From GED to PhD
Interview with Brian Olson.

 

May 18, 2011

Brian Olson didn’t exactly fit the image of an academic superstar when he entered BMCC in 2002—and he’ll be the first to admit it. “I had just a GED and was ineligible for a senior college,” he says. “I tested into remedial math.”

With a vague notion that he wanted to study science “and learn what humans are made out of,” Olson enrolled in basic chemistry and biology courses as a freshman. It wasn’t an easy fit and more than once he felt discouraged.

“He wasn’t quite prepared for the rigors of Chemistry 202,” recalls Professor Shanti Rywkin. At one point, thwarted by his inability to grasp complex math concepts, he seriously considered dropping out of an organic chemistry course.

Not only did Olson stick with it, he went on to earn an Associate degree in Science with Honors and subsequently transferred to Hunter College, where he’ll graduate this June with a Bachelor degree in Chemistry. In the fall, Olson will begin work on a PhD in Biochemistry at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Corridor conferences

As heartening as Olson’s come-from-behind success is, it isn’t surprising. As Rywkin notes, “Brian had some trouble grasping the material in my Chemistry 202 class, but he wasn’t reticent about coming to me for help.”

 That’s the thing about Olson, say the professors to whom he turned time and again for moral support and mentoring during his two years here. Driven by a natural curiosity, a strong work ethic and a determination to succeed, he would seek out his teachers during office hours and collar them in the corridors between classes.

His zeal to learn was matched by his teachers’ willingness to help. In addition to Rywkin, there was Patricia Deleon, Nanette Van Loon, Carlos Alva and Brahmadeo Dewprashad, who calmly talked an overwhelmed Olson out of dropping out of organic chemistry.

Dewprashad describes the essence of Olson’s unusual qualities as a scientist. “First, he has a natural curiosity—always a good thing. Then there is his professionalism, which was evident from his early days as a student. And, finally, he’s extremely likeable. He gets along well with people.  And that’s a real strength in a profession where teamwork is key.”
 
Olson remembers the day he confided in Dewprashad that he’d given up on ever mastering organic chemistry.  “It was just before class and I was very upset,” Olson says.  “But Professor Dewprashad said, ‘Don’t worry—just come to class and afterwards we’ll talk. We’ll make sure this works out for you’.  I did go to his class, and for the first time, I began to understand the material.”

To this day, Olson says, he gauges the performance of his teachers against Dewprashad.  “But all of my teachers—and especially Patricia Deleon and Shanti Rywkin—consistently went out of their way to accommodate my needs and stood by me through tough times.”

Deleon was the first to reach out to him. “Brian was a freshman and I was also new to the school,” she says. “I could see that he was bright and determined and that he wanted to make a difference.” Deleon enlisted Olson’s help in cleaning out an unused storage room and turning it into a lab—an unusual role for a freshman.

Together, they used donated equipment to conduct experiments with tumor-suppressant proteins. “This was a total collaboration,” Deleon says. “Brian was with me every step of the way.”

Asking questions, seeking answers

Rywkin, who hired Olson to tutor at BMCC’s Science Learning Center, likewise speaks warmly of her former student. “This isn’t someone who just observes and passively takes notes,” she says. “Brian was always asking questions and wanting to know why and how. His willingness to do whatever it took to find the answers was what set him apart as a researcher.”

At Hunter, Olson is currently working on a green energy research project. “Brian has the makings of a great scientist and a great human being,” says Deleon. “He’s smart, he’s determined, and he’s always thinking about how to connect his work with making the world a better place.” As Olson sees it, the credit belongs to Deleon, Rywkin and the BMCC science faculty overall.

“If I had it to do over, I would start at BMCC again,” he says. “When I needed counseling, tutoring and special help from my teachers, they gave it to me unstintingly. I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I have without them.”

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Overcomes academic deficits to graduate from BMCC with honors
  • Will begin work on a PhD in Biochemistry in the fall
  • Teachers recall him as “a great scientist and a great human being”
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