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Science Alumni Profile: 3M Corporate Scientist Olester Benson '74
by Mary Ellen Collins
As a 3M corporate scientist and technical group leader whose specialty is making microscopic prisms, Olester Benson '74 is a long way from his childhood dreams of delivering babies. He says studying the human body in high school biology left him "amazed and mind-boggled," and narrowed his interest in a medical career to a focus on obstetrics. However, he admits that his primary motivation for enrolling at Eckerd College was avoiding the draft. He began as a pre-med major, but classes in comparative anatomy and invertebrate zoology classes, prompted a switch to marine biology.
"There were so many opportunities to learn about Tampa Bay, and to be in the lab... it just caught my interest."
In his sophomore year when a high lottery number removed the threat of being drafted, he says, "My motivation changed drastically. I really didn't want to be in school."
After spending a year working at jobs including sales clerk, freelance photographer, and bookkeeper, and feeling disillusioned, he went to California to visit family. One of his sisters, who was in the army, introduced Benson to her recruiter.
"I was 20 years old, without enough money to get back home. The Army was offering me a sizeable bonus to sign up... and in December of 1972, I'm looking at the evening news and Henry Kissinger says, 'The war is over.' I thought maybe it's a good time to go."
As one of the first members of the new, all-volunteer army, Benson appreciates the irony of the fact that his unplanned military career became the catalyst for his educational pursuits.
"Within four months, I had a major epiphany. I realized that if you did what you were told, the army would feed, clothe and house you, and take care of your medical needs. You can have a wonderful life... and that scared me half to death! I wasn't going to fall into that and become a complacent soldier, so at every available opportunity, I started going back to school."
Throughout his duty assignments, he took classes. He trained as an infantryman, medical technician and pharmacy specialist, and developed a keen interest in the chemistry aspects of pharmacy. That led to taking chemistry classes at San Antonio College, and completing a bachelor's degree in physical organic chemistry at the University of Colorado in 1981. He went on to complete a master's and Ph.D.
"I was enthralled and infatuated with chemistry, and was having a great time in graduate school, and I wasn't thinking about the future," he says. But when the money started running out, it was time to job hunt. He wasn't sure if he wanted an academic or an industrial position, but interviews with 3M sparked his interest because of the interdisciplinary nature of the company. He accepted a position in the corporate research lab in 1988.
"I've only moved 12 feet in 21 years," he says, laughing. "As I look at my walk through life, I believe in the providence of God. There's no way in the world I would have mapped out the path to where I am today. I never had any intention of making the army a career, but I spent 11 years in active duty and 13 years in the reserves. And this job fits me and my sensibilities like I had written the job description for myself. You have the opportunity to reinvent your job [here]. I've been able to develop a high level of expertise in one area and apply it very broadly, and get myself involved in a lot of different things."
The recipient of Eckerd's 2009 McArthur Alumni Award, Benson illustrates the fact that "a man without a plan" can become a highly accomplished scientist with a rewarding career who develops patents, publishes articles, mentors students, and stays energized by collaborating with and learning from his colleagues. He pursued his interests as they arose, let his passion guide him, and left the overall plan in the hands of a higher power.
This feature is the ninth in a series of profiles of Eckerd alumni and friends who embody the emphasis of the Sciences at Eckerd College. Learn more about the Many Experiences, One Spirit: The Campaign for Eckerd College and the Center for Molecular and Life Sciences, a Campaign priority.
Read Previous Science Profiles:
Rebecca Helm '07
Quinton Zondervan '92 and Vincent Coljee '90
Carlos Barbas '85
Paul Cheney '69
Harry Johns '90
Jeffrey Dodge '84