Alberta Order of Excellence member Barb Olson

Dr. Barb Olson M.Sc., Ph.D.

"If you are enjoying what you’re doing, then it isn’t that difficult, you keep pursuing your interests. I like being intellectually stimulated. I like to keep learning. I want to keep learning."

Dr. Barbara Olson is an internationally recognized researcher, entrepreneur, professor and toxicology expert. Together with Merle, her husband of 40 years, she has co-founded successful pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to produce high-quality, affordable veterinary products for pain management and livestock health. Her research has led to important discoveries in veterinary medicine and a new understanding of disease in humans, animals and plants.

Barbara Eloise Chanin was born in Toronto, Ontario, on December 10, 1953. In the winter of 1954, her family moved to Winnipeg where she grew up as the middle of five children and the elder daughter. Barb’s father owned an R.V. business, while her mother raised the younger children. Barb’s mother then returned to help run the family business. With an older brother in poor health, Barb had to take on additional household responsibilities but still recalls a childhood with time for fun.

“Going camping every summer certainly started to instill in me my love of the outdoors. As one of five children, extravagant trips were not part of my childhood. On that note, I never felt I was missing out on anything. I had the opportunity to swim, canoe, deal with leaking tents, and eat meals cooked on Coleman stoves and campfires.”

When her seriously ill brother was sent abroad for treatment, Barb was able to spend several weeks at her aunt and uncle’s farm, falling in love with the animals and learning to care for them. During high school, Barb would ride her horse Mountain Man every minute she could and hang out at the stables to be around the horses.

In 1976, Barbara graduated with honours from the University of Manitoba with a B.Sc., working summers to put herself through school. She earned her M.Sc. in Toxicology and Nutritional Biochemistry from the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, graduating with distinction in 1978. She then studied for her Ph.D. in Veterinary Physiological Sciences at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan, completing her thesis and convocating in 1984.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Barb met her fellow student and future husband, Merle Olson when he stopped to help her fix a flat tire on her friend’s car. After Merle graduated with his doctorate in veterinary medicine, they married and moved to Pincher Creek, Alberta. Merle joined a large-animal veterinary practice, while Barb continued work on her Ph.D. She remembers long hours on the road as a commuting grad student, traveling by bus from Saskatoon to Pincher Creek to visit Merle.

As her thesis research drew to a close, Barb began to teach courses in the Biological Sciences program at the University of Lethbridge, including a distance learning course on genetics for residents of Pincher Creek.

In 1984, one month after the birth of their first son, and drawn by their shared love for research, Barb and Merle moved to Calgary where both took positions at the University of Calgary. Barb worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the GI Unit in the Faculty of Medicine. Her first position involved coordinating laboratories and lecturing in the Department of Biological Sciences and the Faculty of Kinesiology.

At the same time, Barb became a public advocate for science, working with schools in Calgary and southern Alberta to get kids interested in careers in research. She arranged for talks and classroom labs, judged science fairs, worked with the Calgary Science Network (now the Alberta Science Network) to connect university students and faculty with public school teachers, and helped students of all ages with science fair projects. She also served as an advisor to the University of Calgary’s Mini-University, developing science courses for kids’ summer programs.

Within the university itself, Barb joined a newly formed research group to monitor quality assurance in studies contracted out from pharmaceutical companies. Those studies – involving drugs, vaccines, implanted medical devices and catheters – would provide Barb with the skills and knowledge she would later put to good use when developing and seeking federal approval for products borne out of her and her husband’s own research.

Some of this work at the university would evolve into the Biofilm Research Group (BRG), devoted to studying bacterial colonies growing in living tissue, plants and even in pipes. Their studies would offer new insights into how biofilms cause chronic infectious diseases in animal models and how they shield bacteria from the immune system and antibiotics. The BRG has become widely recognized as a centre for testing antimicrobials, biocides and device coatings, leading to Barb and Merle’s work finding widespread applications in human, animal, plant and environmental sciences. Breakthroughs include the first diagnostic kit to assist physicians in choosing antimicrobials to control infectious diseases and treat cystic fibrosis. The Olsons’ biofilm growth and analysis tool is also used to examine the presence of biofilms in the environment, their impact on pipeline corrosion in the oil industry and to control pathogens in commercially valuable crops.

Much of Barb and Merle’s other research has had equally far-reaching impacts. Their work on the mechanisms of parasitic infections has been fundamental to managing diseases like cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis, both of which can spread from animals to humans and affect water quality. In fact, the Olsons’ studies of giardia led them to create the first commercially available vaccine, GiardiaVax, to control the parasite in cats and dogs. In addition, their work on using Meloxicam to reduce pain in livestock, especially for animals undergoing castration or recovering post-partum, has led to significant advances in animal welfare and health.

Barb and Merle would take many of the fruits of their research with them in 2004 when they left academia for the private sector. Both were frustrated by obstacles that prevented made-in-Alberta innovations from being commercialized and manufactured in the province. However, they also saw significant space in the market for affordable, high-quality veterinary pharmaceutical products. So they decided to take the plunge and chose early retirement from the University of Calgary, reinventing themselves as biotech entrepreneurs.

They co-founded Innovotech, drawing on their biofilm research to offer products for detecting, testing, and controlling bacteria and microbes in clinical, agricultural and industrial settings.

To improve farm animals’ quality of life, they created Alberta Veterinary Laboratories (AVL) and Solvet Animal Health and began manufacturing veterinary pharmaceuticals. As Barb recalls, “I was in charge of both quality control and quality assurance and the regulatory affairs component. We set up a facility including clean rooms and a warehouse that would fulfill the requirements of Good Manufacturing Practices to be in compliance with Health Canada."

Success followed swiftly, with AVL becoming a household name among Alberta livestock producers for its low-cost, highly effective parasite control treatments and long-lasting pain medication. The Olsons are the motivating force behind this track record, which has seen AVL come out with at least one new product every year. However, Barb is quick to share the credit: “We have an amazing group of people. You do not have a company without a group of loyal and committed staff. The staff at AVL are just exactly this.”

Compassion has always driven Barb and Merle, and it also led them to establish Get Away Dialysis. Working with nephrologists and administrators at two hospitals in Mexico (Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta) allowed the group to improve the water quality to Canadian standards. This led the way to provide an opportunity for Canadian patients with kidney failure on haemodialysis and their families to get some normalcy in their lives and take a vacation while getting treatments.

Despite the demands on their time, Barb and Merle still find opportunities to share their message of respect for animals and all livestock producers’ duty of care. They are lifelong supporters of Alberta’s 4-H movement and have taken their “I Care for Cattle” campaign on the road to agricultural shows across the province. They are also a regular presence at the Calgary Stampede, educating city dwellers and international visitors on Alberta’s high standards for animal welfare in the agri-food industry.

Barb lives with her husband Merle in Calgary. They have three grown sons and enjoy hiking, skiing, cycling and canoeing in the backcountry. Together, they hold more than 50 patents in medicine, parasitology and pharmacology. Between them, they have produced over 250 peer-reviewed publications and 13 book chapters. They learned of their selection for the Alberta Order of Excellence on their 40th wedding anniversary.