Tell us a little about your background.
I was born in rural Iowa, and I have gone to a lot of places since high school, so I always wanted to come back. I went to Iowa State University for an undergrad in biology, and that is where I started to get involved in research on insects. I went to grad school at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where I got a master’s and a Ph.D. I did a lot of work on fish biology and started to get really involved in molecular work, looking at genes and where they come from and how they’re turned on and turned off in different tissues. I could say a lot about fish. We are fish, and all vertebrates are! After that, I started to get involved in brain, behavior, and gene expression. I had a great opportunity to go to Belgium and do a postdoctoral fellowship doing more neurobiology research. I did a second postdoc in Seattle looking at neurotoxicology, which is the effect of different toxic substances on the brain.

Brett Mommer

What made you decide to become a professor?
I started to make the transition into a professor during the pandemic. The pandemic hit right before the end of my last postdoc, and I had to figure out what I wanted to do. I went through a couple of Midwest schools that had openings trying to find my way back to Iowa to a permanent position here. Fortunately, Wartburg had an opening just at the right time, so that brings the full circle back around to Wartburg. I consider myself a lifetime student. I really want to know how things work. I love that feeling, and I want to give that feeling to other people, to show others how amazing it is to know those kinds of things. I got a really good feeling from the people here when I came to interview at Wartburg. I’m glad that biology here includes some research with the teaching. Biology has always been my passion, and I devote my life to it. And the future leaders in our society will have to know science and technology, especially with how fast-paced the 21st century is.

What are you teaching right now?
I’m teaching anatomy with a couple of labs, a senior bioethics seminar, and a research methods course. It’s been awesome so far. I love my students and my colleagues, and the level of scholarship here has been impressive.

What are your hobbies besides teaching?
I was involved in collegiate skiing for a long time as a skier and then as a coach. I loved water skiing with my family. We all grew up water skiing, so I’ve been doing that since an early age. It’s a great family sport. Wartburg could have a collegiate team, and I would love to coach it too. I also do a lot of backcountry snowboarding and skiing in the winter. I love gardening. Back to skiing: a couple of my brothers got scholarships to go water skiing. Believe it or not, there are athletic scholarships for that in some schools but not in the Midwest. I got an academic scholarship to go to college, and I learned that they had a good ski team. I was hooked immediately as the collegiate scene in water skiing was the best part of college. We have a lot of Wartburg students who are athletes, and I totally see where they’re coming from: combining academics with sports is very rewarding. It is a well-rounded experience. Even if someone’s not athletic, studying with music or something like sports gives students a well-rounded experience.

What is the proudest achievement of your career so far?
My first publication, which as a researcher was a huge deal because you have now produced something as a scientist, you’ve added to human knowledge. My first student who graduated was my master’s student in Belgium, and I got to be on his committee and see him defend and graduate. And then finally getting accepted here at Wartburg into this position has been amazing.

What is one thing your colleagues or students don’t know about you?
I grew up as a “free-range” kid. I’m one of eight kids, and so had a different upbringing than a lot of people, and my siblings and I are still really close. I went to a Montessori school when I was in preschool where you can learn, but it’s up to you to go pick things and be interested in them and drive yourself. Growing up on a farm and having less adult supervision than most people has led me to kind of follow my own interests and be a successful first-generation student. There have been challenges, but it’s been helpful to be able to follow my own interests.

What impact do you hope to make during your time at Wartburg?
I haven’t gotten the chance to feel this yet, but I hope when students come back after they’ve graduated and gone off and maybe even gotten another degree or they’re professionals, they come back and say how much I meant to them. It could be a course or research or just the enthusiasm, or the stories that they’ve heard that made a difference in the way that they went.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give to your students?
I’m a big fan of quotes. There’s a quote that’s had a few iterations – “You can’t step in the same river twice.” It means different things to different people. Possibly what it means to me is that the world and the universe are always changing. Change is inevitable. Every college student is going through change, trying to decide what kind of person they are. Just as scientists, we’re in an ever-changing universe and whether you understand that and how you react to the change is really key to a lot of things. So, in other words, never stop learning and adapting.