A couple of drops of red dye on a test plate is all it took for Dean Wendt to realize how incredible living organisms could be. Sitting in his home at eight years old, Wendt took a pair of tweezers and carefully removed the wings from a fly. It sounded cruel at the time, Wendt said. But when he leaned into the eyepiece of the 29-inch microscope, what he discovered would serve as the catalyst for his curiosity about nature and the world around him.
“The pattern of veins in the wing was an incredible experience as a kid; to see a whole world you can’t perceive with the naked eye,” he said.
Wendt didn’t know it at the time, but he was a biologist then, just like he is today. He is the director of the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences Center and the dean of research. But on July 1, he will leave those positions to take over Dean Phil Bailey’s position and become Cal Poly’s dean of the College of Science and Mathematics (COSAM).
Before Cal Poly
Wendt didn’t always consider becoming the dean. In fact, he didn’t see himself as much of an administrator until he came to Cal Poly. Growing up, Wendt always took roles where he could apply his strong work ethic, such as taking jobs at restaurants as a bus boy to earn a living while in school.
Biking to and from several shops, Wendt would try to convince the hiring managers to let him volunteer there.
“I would ride my bike through town wearing a tie and go to each pet store in the summer,” Wendt said. “I knew where every pet store was located.”
Wendt would also knock on the doors of restaurant businesses. With a mother whose family immigrated from Yugoslavia and owned their own restaurant, Wendt figured that industry would suit him well.
“I was sort of comfortable in the restaurant business. It’s something I knew my family did,” he said.
Wendt did everything to make sure he had a steady income.
Wendt said he remembers the hiring manager at Pascuali’s Pizza telling him, “I hired you because you kept bugging me about the job,” he said.
Within a matter of months, he was promoted to the assistant manager position.
“I was 18 years old and he was entrusting me with a responsibility I didn’t necessarily recognize at the time,” Wendt said.
After Wendt graduated high school in the mid 1980s, he landed a volunteer position at his local natural history and wildlife museum, which served as a rehabilitation space for injured animals. The center hosted animals like turkey vultures, hawks, eagles, snakes and raccoons. There, Wendt learned basic care procedures such as clipping animals’ nails and giving vaccinations to animals.
When he finished his year off after high school, Wendt enrolled in courses at Sierra College in Sacramento.
It was there that he was first introduced to philosophy classes that explained the relationship between man and nature. Wendt was immediately fascinated and intrigued.
At Cal Poly
“Coming to Cal Poly, I had to re-identify who I was,” he said. “And that’s what the institution allowed me to do. It gave me that opportunity and challenged me in a way [to where] I realized I was analytical.”
Before college, it was always Wendt’s brother, the electrical engineering student, whose forte was mathematics and science.
“I was always the social one and he was the smart one,” he said.
But as he started to take more biology classes and see exams with high scores circled at the top, Wendt realized he had what it takes to become a scientist, even a professor.
It was also the moment it hit him — biology was something he had kindled a love for since the moment he peered into the microscope in third grade.
“It feels that I had a lot of these instincts [as a biologist] as a kid and I didn’t realize it until I came here to Cal Poly,” he said.
Returning to Cal Poly
As a first-generation student, Wendt came a long way.
Wendt went on to pursue a doctorate of philosophy at Harvard University with Robert M. Woollacott, where he researched the relationship between fitness and larvae response to environmental cues.
“These were people whose papers I was reading and now they’re my colleagues. It’s neat,” he said.
After teaching courses at Harvard while simultaneously working toward a Ph.D., Wendt recognized his affinity for teaching students and went on to do just that.
He took on his first official role as a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Wendt loved everything about his job, but when he heard Cal Poly was hiring an assistant professor of marine biology, Wendt knew he had no other choice but to apply.
In 2002, Wendt and his family moved to Los Osos, California to begin his career as an assistant professor. Since then, Wendt has moved up in ranks to a full professor, associate dean, the director for the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences and dean of research.
Wendt looks forward to becoming the new COSAM Dean and is excited to serve the community.
“I see this as a jump in my career. I see it as an awe-inspiring responsibility to be given the opportunity to serve the students, the faculty and the staff of the college,” he said. “I hope that I make people proud and make a positive impact on the people that I’ll be working for.”