Dr. Olson was trained as a chemist at California Institute of Technology and Stanford University, where he earned his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry. He taught chemistry at Dartmouth College, and genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle and Washington University in St. Louis. He also served as an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute before returning to Seattle, where he has served as a professor of molecular biotechnology, medicine and genetics, and as an adjunct professor of computer science. Additionally, he serves as director of the University of Washington Genome Center
Olson recognized early on that sequencing the human genome could provide the key to the prevention and treatment of disease. As a pilot project for human-genome analysis, he launched an ultimately successful effort to construct a detailed physical map of the yeast genome in 1979; the yeast mapping was the first "genome project" directed at the complete analysis of a cellular genome. While in St. Louis, Dr. Olson led efforts to develop YACs, which are yeast chromosomes that have adopted and cloned introduced DNA. The technology, which became the basis of physical maps of all mammals, allows scientists to study large portions of the human genome and has proved indispensable for researchers tracking the genes involved in diseases ranging from colon cancer to mental retardation. His introduction of STSs quickly led to the first physical maps of whole human chromosomes and provided the foundation to integrate diverse types of genome maps.
Dr. Olson has also participated extensively in the formulation of policy for the Human Genome Project. In 1987, he served on the National Research Council Committee on Mapping and Sequencing of the Human Genome, and from 1989 to 1992, on the Program Advisory Committee on the Human Genome at the National Institutes of Health. Presently, he serves on the National Human Genome Research Institute Council.
Dr. Olson was awarded the Genetics Society of America Medal in 1992, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1994, received the City of Medicine Award for exceptional contributions to medicine in the public interest in 2000, and in 2002, received the Gairdner Foundation International Award for his scientific contributions to the Human Genome Project. He was appointed to the National Human Genome Research Institute Council in 1999.