Henry found himself working in a lab where he screened drug compounds against cancer cells. From there, he was accepted into the University of Washington’s biochemistry program and went to work on a genetic engineering project. Flash forward to five years later and he has made contributions to his field, but above all else, “developed a love for teaching.” Henry has been teaching at South since the fall of 2016, and has taught Biology 160, 260, and 241.

I sat down with Henry to ask some questions about teaching at South and life in general.  Enjoy!

Q: What was your dream job growing up?

A: “That is a good and difficult question and it changed many times. I would say at one point I first wanted to be a professional soccer athlete, and then I wanted to be an engineer and build things because I really liked building things. When I got into high school and found that I really liked chemistry and so I thought maybe I would be a chemist.
I went to college and there I found that I really liked biochemistry, and I had an uncle who worked as a researcher. So at that point I thought I would be a researcher. So that’s when I went to grad school and I found that I actually really liked teaching. So my dream job growing up was nothing like what I wound up doing, but it was certainly an exciting journey.”

Q: What do you enjoy most about the students here at South?

A: “The students at South are extremely motivated and diverse. You get people coming from various cultures you get people coming at various age groups with vastly different experiences. And it’s rare to see that when I taught at UW, where there are a lot of smart, dedicated people but they come with a similar story, you know? And at South there’s so many different stories.

Students her strengthen the material by bringing their different experiences to the classroom. Like when we discuss the control of microbial growth. Food storage and food preparation this is how you control bacterial growth to stop bacteria from eating your food. Every culture has a different way that they’ve historically done this. Pickling is one of the best examples, if you go to Korea and you have kimchi. Kimchi is delicious but that’s a pickling process, fermenting is part of their culture. So it becomes fun to tie people’s backgrounds into the material.  It makes it relatable.”

Q: Do you feel like you’ve had an impact on the students that you’ve taught? If so, in what ways?

A: “I hope so, because I was always look at teaching as two jobs. You always have to present the material, but you’re also trying to teach people how to learn. And it goes back and forth. If someone’s taking non-major biology, they’re not going to be a biologist but you can still teach them how to think critically and how to design an experiment or spot shoddy logic later in life.

So while I hope people learn the subject that they’re in the class for, I also hope they can take something else away. Maybe a curiosity. Maybe it’s how to keep a good lab notebook. Maybe it’s just a lesson that life has so many different turns and twists.”

Q: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would you say?

A: “Keep an open mind, because you only think you know what you want to do. My family has a naval tradition, so at one point becoming a submarine captain seemed like such a cool idea. But life changes and it will rarely go like you plan. If you keep an open mind and just continue to make the best of every situation you’re in, then you will have lived a full and interesting life. Which is really all you can ask for.”

Q: What do you like to do outside of class?

A: “Weep until class starts again. No, no, no, one of the coolest parts about this job is that you have an opportunity to have a good work life balance. If it’s sunny out my wife and I will go on walks, we just moved to the Beacon Hill area so we’re still exploring it. If it’s windy we go sailing which is a lot of fun. No one else wants to be out on the water when it’s raining, but if you pop on a wetsuit and get out there and start flying around it’s a lot of fun. And you fall out of the boat enough times that it doesn’t really matter because you’re already soaked.”