Denis Wiesenburg serves as the Vice President for Research at The University of Southern Mississippi. A Pascagoula, Miss., native, Wiesenburg spent seven years teaching in Alaska before returning to his home state. Recently, Wiesenburg took a few moments to reflect on his current responsibilities and outside interests in a question-and-answer format.
Q: What is your hometown and educational background?
A: I was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and graduated from Pascagoula High School My undergraduate degree is from Duke University (Chemistry) and I received an M.S. from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. (Oceanography). I received my Ph.D. in Oceanography from Texas A&M University.
Q: How did you end up working at Southern Miss?
A: My professional career in oceanography began as a civilian oceanographer working for the U.S. Navy at the Stennis Space Center. During that time, USM established the Center for Marine Science at Stennis and I taught the first chemical oceanography course as an adjunct professor. My career took me back to Texas A&M and in 1994 I was offered the position of Director of the USM Center for Marine Science at Stennis. So, I returned to my home state of Mississippi again to further develop USM’s marine science program. In 2004, I was recruited for a dean’s position at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and directed the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences from 2004 to 2010. When Dr. Cecil Burge announced his retirement as USM Vice President for Research in 2010, I applied for the position and was offered the position by President Saunders on April 5, 2010.
Q: What are your fondest memories of working in Alaska?
A: The natural beauty of Alaska makes it a magical place to live. From meandering rivers, to majestic mountains, to volcanoes and glaciers, the natural beauty of the environment is impressive. Because of the extremes of weather and daylight, Alaska is inhabited by determined people. We enjoyed the people we encountered and their adventurous spirit. As Garrison Keillor has said, there are no people in Alaska, only characters. We enjoyed meeting many of them.
Q: Did you ever have any encounters with grizzly bears?
A: No, only moose.
Q: As vice-president of research, how would you describe your duties at Southern Miss?
A: The Office of the Vice President for Research is a service organization to support faculty research activities. While office is also responsible for research compliance, we primarily view our job as helping the faculty seeking external support and manage their research activities, funded or unfunded, effectively. I personally view my position as being a catalyst for the research activities of the University.
Q: Any exciting research opportunities on the horizon that you can share with us?
A: For Southern Miss, the most demanding opportunities are in the area of health. Mississippi has the unfortunate position of being the sickest state in the nation. As a result, there are significant public health needs that can be explored by our faculty. USM’s strengths in public health position us well to become a major contributor to the future of healthier Mississippi. .
Q: Do you miss the daily interaction with students as a classroom instructor?
A: The further one moves up in university administration, the more distance one has from students. I miss regular student interaction and try to compensate by meeting with students when they present their research during various symposia and conferences. As a university, we always need to remind ourselves that we are here for the students.
Q: What is the best advice you ever received and from whom?
A: During my career, I have been fortunate to have some outstanding mentors. Trying to decide the best advice I have received is challenging. The most straightforward advice came from Dr. David Schink who was my dissertation advisor and became a close friend over the years. When I accepted the position of Director of the USM Center for Marine Science in 1994, he advised me, “Don’t be stupid.” This was followed by examples of universities who do things that are stupid (we can all think of examples) and how universities that were not stupid thrived.
Q: Do you think oil spills like the one that happened in the Gulf are preventable?
A: Not entirely. Oil exploration and production always involves risks. The key is to manage the risks effectively to minimize the possibility of losing lives or damaging the environment. More emphasis on safety would minimize the risk, but nature and human error will never allow us to live in a zero risk environment. As a society, we must balance the value of the resource with the potential cost of oil development.
Q: How do you like to spend your free time away from the office?
A: I like attend sporting events and to travel. One of the great benefits of working at USM is the opportunity to attend NCAA sporting events. Besides football, baseball, and basketball (remember I am a Duke graduate), I attend the volleyball games when I am in town. We have a great volleyball program at USM and it goes largely unnoticed. Traveling to experience other cultures is a passion. I have traveled to six of the seven continents with Antarctica still on my bucket list.