Mark Olson

Plant Biologist

Emerging Explorer

Photo: Mark Olson, plant biologist

Photograph by Jim Webb

Plant biologist Mark Olson is soaring to novel heights for a fresh perspective on the diversity of trees. He conducts field research from a powered paraglider, a flying machine that he describes as "like a moped in the air."

The aircraft gives Olson a bird's-eye view of the trees, allowing him to study how they present their leaves to the sky. Since plants collect light for photosynthesis from above, the aerial perspective, he says, is biologically more relevant than the more familiar side-view of trees.

Olson gained his aerial insight while flying around northeast Africa in 1998 as part of a hair-raising mission to collect and study the diversity among all 13 species of the Moringa plant family. The plants are full of medicinal and nutritional properties and grow in dry tropical regions around the world.

The research flights opened Olson's eyes to the fractal-like patterns in the treetops. In search of an inexpensive way to peer down on the patterns and understand their significance, he decided to try powered paragliders and quickly learned how to fly one.

Born in 1969 in the Sierra Nevada town of Grass Valley, California, Olson took to nature naturally. "Ever since I was a kid, I was obsessed with plants and animals," he says. Studying the newts, insects, and the varied oak and madrona trees that flourished outside his back door made him confident that one day he'd be a scientist, even though he says he didn't really know what that meant.

The summer after high school, Olson went to Costa Rica to study sea turtles with the famed researcher Archie Carr. The budding scientist learned that animal biology required too much killing for his taste. His fate as a botanist was sealed, and he earned an undergraduate degree in botany from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1992.

After college Olson spent a year learning how to draw in Italy, a skill that has proved vital to his research ever since. For example, while traveling the world in search of Moringa plants, he would draw the species he was seeking for local villagers, which allowed them to help him track the plants down.

The Moringa family was the subject of Olson's dissertation research at Washington University in St. Louis. He received his doctorate in 2001.

Now, when not teaching classes at the Instituto de Biologia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, in Mexico City, Olson can be found cruising at low altitude over Mexico's tropical dry forests.


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