Global health leader, Chris Olsen, retires

Christopher Olsen, newly named GHI director of the Graduate|Professional|Capstone Certificate in Global Health, meets with Eric Bempong, principal of a veterinary college in Ghana. (Photo by Mary Crave.)

As he retires from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Christopher Olsen, a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and associate director for One Health in the Global Health Institute, still wonders if the former dean of the then UW School of Medicine had ulterior motives to include him on the International Health Advisory Committee.

Dean Phil Farrell convened the committee 14 years ago to develop international health service policies, especially for medical residents working internationally. “Why did he pull in programs like veterinary medicine?” Olsen asks. “I always wondered if he secretly hoped the group would do more.”

The group did much more, establishing the UW-Madison Center for Global Health that, in 2011, became the Global Health Institute (GHI). Olsen was a key participant, serving as a steering committee member and special advisor to the center and as a GHI associate director for One Health and acting director for the 2014-2015 academic year.

“Chris was instrumental in setting up global health at UW-Madison,” says GHI Director Jonathan Patz. “He’s been the rock behind the institute, from early design to continuing input over more than 14 years.”

“Everything comes down to a central theme of my fundamental desire to be remembered for educating students in the diverse aspects of health and disease.”—Christopher Olsen


Bringing One Health to global health

Olsen brought a One Health perspective—that acknowledges human, animal and ecosystem health are interlinked—to the global health conversation, says Cindy Haq, a professor of Family Medicine and founding director of the Center for Global Health.

“What I learned from Chris is that veterinarians, when they are treating an animal always think about the environment it’s in, the food it’s eating, the people that are caring for it,” she says.

“Veterinarians tend to be holistic. That type of thinking was infused into the early development of the center.”—Cindy Haq

One Health – and a recognition that addressing health challenges needs expertise from across campus – are fundamental principles for GHI, and Olsen sees them as key to why the institute has succeeded.

Farrell’s timing was good to establish a global health presence on campus and watch it grow, Olsen says. “Over this same 14-year period of time, we’ve seen some dramatic health issues across the world that have galvanized people and generated a great deal of interest.”

Then GHI Acting Director Christopher Olsen, center, joins Chancellor Rebecca Blank for a pre-World Dairy Expo event.
Then GHI Acting Director Christopher Olsen, center, joins Chancellor Rebecca Blank to greet guests at a pre-World Dairy Expo event.

GHI reflects a strong belief in the Wisconsin Idea, extending the boundaries of the university to the world. It also builds on an inherent desire at UW-Madison to work across disciplines. “This kind of interdisciplinarity truly isn’t the norm at a lot of other major universities,” Olsen says.

The institute’s greatest strength is educating students, Olsen adds. GHI also has matured into an organization with enough structure to serve and support the campus and expand interest among faculty, staff and students for global health. Their work will strengthen the UW brand.

Growing into a broader vision

While Olsen contributed to global health on campus, the UW-Madison programs also expanded his personal vision.

Frank Hutchins led the Ecuador field course that introduced Olsen to global health as a

Chris Olsen joins students vaccinating sheep during a Global Health Field Course in Ecuador.
Professor Christopher Olsen, back right, joins veterinary students who are vaccinating sheep during a Global Health Field Course in Ecuador.

comprehensive endeavor, going beyond the specifics of medicine to include culture, social systems, environmental factors and more. Olsen increasingly appreciated that health is a social enterprise, with a myriad of upstream determinants of health and disease.

Olsen also learned that his favorite way to teach is sitting next to students on a bus, talking one on one while immersed in a country.

When he began, Olsen says he would not have pictured global health as educating junior high age students in Ghana about gender equality and the relationship between their health and their animals’ health. Yet that’s where Olsen’s latest project takes him, as he works with UW-Madison and Ghana colleagues to develop a health and girls’ empowerment curriculum for Ghana 4-H.

Olsen and colleague Linda Sullivan also started the Pet Pals program, which brings volunteer dogs to visit pediatric patients in the American Family Children’s Hospital. A student asked for help to start the program 20 years ago, Olsen remembers. “Once we started investigating the possibilities of it, it became an exciting thing to do. It has brought me immense satisfaction and pride over the years.”

Olsen joined the School of Veterinary Medicine faculty in 1995. He also has served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the School of Veterinary Medicine and UW-Madison Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. He is affiliated with the master of public health degree program and continues to serve on its admission committee. He has been a member of the Morgridge Center for Public Service and Wisconsin Without Borders Advisory Committees. He received the School of Veterinary Medicine’s Norden Distinguished Teacher Award and the Walter F. Renk Distinguished Professor Award. His research explored the public health aspects of influenza in animals and the genetic factors that control transmission of influenza viruses among people and animals.

“Everything comes down to a central theme of my fundamental desire to be remembered for educating students in the diverse aspects of health and disease,” Olsen says.

By Ann Grauvogl/ November 4, 2015