Dr. Deena Wassenberg: Lover of Black Tea, Burritos, and Mother Earth

Getting to Know Dr. Wassenberg

Although Deena grew up in Altoona, Wisconsin, she was born in Minnesota (and is a 4th generation native Minnesotan!). She teaches several Biology courses here at the U of M: Foundations of Biology, Environmental Biology, Evolution and Biology of Sex. Deena’s research interests have varied over the years. She started studying fish exposed to environmental contaminants at a highly contaminated superfund site. Interestingly, while the compounds at the site were extremely toxic to fish from other places, there was a population of fish living at the site that were not affected and seemed to be thriving. There were a lot of fascinating evolution questions to be asked there! Currently Deena is interested in understanding science denial among students, particularly what factors influence a student’s acceptance of scientifically accepted topics that are politically controversial. Deena lives with her husband and her two daughters, ages 10 and 5, who keep her busy.  Lately one of her favorite pastimes is sharing books with her daughters.  She is currently reading Ramona the Brave to one and The Princess Bride to the other.  She would challenge anyone to a “The Princess Bride” trivia contest.

Q & A With Dr. Wassenberg

When and why did you first become interested in studying Environmental Toxicology?

I was interested in the intersection of lab science and field science. I wanted to have the control of laboratory experiments, but I wanted it to have a real-world application on the environment. I thought of a number of different ways I could explore that, and environmental toxicology was the one that really meshed well with my interest in environmental issues, and I have a real enjoyment of biochemistry, so it worked well for both of those.

What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions people have about taking care of the planet?

I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of things you can do that might actually improve your quality of living and don’t have to be something that’s really burdensome to you on a day to day basis in order to have significant impacts on the planet and your footprint on the planet. People think they have to do big things, like buy a solar array for their house or stop driving. Things like turning down your heat when you’re away from your home, changing out your lightbulbs into CFLs or LEDs are doable for most people, and it’s a great first step.

You don’t have to be a vegetarian. You can cut back on meat consumption, and most people are actually willing to do that because there’s health benefits to that as well. A lot of people think, ‘Oh I could never be a vegetarian,’ so they don’t even consider the idea. Most people could probably cut 50% of the meat out of their diet and not feel like they’re really missing something from their life. There’s lots of little things people can do.

One of the things I’ve been reading about lately is just the food waste that happens, and food has a large environmental impact. So anything you can do that cuts down on food waste is environmentally a win.

What are two simple lifestyle changes that college women can do to help benefit the planet?

Eat less meat, and if you’re living in an apartment or a house, turn down the thermostat at night and when you’re away, or get a programmable thermostat. That just means your place isn’t being excessively heated or cooled while you’re not there. It saves a lot of money.

What are some changes you would like to see in how the University handles how it treats the planet and environmental issues here in Minneapolis?

If you compare a university world to the world at large, the University does a pretty good job. Even since I’ve been here — I think it has largely to do with budget cuts and trying to conserve money — they’ve done a fair bit. Things like putting motion detectors in offices so the lights turn off when nobody’s there, and Bruinink’s hall is completely designed with environmental endpoints in mind. Updating facilities to meet those standards would be fantastic. Increasing awareness about things like public transit, especially with the Green Line, now we have such great transit opportunities. Increasing student and faculty and staff participation in those options I think is fantastic. The University does a pretty good job.

A longer term thing that I would love to see the University do is make some real investments into non-fossil-fuel-based energy and think about divesting from them. Those are big, long-term goals, but I would love to see that. We’ve got a lot of southern exposures — there’s no reason we can’t put solar panels up on some of the University buildings. The dorms could have solar water heaters. There’s a lot could be done infrastructure-wise. Those are bigger things, but it’s a big university. We should have big goals. 

Just For Fun

Coffee/Tea Order:

Tea (Black with lots of cream and sugar)

Favorite Food:


Favorite Musical Artist Right Now:

My kids and I love watching Pentatonix videos together

One thing you can’t live without:

Some sort of outdoor activity

One thing you’re grateful for:

My family, both immediate and extended, and an incredible group of friends that I consider part of my family.  One thing you’re grateful for: My family, both immediate and extended, and an incredible group of friends that I consider part of my family.