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Dallas 500

Meet the Dallas 500: Eric Olson

Get to know one of the most cited researchers in the world who has also played harmonica on stage with Willie Nelson.

In academia, one can often determine the impact and influence of a researcher and professor based on their titles. UT Southwestern’s Medical Center’s Dr. Eric Olson has a world-class resume and numerous entrepreneurial successes, but his titles add to his reputation.

He holds the Annie and Willie Nelson Professorship in Stem Cell Research and the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Science and is the founding chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at UTSW, and he runs the Hamon Center for Regenerative Science and Medicine and the Wellstone Center for Muscular Dystrophy Research. But that only tells part of the story.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Olson and his lab have discovered many vital genes and mechanisms connected to the development of the heart and other muscles. He has received numerous awards from the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes, and the French Academy of Science. He is one of the most highly cited researchers in the world, with over 100,000 citations in scientific literature.

He has founded numerous biotechnology companies focused on therapies for heart disease and muscular dystrophy. In his spare time, he plays guitar and harmonica with The Transactivators, a rock and roll band.

His advice for the next generation? “I would encourage the younger generation in my field to take a long view, to look beyond what is and imagine what could be, and to take risks. Science provides the opportunity to discover the hidden truths of life and advance them toward the benefit of humanity.”

Read on to learn more about Olson in this extended Dallas 500 profile.

Birthplace: Rochester, New York

Education: Wake Forest University (PhD-Biochemistry, BA-Chemistry and Biology

First Job: “My first significant job was as a gardener for Reynolda Gardens, the estate connected to Wake Forest University. I planted trees and tended to the rose gardens. I learned the value of hard work and the meaningfulness of nature. I especially enjoyed planting trees and watching them grow year after year as a physical manifestation of a job well down.”

Best Advice: “My father often told me, ‘Live your dream if you dare.’ Those words have been my mantra.”

Dinner Party: “Mark Cuban. We had dinner together once in Berlin at an event honoring Dirk Nowitzki. There are many things I’d like to talk to him about now.”

Destination of Choice: “My career has enabled me to travel throughout the world. But, at this stage of my life, I most enjoy spending time with family and friends at our mountain home in Telluride, Colorado.”

Nonprofit Cause: “I am passionate about Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), which is a devastating disease that primarily afflicts boys and for which there is no cure. I have been deeply inspired by my associations with boys with DMD and their families. One of the nonprofit organizations that I have become especially committed to is CureDuchenne. They are truly making a difference for patients and families. CureDuchenne also played an important role in enabling me to advance our ideas toward what we hope will be an eventual cure for this disease.”

Hobbies: “My hobbies are music and mountains. I play guitar and harmonica with The Transactivators, a rock and roll band, and I love hiking in the mountains.”

Industry Change: “Oftentimes, people in my field become focused on short-term financial goals and lose sight of the uniqueness of scientific discovery. To be the first person to discover something truly new or to conceive of a new innovation is truly inspiring.”

Do-Over: “I don’t look back. I’m all about the future.”

Fun Fact: “I think people who don’t know me well would be surprised to know that I love rock-and-roll and play in a band and am not the intensely serious person they perceive me to be.”

Go-to Advisors: “I tend to just figure things out as I go, which may not be the best strategy, but it’s gotten me this far…” 

Toughest Challenge: “Having founded five biotech companies, I’ve faced many challenges along the way. In the early days, I recall pitching my ideas to investors on Wall Street and being told my work is ‘nothing more than molecular gymnastics.’ Developing new therapeutics is an enormous challenge – both biologically and financially. Mother Nature does not give up her secrets easily. There are many unknowns in the path toward cures for disease.”

Biggest Success: “I am so excited about the advances my lab is making to understand diseases of the heart and other muscles. I am especially optimistic about our latest efforts to edit the human genome as a strategy to correct DMD and other devastating genetic diseases.

A Better DFW: “Bring more greenery and outside spaces to the city. Get rid of all the concrete!”

Walk-up Song: “‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young has been my lifelong theme song. I performed it at my father’s funeral. The song is about the quest for meaning in life. Of course, as a scientist who seeks to understand the mysteries of the heart, the song has additional personal meaning. Another song that inspires me is, ‘Learning to Fly’ by Tom Petty. To me, this song is about starting from nowhere, facing adversity, and rising above it. It’s about the path of life.” 

18. Must-Read: “There are two books in particular that I recommend. The first is The Tao of Willie: A Guide to the Happiness in Your Heart, a book about Willie Nelson’s philosophy of life. It’s a light read with lots of good advice. Another book I would recommend to anyone seeking to build a company culture is Nuts. It’s a story of the founding of Southwest Airlines and how to create a culture of fun, enthusiasm, teamwork, and success.”

Alternate Reality: “I am completely absorbed in my profession. I go to the lab seven days a week, and I tell myself every day how fortunate I am to have a profession that continually challenges and excites me. I would love to be a musician, but I better stick with my day job.”

Biggest Risk: “Trying to uncover the secrets of life and apply those learnings to benefit mankind is all about risks. My team is continually trying to push the envelope of knowledge to go beyond what is known. There’s no road map for discovery, so everything is a risk.”

Bucket List: “One item on my bucket list was to perform on stage with Willie Nelson. I checked that off the bucket list this summer when he invited me to play harmonica with him in concert at Fair Park in Dallas. Willie and his wife Annie have generously supported the research in my lab at UT Southwestern, and I’ve had many experiences with them over the years, but I hadn’t performed with him. So, this was an ‘out of body’ experience.”

Key Strategies: “As a leader, I emphasize creativity, risk-taking, hard work, and mutual respect. I would be characterized as a servant leader. I engage with everyone on my team almost daily. I believe everyone in an organization has unique skills and can contribute in important ways. Scientific discovery requires teamwork, dedication, and diverse skill sets. My responsibility as a leader is to enable people to achieve their highest potential and to feel fulfilled in their roles. I have worked to create a positive and mutually supportive environment. One of the things I am most proud of in my career is the legacy to trainees who are now scattered across the world where they have created a reinforcing network of support, mutual respect, and friendship.”

Future Forecast: “I could not be more excited about the future of science. We are in an unprecedented era in which it is possible to edit the human genome – the Book of Life – and to correct errors that cause devastating diseases. We still have much work to do, but I foresee a bright future.”


Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…