Leah Olson

Undergraduate Discipline


BA, Evergreen State College. PhD, State University of New York-Albany. Special interest in the neurobiology of circadian rhythms and the neurobiology of learning and memory; research and papers on circadian rhythms. SLC, 1987–

Current undergraduate courses

The Biology of Living and Dying


“He not busy being born is busy dying.” —Bob Dylan

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered that a gene used by the tiny worm C. elegans to regulate how much it eats, how fat it becomes, and how long it lives is strikingly similar to the gene for the human insulin receptor. Poets and scientists agree. Eating and getting old, sex and death…these processes seemed inexorably linked. A single gene that governs what you eat and how long you live: What’s the link? Why is obesity now described as an epidemic in the United States? Can we live longer by eating less? Why is it so hard for people to permanently lose weight? Why should there be a gene that causes aging? If aging is a deliberate, genetically programmed phenomenon and not just the body wearing out, might modern biology be able to find a cure? Is it even ethical to try to pursue a fountain of youth? This course will explore these and other questions about the biological regulation of eating and body weight and the process of aging and death.

Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

First-Year Studies: Brain and Behavior


Is there a biological basis for consciousness? Do animals have minds? How do biologists study emotions? Does genetics determine behavior? This course will examine a wide variety of questions about the brain and behavior in both humans and nonhumans by reading topical books and articles by researchers and scientists exploring both the biology and the philosophy of the mind. We will learn the basic biology of neuroscience, but much classroom time will be devoted to discussions of readings by major thinkers both contemporary and historical—including Descartes, Darwin, Steven Pinker, and Antonio Damasio—who have tried to understand the biological relationship among brain, mind, and behavior.


General Biology II: Organismal and Population Biology


The number and diversity of living organisms on Earth is staggering—and so common that we often take their very existence for granted. Yet the nature of these organisms, their mechanisms of survival, and their modes of interaction with each other and with the environment form the basis of endless and fascinating study. This course serves as a fundamental introduction to the science of life—the broad field of biology. As such, we cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from the microscopic to the macroscopic and from the laboratory to the field. The course will be divided into three parts. The first portion of the course will focus on the biology of cells and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. We will then turn our attention to the mechanisms of evolution and biological diversity. Finally, we will conclude by examining organismal functions and ecology. In addition to the science involved, we will discuss the individuals responsible for major discoveries and the process of hypothesis formation, experimental design, and interpretation of results. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.


General Biology Series: Brain and Behavior


In this second semester of General Biology, students will explore the foundations of neuroscience from intracellular communication to higher brain functions and behavior. After learning about how neurons function, including an in-depth review of the major neurotransmitters used for intercellular communication, we will sample a variety of functions of the brain, including sleep, feeding, sex and other motivated behaviors, learning, and memory. Brain anatomy will also be a focus of our work, including the regulation of the brain and the body through regulation of the endocrine system, autonomic nervous system, and even the immune system. We will also explore the evolution of behavior and, using a few key examples, look at how the brains of different animals carry out their specialized functions. Topics may include learning in the honey bee, sound localization in the owl, and echolocation in bats. Weekly labs explore brain anatomy and cellular organization of the brain, including basic histology to prepare brain tissue for examination in the microscope. We will also make use of new recording equipment to test EEG and function of the peripheral nervous system that is activated as the body prepares for action.


The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions


The processing of emotion was an enduring concern for early biologists and psychologists. Charles Darwin devoted a monograph to the expression of emotion in men and animals and argued for an evolutionary understanding of emotions as a biological phenomenon. William James considered emotions a key topic in his investigations of the science of mental life. Despite this early interest, emotions were not a major focus in the development of modern cognitive neuroscience. Instead, efforts to understand mental life focused primarily on reason or cognition. Recently, this neglect of emotions has been redressed through the growth of the new interest area of “affective neuroscience.” This integration of psychological and biological approaches has been fueled by an increasing awareness of the function of emotions in mental life and by technological and experimental advances, such as brain imaging, which have allowed the development of sophisticated experimental approaches to the study of emotions. In this course, we will begin with the early history of the investigation of emotions in order to define our terms and then quickly proceed to the new experimental work being developed in both human and animal models. Some of the questions to be entertained are: What brain systems regulate emotions? How do emotions modulate memories? How are different emotions processed by the brain? How do emotions and reason interact to shape decision-making? This is a joint seminar.
Open to sophomores and above.