Sept. 8, 2014Vol. 45, Issue 1

A Natural Fit

A Natural Fit

New Natural Sciences Dean David Hassenzahl brings to his post a passion for sustainability and public education. 

A Natural Fit

Science has always been at the center of David Hassenzahl’s universe.

The new dean of the College of Natural Sciences, now an internationally recognized scholar of sustainability and risk analysis, grew up in the 1970s in Los Alamos, New Mexico, a place where, at the time, virtually everyone was a scientist or an engineer, including Hassenzahl’s father, who was a physicist.

Throughout his childhood, Hassenzahl’s scientific interests only progressed, from astrophysics in elementary school, to physics, to biological science, to, by the time he graduated high school, paleontology and environmental science, subjects he went on to study and earn degrees in at UC Berkeley.

While studying at Cal, however, he realized his interests went beyond the physical applications of science.

“I realized while I was there that I was as interested in the question of how science is used to inform decisions as I was in the science itself,” he said.

He graduated in 1989 and worked in the Bay Area for several years as an environmental engineer and air quality inspector before going on to pursue a PhD in science, technology, and environmental policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Here his advisors were physicists and engineers and political scientists and psychologists. And this idea of bringing together different perspectives on common problems has influenced the way he has gone about his work ever since.

“All of my work, as a teacher, as a researcher, as an academic leader, and as a citizen, has always been very interdisciplinary,” Hassenzahl said. “And I find a lot of value in working with people from all sorts of different disciplines.”

After Princeton, he worked at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, beginning as an assistant professor and ending as chair of the Department of Environmental Studies. During his time there, he collaborated on the creation of several new degree programs and participated in interdisciplinary grant-funded projects.

“I did a lot of work in my last couple years in Las Vegas on climate change—in particular, climate change education—working on how to inform people in a variety of different settings about a changing climate, how do you impact people’s understanding of the climate, how do you impact their attitude toward climate change,” he said.

Hassenzahl greets new students at Wildcat Welcome in the University Stadium Aug. 22.

Hassenzahl greets new students at Wildcat Welcome in the University Stadium Aug. 22.

After a decade in Las Vegas, Hassenzahl had planned to go on sabbatical to do National Science Foundation-funded work on climate change education in Washington, D.C., but at the same time was offered the opportunity to start a new school of sustainability at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He decided to do both, commuting for a year between D.C. and Pittsburgh.

Starting a new school from scratch was a huge undertaking, with Hassenzahl spearheading the development of several graduate and undergraduate programs, hiring of an inaugural faculty and staff, and creation of the university farm. He worked with Chatham administration, the Pittsburgh sustainability community, and several architectural firms to develop, fundraise for, and begin building a new sustainable campus in Richland, Pennsylvania. During Hassenzahl’s tenure as founding dean of the Falk School of Sustainability, Chatham’s sustainability efforts were recognized by the International Sustainable Campus Network, the Princeton Review, and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. They were also covered by several major media outlets, including Forbes Magazine, USA Today, the Allegheny Front, and Pittsburgh Magazine.

“We got a lot done in four years, but also, I realized after a few years there that I’m much more interested in the public education mission,” Hassenzahl said, “so I spent some time trying to find a new place to go that fit my goals and interests.”

When the position at CSU, Chico came to his attention, it wasn’t the first time he had heard about this university. For several years he had been trying to find a way to attend This Way to Sustainability, the student-run conference held here annually. He looked at the position closely and was excited to see that in addition to the University’s established credentials in sustainability, the College of Natural Sciences was home to not only strong traditional programs but also strong programs in science education and nutrition and food science, both of which are important to him.

“It looked like an ideal opportunity,” he said. “I love the place, the school is the sort of school that I’m interested in, and the specifics of the college were just really exciting. So here I am.”

His goals here include maintaining the high student interest in STEM courses, investing in faculty renewal, building programs in the areas where students will be finding jobs in the future, and updating the college’s infrastructure. A high priority is a new science building—one that will remain top of the line for several decades and do interesting and innovative things both in the built environment itself and within the building. He also hopes to bring his background in education, particularly in climate and global change, to programs here.

“That’s an area that I’d like to work hard with the faculty on, but, you know, it really is the faculty who do the work in a college, and so my ideas need to be worked through with the faculty. I really see my position here in the dean’s office as serving the faculty, not the other way around,” he said. “We’re here to help them do the things they need to get done.” 

Kacey Gardner, Public Affairs and Publications

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