Kenneth Olden, a cell biologist, biochemist, and cancer researcher, is the founding dean of City University of New York’s School of Public Health (CUNY). Olden, who was born in 1938 in Parrottsville, Tennessee, grew up in a small town with his parents, Matt and Augusta Olden, and siblings. As a child, he assisted with farm chores but also developed a passion for reading books. To save money for college, Olden attended segregated schools and cleaned shoes for fifteen cents at a local barbershop while growing up in the Jim Crow South. He attended Knoxville College on a scholarship after graduating from Tanner High School in Parrottsville in 1956.
Olden majored in biology and minored in chemistry in college. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1960. He studied Drosophila genetics for four years before receiving a master’s degree in genetics from the University of Michigan. He then earned a Ph.D. in biochemical research at Temple University before spending two years at the University of Rochester researching bioenergetics and oxidative phosphorylation [a process in which the cell harnesses energy through a series of chemical reactions with the help of a group of proteins embedded in the cell’s membrane and the mitochondria].
Olden completed a four-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School after receiving his doctorate from Temple University in 1970. After joining a research group at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis, he shifted his research focus from microbial systems to biological cell research. His first notable research project, co-authored with Dr. Ira Pastan, linked the association of carbohydrate groups to proteins inside the cell, garnering widespread attention in the scientific community. The findings were published in Cell, one of the most prestigious journals in the field.
In 1979, Olden left the NIH to teach and mentor Black students at Howard University. He established and oversaw a research program at Howard’s Medical School while serving as professor and chair of the Department of Oncology and director of the Cancer Center from 1979 to 1991. After leaving Howard, Olden became the director of the Nation Toxicology Program (NTP) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), positions he held until 2005. From 2006 to 2007, he was a visiting professor with Harvard University’s fellowship program, and a year later, he became the founding dean of City University of New York’s School of Public Health (CUNY).
After four years, he became the director of the National Center for Environmental Assessment at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2016, he announced his retirement.
Over the course of his four-decade career in science and research, Olden received numerous prestigious awards and honors, including the Presidential Meritorious Executive Rank Award in 1996 and the Presidential Distinguished Executive Rank Award in 1997. He was also honored with honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester and the College of Charleston.
Olden currently resides in Durham, New York, with his wife Sandra L. White and daughter Heather.