Imagine a future in which American military personnel can “sniff out” IEDs and other explosive devices using chemical sensors, much the way an insect uses pheromones to locate a mate. in fact, such a breakthrough may not be so far off, with scientists like Shannon Bice Olsson '99 hard at work on the possibilities. Olsson, currently a project leader at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, is this year's winner of Nazareth College’s GOLD award, which recognizes her as the "Graduate of the Last Decade."
Olsson grew up in Depeyster, a tiny town in northern New York. "I have really wonderful parents," she says. "they always encouraged me to explore the world around me. That’s how I got interested in science.”
As a junior high school student, Olsson attended a summer program called Horizons, held at Clarkson University, which was specifically designed for girls with an interest in math and science." At Horizons you not only got to do a lot of fun experiments, but they also brought in women professors and engineers to act as role models," she says. "It offered a really valuable insight into the role that women can play in the field of science." Upon her graduation from high school, Olsson chose to further her studies at Nazareth College. "The person who gave me the tour here had so much love and joy for the school," she remembers. "I was so impressed that someone could love a place as much as that. Also, being from such a small town, I knew I needed to be in a school with a lot of personal attention, and Nazareth certainly provided that."
Olsson entered Nazareth with the ambition to become a K-12 science teacher, pursuing a degree in chemistry with teaching certification. At Nazareth, Olsson deepened her interest in chemical ecology, which studies how organisms use chemicals to interact with other organisms and their environments. Her organic chemistry professor, Dr. Timm Knoerzer, allowed her to do an independent project in which she synthesized a pheromone for a cockroach. "It was amazing to see that something I made from synthetic chemicals could have such a profound effect on a living organism," she says. "From then on, I was just fascinated."
While at Nazareth, Olsson received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Sweden. There she spent a year working on pheromones with scientist Bill Hansson, and in the course of her stay also met her future husband, Petter Olsson. Returning to Nazareth, Olsson’s love for pure science won out over her original goal to become a science teacher, and she entered Cornell University's doctoral degree program in chemistry. After completing her degree, Olsson held a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA, where she studied marine organisms. There she was recruited by her mentor from Sweden, Bill Hansson, to join the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, where Hansson was now a professor in the department of Evolutionary Neuroethology.
At the Planck Institute, Olsson is focused on trying to develop a "robot insect." In other words, she is developing a communication system based on pheromones. Once developed, this technology could be used to locate mines and other explosives as well as in search and rescue operations. "All mines and such devices have chemical signatures," she says. "They release chemicals into the air in very minute quantities. Insects do the same thing. A female moth releases tiny amounts of chemicals that a male can detect from several meters away. We're trying to take that same idea and create an 'electronic nose' that could be attached to unmanned flying objects or a GPS." Olsson has been in Germany for three years now and finds it very beautiful and welcoming. She does hope to return to the States, however, and to pursue her research and teaching at an American university. Meanwhile, she and husband Petter, a network administrator, have a baby girl, Grace, to keep them even busier. As for the GOLD award, it came as a complete shock to Olsson. "I didn’t even know I was nominated," she says. "Some of the chemistry faculty nominated me, and that was so wonderful to know they were still thinking of me after ten years."
Given her record of accomplishment, it is reasonable to expect that we will be thinking of—and hearing from—Shannon Bice Olsson for years to come.