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Richard Randolph "Randy" Olson (born October 3, 1955)[1] is a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University (1984) and became a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire (1992) before changing careers by moving to Hollywood and entering film school at the University of Southern California.[2]

External video
Randy Olson at the University of Missouri.jpg
“Randy Olson Great Challenges Day at TEDMED 2013 ”
“Randy Olson - Earth Optimism Summit 2017”

He has written and directed a number of short films and feature documentaries which have premiered at film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. Most of his films draw on his science background, involve humor, and address major science issues such as the decline of the world's oceans, the controversy around the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, and the attacks on global warming science.

He is also the author of three books aimed at helping communicate science more effectively with the general public. He is currently the Director of the Story Circles Narrative Training program.[3]


Early lifeEdit

Olson was born in Heidelberg, Germany, the son of Colonel John Eric Olson, West Point graduate (class of 1939).[4] He moved with his family to Hawaii in 1960 (age 4) where they lived until 1964 as his father was stationed at Schofield Barracks and served as a military advisor in the growing Vietnam War. Olson credits his time near the ocean in these years with his eventual career as a marine biologist. They subsequently moved to Virginia, then Kansas City, Kansas where he attended high school and began college at the University of Kansas.[5][1]

Science careerEdit

After dropping out of the University of Kansas for a semester and ending up working on an oceanographic project in Puerto Rico, Olson returned to college, and transferred to University of Washington. There he got involved in marine biological research along the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, spent a semester at Friday Harbor Marine Laboratory, and graduated with a B.A. in Zoology.

He was accepted to Harvard University's Ph.D. program in biology. His dissertation research took him to Australia in the early 1980s studying coral reef ecology on the Great Barrier Reef. While conducting his research he spent an entire year living on Lizard Island on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.[6] He earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard in 1984.[5]

He returned to Townsville, Australia as a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, working for the Australian government studying the problem of the crown-of-thorns starfish and its destructive effect on the Great Barrier Reef.[5] In 1985 he visited the U.S. research station in Antarctica at McMurdo Sound for his research on starfish reproduction which involved numerous scuba dives beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.[7]

In 1988 Olson was appointed a professor in the Zoology Department at the University of New Hampshire.[8] His research on the dispersal of larvae of marine organisms on coral reefs has been described as "some of the best work in that field".[5][9][10][11][12] During his time at UNH Olson also produced several short films on marine life, such as Barnacles Tell No Lies, Lobstahs, and Salt of the Earth. Salt of the Earth was shown on a local PBS station. After being awarded tenure in 1994, Olson took a leave of absence to attend film school, eventually resigning his scientific position.[5][13]

Film careerEdit

USC Cinema SchoolEdit

Olson went through the graduate film production program at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, earning his M.F.A. in 1997.[14] For his student film he wrote and directed the twenty-minute musical comedy short film, You Ruined My Career, starring Carol Hatchett, one of Bette Midler's Harlettes. The film premiered at the 1996 Telluride Film Festival in the "Filmmakers of Tomorrow" showcase,[2] won numerous awards, and was selected by Atomfilms as one of "The 100 Most Important Student Films in the History of the U.S.C. Cinema School."[1]

Shifting Baselines Ocean Media ProjectEdit

External video
  Ocean Symphony with Jack Black

Olson teamed up with senior coral reef ecologist Jeremy B. C. Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to create a 7-minute short film Rediagnosing the Oceans.[15] Then, in 2001, Olson collaborated with Jeremy Jackson, Steven Miller of University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and veteran Hollywood big budget movie producer Gale Anne Hurd to create the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project.[16] Initial funding came from the three founding partners: The Ocean Conservancy, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Surfrider Foundation. The term "shifting baselines" was coined by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly in 1995.[17][18] Olson broadened the definition with a widely cited OpEd in the Los Angeles Times in November, 2002.[19][20]

Sine then the project has produced a series of short films, television commercials, Flash videos and contests (stand up comedy, photography, video) all written and directed by Olson. The most successful piece of media produced was the Ocean Symphony Public Service Announcement (PSA) which featured a symphony of comic actors playing instruments they didn't know how to play, symbolizing the disharmony in today's unhealthy oceans.[21] This included Tom Arnold on kettle drums, Madeleine Stowe and Paul Michael Glaser on violin, Henry Winkler on harp, Sharon Lawrence on cymbals, and Jack Black as conductor.[22]

Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design CircusEdit

In 2006, Olson directed the feature documentary, Flock of Dodos: the Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. The film drew on both his evolutionary biology background and his Kansas upbringing as he visited the controversy raging over evolution in his home state. It even includes his mother, Muffy.[23][13] Flock of Dodos premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in April 2006, and since then has played at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. The film aired on Showtime TV in the US.[5][24][25][26] Olson also used Flock of Dodos as a contribution to the skeptical activism essay "What Do I Do Next: Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism" published by Skepticality.[27][28][29]

Sizzle: A Global Warming ComedyEdit

In 2008 Olson wrote and directed the mockumentary feature film, Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,[30] which premiered on the west coast of the U.S. at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and on the east coast at the Woods Hole Film Festival.[31]

40 Years of SilenceEdit

In 2014 this film showing the POW experience of Olson's father, Colonel John Eric Olson, was presented and discussed at West Point USMA.

