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Getting to Know James Olzmann, PhD

Date Posted: Wednesday, February 01, 2023
By: Dohoon Kim, PhD

Our February 16, 2023 speaker is James Olzmann, Associate Professor at University of California, Berkeley.  James began his scientific training at University of Michigan where he obtained his B.S., then completed his PhD studies at Emory University.  He conducted postdoctoral research with Ron Kopito at Stanford, where he investigated the regulatory mechanisms and cellular roles of lipid droplets.

His independent laboratory has expanded his work on lipid droplets and lipid metabolism to investigate mechanisms of lipotoxic damage, including uncovering the role of lipid damage accumulation in ferroptosis.  James is a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Investigator, and the recipient of numerous awards including the ASCB Günter Blobel Early Career Award.

We asked James to answer the following random non-scientific questions.

What keeps you busy outside of the lab?

I am busy with our two children.  We have a daughter who is three and a half years old and our son is one year old.  When I am not in lab most of my time is spent chasing after a preschooler and a toddler (it's amazing and exhausting). 

What are you currently reading or binging on Netflix?

I'm a big fan of science fiction/fantasy books and shows.  The last shows that I watched on Netflix were The Witcher and Wednesday. 

What is unique about the Olzmann Lab environment, such as a funny lab tradition?

I am privileged to work with absolutely amazing scientists.  We have annual summer lab retreats, taking advantage of the many excellent locations nearby, such as Napa, Yosemite, Marin, Santa Cruz, and Hawaii.  This year, I started a new tradition for graduating lab members inspired by Finland, where a sword is part of their graduation regalia for PhDs.  "The Doctor's Sword is a symbol for the scientist's fight for what he or she, in rigorous research, has found to be good, right and true."  I love that tradition, so this year I purchased custom swords engraved with the graduating lab member's name, year and lab logo.  I plan to keep this tradition going for future Olzmann lab PhDs. 

What hidden talent do most people not know about you?

Although I don't have much time to do this right now, I taught Kung Fu while I was a graduate student at Emory and a postdoc at Stanford.  I hope to get back to it someday. 

What do you wish you could do if you had more free time?

Travel.  I love to experience new places and cultures.  As my children get older, I hope we are able to travel more and perhaps take a sabbatical overseas.  I feel very fortunate to still be able to travel and interact with colleagues from around the world through conferences and visits. 

What advice would you give graduate students or postdocs?

Read deeply and read more.  Take ownership of your project.  Stay positive even when there are bumps in the road.  Celebrate every victory, even the small ones.  Stay curious and ask questions all the time. Get involved in the scientific community.