Kathie L. Olsen, Ph.D., is the Founder and Managing Director of ScienceWorks, a consulting firm that helps academic institutions, educational coalitions, companies, and research entities create successful, well-supported science programs and projects.
ScienceWorks is the culmination of a distinguished career that began with Dr. Olsen’s significant research on the neural basis of behavior, and grew into leadership positions in major governmental and scientific agencies. Most recently as Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Federal Government’s premier organization for funding basic research, Dr. Olsen directed an annual budget of $6.5 billion, created major new initiatives, and served on key scientific organizations worldwide. At the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President, she was Associate Director for Science. There, she coordinated the Federal Government’s vast array of research agencies and integrated their activities with non-governmental, private sector, academic, and international partners to articulate and implement national and global strategies for dealing with the fundamental challenges of the 21st century. As Chief Scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Dr. Olsen was the primary link between NASA and the Nation’s science establishment, creating academic and agency partnerships and serving as the primary advisor on NASA science budgets. Earlier in her career she was Senior Staff Associate for the NSF’s Science and Technology Centers. She initially came to NSF after having taught and conducted research at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where she received her first National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 award while still in her 20s.
Because Dr. Olsen’s activities and successes span the panoply of modern research, she personally knows the challenges and opportunities inherent at every stage in the process, from working at the lab bench to making funding decisions at the highest levels. More details of that career are recorded in her professional vitae and lists of awards and honorary degrees, professional memberships, presentations, publications, service positions, scientific reviews and site visits, and federal funding.
These many experiences, augmented by the time-tested relationships she has forged in the national and international research and education communities, make Dr. Olsen unusually qualified to provide make-or-break consultation at any level of scientific endeavor.
“My whole career has been about enabling people, myself included, to follow their passion, to turn their natural creativity into results, and to achieve at their maximum potential,” Dr. Olsen says.
Born into a hard-working family of farmers, loggers, and fishermen in the nation’s Pacific Northwest, Dr. Olsen made her way to the top rung of science through tenacity, hard work, and intelligence – leavened by a natural optimism and a whimsical disposition. When a scholarship brought her to Chatham College in Pittsburgh, she prepared for life “back East” only to discover that to her new East-coast classmates Chatham was considered to be “way out West in Pittsburgh”! Never daunted, Dr. Olsen has gone on to feel at home across our country and has traveled during the course of her career to dozens of countries and all seven continents.
After earning a dual Bachelor’s in Biology and Psychology from Chatham, Dr. Olsen went on to a Doctorate in Biology at the University of California-Irvine and postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School, all of which prepared her for research in the emerging field of behavioral neuroendocrinology, the study of how hormones act in the brain to regulate behavior. As a beginning teacher and researcher, she also learned a lot about navigating the occasional minefields of the scientific establishment when she named one of her research articles “Sex and the Mutant Mouse.” “It garnered a lot of attention, but not the kind I wanted. After that, I always told students never to substitute cuteness for clarity. It’s ok to try for a smile,” she said, “but it’s much more important for you to communicate accurately and professionally what you are doing and why it’s important.”
Even as her professional life broadened, Dr. Olsen continued to work in her chosen field, keeping up with the literature and serving on relevant boards and committees. “I’ve always had a tie to neuroscience. If you don’t follow the state of the art in your own science,” she said, “how will you learn to feel the pulse of how disciplines evolve?” “Additionally, I’ve always advocated the integration of research and education at every level. There is no substitute for the hands-on experience of students participating in research—to reinforce and integrate their classroom education—and no better way to ensure the continuity of the field and the influx of fresh ideas.”
Dr. Olsen believes that the move from research to administration was a natural one for her. Having seen the workings of her own academic research departments, she was well aware of the many challenges and administrative hurdles involved in building a successful laboratory and research career. She had a vision for what could be accomplished from within the government to make those careers a bit easier. Working in Washington, Dr. Olsen could continue to do her own research and she could help others pursue their dreams. She is a champion for the rights and interests of all and promotes the broad engagement of all our citizens, including women and under-represented minorities, as well as the diversity of institutions in the global opportunities and challenges of today and tomorrow. One of the greatest priorities has been enhancing our capabilities in research and learning. Despite all the attendant frustrations—associated, she believes, with all bureaucracies—she has proven the simple but profound lesson that; “One dedicated individual can actually make a big difference.”
Dr. Olsen has also discovered that she has a knack for moving disparate individuals and groups to create effective partnerships and innovative programs where none existed before. Switching easily among assignments in Congress, the Office of the President, NASA, the NSF, and working with other federal agencies and international organizations, she spent three decades developing a well-honed capability and facility within all aspects of the scientific establishment, both here and abroad. She also has many years of experience in building the foundations for linking science and research with funding resources.