Story Circles Narrative Training ProgramEdit

In “Houston, We Have A Narrative,” Olson outlined the concept of “narrative training.”  In 2015 the first four prototype “story circles” for narrative training were conducted.  As of 2019 the program has involved more than one thousand scientists at numerous universities and government agencies (USDA, National Park Service, USFWS, USGS, NASA, US Army Engineers, NIH).  Over 50 “story circles” have been completed which consist of 5 individuals meeting for 10 one hour sessions to practice “narrative fitness.” [32]


Randy Olson is the author of several books, most of which address the ways in which scientists can better communicate their work to others. In Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (2009) Olson discusses his change from scientist to filmmaker. He encourages researchers to focus on style of presentation as well as the accuracy of their work, and suggests tips from filmmaking that may help to engage with an audience.[33][34]Connection : Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking (2013) features the "And, But, Therefore" template that Olson has presented in a TEDMED talk and a letter in Science Magazine.[35][36][37] In Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story Olson focuses on the importance of narratives as fundamental human communication structures.[38][39] Olson describes narratives as containing three essential components "And, But, Therefore," or ABT. "And" established basic facts, "But" marks a turning point, a change, and "Therefore" takes the listener to an ending, built upon the "And" and the "But." Another way to think about ABT structure is to say that "And" describes the setting, "But" identifies the problem, and "Therefore" creates a resolution.[39]


  • Olson, Randy (2009). Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 978-1597265638.[40][36][41][42]
  • Olson, Randy; Barton, Dorie; Palermo, Brian (2013). Connection : Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking. Los Angeles: Prairie Starfish Productions. ISBN 9780615872384.[36][43]
  • Olson, Randy (2015). Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. ISBN 9780226270708.[39][44][45][46]
  • Olson, Randy (2018). Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, Second Edition. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 978-1610919173[47]

He has also written the following blogs:

  • The Benshi, Essays from Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson (2010-2015)[48]
  • The Science Needs Story Blog (2015-)[49]


Olson has been criticized for potentially "dumbing down" serious science issues. His response is that his critics fail to grasp the difference between "dumbing down" and concision.[50] Two major reviews for "Sizzle" exemplified the divide. The science journal Nature gave the film a poor review titled, "Climate Comedy Falls Flat."[51] In contrast, the Hollywood entertainment magazine Variety gave it a favorable review stating that the movie is, "An exceedingly clever vehicle for making science engaging to a general audience."[52]

Some reviewers have expressed discomfort with the vision of scientists as the "salesmen" of facts. Even if using Olson's methods will enable them to more effectively present their ideas, "the main virtue of his method is that it forces scientists to figure out exactly what they're trying to sell."[53]


