Dr. Merle Olson is a 1981 graduate of the WCVM’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program while his wife, Dr. Barbara (Barb) Olson, received her PhD degree from the WCVM in 1984. Both were inducted into the order by Lieutenant Governor Salma Lakhani in early October 2021.
The Alberta Order of Excellence recognizes Albertans from all endeavours and backgrounds. The order’s members are people who have advanced the province’s history and place in Canada and internationally.
The Olsons have made numerous global scientific advancements during their careers as biotech entrepreneurs and researchers. Through their work, they have improved the health of people, animals and the environment, and they have bolstered the Alberta livestock industry.
The couple hold more than 50 patents in medicine, parasitology and pharmacology, and they have authored more than 250 peer-reviewed publications and 13 book chapters.
The couple first met while they were studying at the WCVM, after Merle helped fix a flat tire for one of Barb’s friends following an evening ballroom dance class.
The pair were a great match with their shared love of research, the outdoors and animals.
Barb grew up in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor’s degree before studying toxicology and nutritional biochemistry at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College and earning a master’s degree. She then began PhD work in veterinary physiological sciences at the WCVM.
Merle was raised on a farm near Radville, Sask., and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and biology from the University of Saskatchewan’s Regina Campus in 1975. He then earned a master’s degree in electrochemistry from the University of Western Ontario before realizing his calling to work with animals and beginning the WCVM’s veterinary program.
After Merle graduated, the couple moved to Pincher Creek, Alta., where Merle joined a large animal veterinary practice and Barb continued her PhD studies. While finishing her research, she began to teach at the University of Lethbridge. After Barb graduated from the WCVM in 1984, the couple took positions at the University of Calgary.
The pair became part of the university’s Biofilm Engineering Research Group, which has become widely recognized as a centre for testing antimicrobials, biocides and device coatings. The Olsons’ work has found widespread applications in human, animal, plant and environmental sciences — including the first diagnostic kit to assist physicians in choosing antimicrobials to control infectious diseases and treat cystic fibrosis. Their biofilm growth and analysis tool is also used to examine the presence of biofilms in the environment.
The Olsons’ study of parasitic infections has had an impact on the management of diseases such as cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis — including the creation of the first commercially available vaccine (GiardiaVax), to control parasites in cats and dogs. Their research into pain management in livestock has also resulted in significant advances in animal welfare and health.
In 2004, Merle and Barb left academia for the private sector and developed their own company. Through Innovotech, the Olsons harnessed their biofilm research to create products for detecting, testing and controlling bacteria and microbes in clinical, agricultural and industrial settings.
They also formed Alberta Veterinary Laboratories (AVL) and Solvet Animal Health, which have helped to improve farm animals’ quality of life by creating affordable, high-quality veterinary pharmaceuticals. AVL has become the go-to pharmaceutical source for Alberta livestock producers, saving them millions of dollars annually.
In addition to their research and business pursuits, the Olsons have three children, enjoy outdoor activities and continue to support volunteer causes such as Alberta 4-H and the Calgary Stampede.