Faculty Excellence in Education Award: George D. Olsen, M.D., Professor Emeritus

Six members of the School of Medicine faculty were recognized by their peers in 2012 for excellence in teaching. This Q&A series profiles each of the recipients and asks the question, "Why do you teach?"

Dr. OlsenFebruary 11, 2013

January's Q&A features George Olsen, M.D., a professor emeritus in the department of physiology & pharmacology.

Dr. Olsen attended Dartmouth and Harvard medical schools, and received his M.D. in 1966. He was appointed Assistant Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oregon Medical School (precursor to OHSU) in 1970.

Prior to his retirement in 2012, his main areas of teaching encompassed fetal, neonatal and maternal pharmacology, the pharmacology of aging and opioid analgesic pharmacology. During his career, Dr. Olsen's research involved the maternal, fetal and neonatal effects of opioid and cocaine abuse and the consequences for breathing control in children and adults.

You can learn more about Dr. Olsen's education, courses taught and research at the end of this Q&A.


Why did you first become attracted to an academic career?

The stimulus for my interest came from my many excellent and helpful teachers from grade school through high school and then on to college and medical school. In high school I had an outstanding teacher of chemistry, Mr. Townes, who got me seriously interested in science as a profession. In college I had a great piano teacher, Mrs. Hoffman-Behrendt, who had a personal link to some of the great musicians and teachers of the past. In medical school, Professor Gosselin, a superb teacher of pharmacology, stimulated my interest in combining my love of chemistry and my interest in the basic medical sciences, especially pharmacology.


Why do you teach?

I like people and teaching is a fun way to interact with students and faculty who bring such varied talents and life experiences from which I can learn. Teaching is also is an important way to stay current in the advances of knowledge and to keep abreast of the cultural changes among the young, who are the future of every profession and of our society. On a personal level, it helps one to relate more effectively to one's children and grandchildren. The profession of teaching is stimulating to the mind because of the intelligence, curiosity and eagerness of the students, who will soon be our colleagues and will care for our loved ones.

Have you modeled your teaching style or philosophy on anyone?

My models have been many. In addition to the teachers I have mentioned above, my models would include Professor Phillip Nice (Dartmouth Medical) who as Dean of Students in 1962 encouraged us to keep others' values at the forefront and not to solely impose our own philosophy upon them. Being on the School of Medicine Admissions Committee for six years also helped me to realize that we need a diversity of talents and experiences in our physicians and encouraged me to be accepting of many backgrounds.

Are great teachers born, or are they made?

This is a difficult question. I think that all very good teachers have to like and respect people in general, and not be overtly judgmental or narrow-minded; they must be enthusiastic about the subject they teach; and they must be flexible. In addition, teachers have to be articulate and have a sense of humor. If the necessary human qualities, the enthusiasm and the basic language skills are present, then teaching style and technique can be learned, improved and/or adapted by observing others (including your own teachers, students and colleagues) and analyzing their methods. Teaching techniques of course vary with the times, the learners and the teacher. What works for one teacher in one situation may not be helpful to students in another situation. When I directed courses I tried, whenever possible, to encourage faculty to use the teaching format with which they were most comfortable to excel. For instance, some teachers are great at one-on-one interactions while others may be more successful with larger groups.
What are the great challenges to teaching in the 21st century?

Technology, money and time are the challenges. Technology can be very helpful or stultifying depending on who uses it and how it is used. Money to support professional teachers seems to be a greater problem in this century, especially in medical schools. Finally, faculty and students often feel that they do not have enough time to spend on teaching and learning. I am concerned about the lack of money to support teachers, which discourages young faculty from entering teaching, and the problem of student debt, which drives students to finish their education as quickly as possible and to specialize sooner. 

Does the wide-ranging diversity of your students affect how you teach?

Oh yes, for many reasons. We are all aware of the importance of patient education in the use of medications, but as the population ages and the senses decline or as English more frequently is not the native language of patients and learners, teachers and medical professionals have to adapt. For instance, the teacher's use of examples of clinical problems needs to reflect the diversity in background of students as well as patients. Another area is the cultural demands of families upon medical students as it relates to study time that may cause tensions between a student's professional responsibilities and family expectations.

What do you think education will look like at OHSU in the future?

Although professional knowledge is still the most important aspect of teaching at the professional and graduate level, I think and hope that there will be more formal training for teachers in medical schools. This is already being talked about and efforts are underway to improve professional teacher training. However, it must be adequately supported.

What advice do you have for people who would like to follow in your path?

Do it! Teaching will be very rewarding in human terms. You will meet wonderful people and learn from them. You will be wiser and more fulfilled for having had the opportunity to teach. However, don't forget the key ingredients for effective teaching: knowledge, articulation, humor, acceptance, flexibility and enthusiasm.

Anything else you would like readers to know about you?

I love music. (I was a music major in college.) I believe that a liberal arts education is an excellent background for a teacher.




Dr. Olsen attended Dartmouth Medical School from 1962 to 1964, and received a B.M.S in June, 1964 (Dartmouth was a two-year medical school at that time and all students transferred to a four-year medical school after the second year at Dartmouth.) He attended Harvard Medical School from 1964 to 1966, and received his M.D. in June, 1966.

Courses taught

Dr. Olsen taught pharmacodynamics (the physiological actions of drugs on the body), pharmacokinetics (the elimination of drugs from the body), and the introduction to clinical pharmacology in basic science courses taught during the first two years of medical school. The primary course he taught was MSCI 613, Systems Processes and Homeostasis for first year medical students. He was also Director of that course from 1999 until he retired in 2012. In addition, he gave lectures and mentored small group discussions in MSCI 621, Neuroscience and Behavior; MSCI 622, Circulation and Respiration; and MSCI 626, Human Growth and Development. His main areas of teaching encompassed fetal, neonatal and maternal pharmacology, the pharmacology of aging and opioid analgesic pharmacology. 


After two years as Medical Director of the San Xavier Indian Health Service Clinic outside of Tucson, Arizona (1967 to 1969), Dr. Olsen said he realized the "limitation of his medical knowledge and wanted to include research in his future," and so completed over a year of research training at the University of Oregon Medical School (1969 to 1970). His research since then has involved the maternal, fetal and neonatal effects of opioid and cocaine abuse and the consequences for breathing control in children and adults.