  1. ^ a b c "Randy Olson – The Scientist, the filmmaker and the Professor". HRI Hotel & Resort Insider. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  2. ^ a b "DER Filmmaker Randy Olson". Documentary Educational Resources. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  3. ^ "ABOUT – Story Circles Narrative Training". Retrieved 2019-03-11.
  4. ^ "Colonel John E. Olson – Obituary". The Quiveran. November 5, 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Dean, Cornelia (April 11, 2006). "Eager to tell the stories of science, a biologist evolves". New York Times. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  6. ^ "Lizard Island Rsearch Station newsletter" (PDF). Australian Museum. 1981–1982.
  7. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph; Bosch, Isidro; Pearce, John S. (1987). "The hypothesis of antarctic larval starvation examined for the asteroid Odontaster validus". Limnology and Oceanography. 32 (3): 686–690. doi:10.4319/lo.1987.32.3.0686.
  8. ^ "Affiliates". University Of New Hampshire. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  9. ^ Svane, I.; Young, C. M. (1989). "The ecology and behaviour of ascidian larvae". Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review. 27: 45–90. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  10. ^ Young, C. M (1990). "Larval ecology of marine invertebrates: a sesquicentennial history" (PDF). Ophelia. 32 (1–2): 1–48. doi:10.1080/00785236.1990.10422023. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  11. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph (July 1987). "In situ culturing as a test of the larval starvation hypothesis for the crown-of-thoms starfish". Limnology and Oceanography. 32 (4): 895–904. doi:10.4319/lo.1987.32.4.0895.
  12. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph (February 1985). "The Consequences of Short-Distance Larval Dispersal in a Sessile Marine Invertebrate". Ecology. 66 (1): 30–39. doi:10.2307/1941304. JSTOR 1941304.
  13. ^ a b Babine, Nancy L. (February 1, 2007). "Dodos, Design and DNA". New England Film.
  14. ^ "Earth Day Video to Debut on Youtube". USC News. April 22, 2009. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  15. ^ Hoffner, Erik (July 11, 2008). "An interview with climate mockumentary filmmaker Randy Olson". Grist. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  16. ^ "Sizzle Press Kit" (PDF). Prairie Starfish Productions. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  17. ^ Heinemann, Dennis (2012). "Reviews 137 Marine Ornithology 40: 135–140 (2012) SHIFTING BASELINES: THE PAST AND THE FUTURE OF OCEAN FISHERIES Jackson, J., Alexander, K. & Sala, E. (Eds.). 2011. Washington, DC: Island Press (Review)" (PDF). Marine Ornithology. 40: 135–140. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  18. ^ Pauly, Daniel (October 1995). "Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries". Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 10 (10): 430. doi:10.1016/S0169-5347(00)89171-5.
  19. ^ "Assessment: Earth Day and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome". Climate Change Fork. April 18, 2017.
  20. ^ Olson, Randy (November 17, 2002). "Slow-Motion Disaster Below the Waves". Los Angeles Times.
  21. ^ Olson, Randy (2011). "If a frond falls in the kelp forest (does it make any sound?)". In Jackson, Jeremy B. C.; Alexander, Karen E.; Sala, Enric (eds.). Shifting baselines the past and the future of ocean fisheries. Washington, DC: Island Press. pp. 33–42. ISBN 978-1610910293. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  22. ^ "Shifting Baselines Releases Comic PSA to Save the Oceans Starring Jack Black, Madeline Stowe, Tom Arnold, Josh Lucas, Sharon Lawrence and many more". Shifting Baselines. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  23. ^ Powell, Kendall (30 January 2006). "Flock of Dodos". Nature. doi:10.1038/news060130-14.
  24. ^ Sorensen, Eric (July 29, 2008). "Forward Thinkers: Randy Olson, An evolutionary biologist in Hollywood". Conservation. University of Washington. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  25. ^ "Flock of Dodos - Skepticality". 2007-10-30. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  26. ^ Garron, Barry. "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus 9:00 PM PDT 5/16/2007". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  27. ^ "What Do I Do Next? - Skepticality". 2009-03-24. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  28. ^ "Undercover Skeptics - Skepticality". 2008-12-02. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  29. ^ "Where Do We Go From Here? - Skepticality". 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  30. ^ Conan, Neal (July 17, 2008). "Advertisers Join Fight Against 'Green Fog'". NPR. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  31. ^ Weiss, Kenneth R. (July 14, 2008). "Sizzle: A global warming mockumentary". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  32. ^ "Story Circles Narrative Training". Retrieved 2019-03-11.
  33. ^ Perkins, Sid (November 7, 2009). "Book Review: Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style by Randy Olson Review". Science News. 176 (10): 30. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  34. ^ Olson, Randy (2009). Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 978-1597265638.
  35. ^ Olson, Randy (6 December 2013). "Science Communication: Narratively Speaking" (PDF). Science. 342 (6163): 1168. doi:10.1126/science.342.6163.1168-a. PMID 24311660. Retrieved 6 Dec 2013.
  36. ^ a b c Revkin, Andrew C. (September 9, 2013). "Can Storytelling be Factual and Effective?". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  37. ^ Olson, Randy; Barton, Dorie; Palermo, Brian (2013). Connection : Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking. Los Angeles: Prairie Starfish Productions. ISBN 9780615872384.
  38. ^ Olson, Randy (2015). Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. ISBN 9780226270708.
  39. ^ a b c Sarah, Reisert (2016). "Finding the Right Words". Distillations. 2 (3): 46–47. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  40. ^ Milinovich, Gia (10 December 2009). "How to get your message across". Nature. 462 (723): 723. doi:10.1038/462723a. Retrieved 10 Dec 2009.
  41. ^ Kareiva, Peter (1 January 2010). "If Our Messages Are To Be Heard". Science. 327 (5961): 34–35. doi:10.1126/science.1183465. Retrieved 1 Jan 2010.
  42. ^ "Don't Be Such A Scientist! - Skepticality". 2009-10-20. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  43. ^ "Make A Connection - Skepticality". 2013-11-05. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  44. ^ Luna, R. E. (22 October 2015). "The storytelling scientist". Science. 350 (6259): 391. doi:10.1126/science.aad2179. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  45. ^ Kiser, Barbara (14 October 2015). "Books in brief". Nature. 526 (7573): 321. doi:10.1038/526321a. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  46. ^ Huertas, Aaron (2015-10-14). "Review". Union of Concerned Scientist Blog. Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  47. ^ inquisitivebiologist (2019-01-19). "Book review – Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (Second Edition)". The Inquisitive Biologist. Retrieved 2019-03-11.
  48. ^ Olson, Randy (July 8, 2015). "#399 The Benshi: Mission Accomplished". The Benshi, Essays from Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson.
  49. ^ Olson, Randy (September 22, 2015). "#1) "Science Needs Story" Begins!". Science Needs Story Blog.
  50. ^ Callard, Abby (October 29, 2009). "Are Scientists or Moviemakers the Bigger Dodos?". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  51. ^ Marris, Emma (17 July 2008). "Climate comedy falls flat". Nature. 454 (7202): 279. doi:10.1038/454279a. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  52. ^ Koehler, Robert (July 28, 2008). "Review: 'Sizzle '". Variety. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  53. ^ Kordahl, David (December 24, 2015). "Does Science Need Hollywood?". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 14 July 2017.

External linksEdit