Remembering Deborah Swackhamer, Researcher and Environmental Advocate

Swackhamer's impact felt across the University and the world
May 5, 2021
Deborah Swackhamer stands near an ornate railing
Humphrey School Professor Emerita Deborah Swackhamer passed away on April 23, 2021.

Deborah Swackhamer, professor emerita of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and well-known environmental scientist, is being remembered for her brilliant mind, boundless energy, generous mentorship, and steadfast advocacy for integrity in science. Swackhamer died of cancer on April 23 at age 66. 

Swackhamer was an environmental chemist and toxicologist, focusing her research on persistent organic compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, and pesticides, that remain in the environment for a long time.

Over her nearly three decades at the University of Minnesota, from 1987 until her retirement in 2015, Swackhamer had a wide-ranging impact on the University’s research into the environment and water quality issues. 

During the course of her career, Swackhamer was co-director of the University’s Water Resources Center and co-founder of the interdisciplinary Institute on the Environment. She was a professor in both the Humphrey School’s Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) area and in the School of Public Health’s Environmental Health Sciences department. 

Swackhamer’s reputation as a researcher and scholar was recognized internationally; she was named one of 20 inaugural fellows of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), the world's largest and most prestigious organization of environmental and toxicology chemists. 

From 2003 to 2012, Swackhamer was a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Advisory Board, and served as its chair from 2008 to 2012. She later served as chair of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), an independent external panel of experts that advises the agency's office of science.

She was widely recognized for a very public conflict with the EPA during the Trump administration, when the agency’s chief of staff asked her to change congressional testimony she was preparing to deliver in June 2017 about the administration’s meddling with the EPA’s scientific panels. She refused to do so and a few months later, she was removed as chair of the BOSC. 

That incident led Swackhamer to receive the MIT Media Lab’s Disobedience Award in 2018.

Swackhamer was the recipient of numerous awards and honors over the years, including:

Swackhamer’s colleagues and former students reacted to the news of her death. 

“Many of us remember Deb for her boundless energy and her deep dedication---in equal measure--to students, to her scholarship and to the broader community. Several in the Humphrey community will also cherish memories of her remarkably generous mentorship and advocacy.” — Laura Bloomberg, dean of the Humphrey School


“We at the Humphrey School were so fortunate to have Deb serve as the Charles M. Denny Jr. Chair in Science, Technology, and Public Policy, as an engaged scholar who provided invaluable perspectives on environmental issues to students, the general public, and officials at the regional and national levels. In a policy environment in which politics can often trump science in public decision-making, she operated with the highest degree of professionalism and integrity.” — Eric Schwartz, former dean of the Humphrey School


“Deb Swackhamer was one of my dearest professional mentors. She demonstrated how scientific rigor and credibility could be aligned with policy and advocacy to enact change at local to national scales. I was inspired by her career and her dedication to science as a public good and essential component of effective state and federal institutions. She was also a fierce advocate for women in science. She was the first person I turned to for career advice and coaching. In fact, it was Deb's encouragement that led me to apply for a faculty position at the Humphrey School. Her spirit and intellect are irreplaceable, but her legacy is one that should inspire us all: Stand up for what you believe in, use your power to advance the public good, and lay the groundwork for effective institutions and leaders to carry the work forward.” — Bonnie Keeler, assistant professor at the Humphrey School 


“I had the pleasure of seeking Deb's wisdom and guidance on several occasions as I joined the faculty at the University and took over leadership of the Institute on the Environment (IonE). While I benefited so much from those interactions (and now wish I had more of them!), I also feel Deb's presence in so many other ways at IonE. She put in an incredible amount of effort and vision into the creation of IonE, and she was a fierce advocate for all of the ideas that were —and still are—critical to IonE: interdisciplinarity, collaboration, societal impact, and external engagement. We try to carry forward those ideals every day, and the IonE community owes Deb a debt of gratitude. I wish I had another chance to tell her ‘thank you,’ and I commit to stewarding her legacy the very best I can.” — Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on the Environment


“Deb’s impact on the University went well beyond the research that she did and the many scientific advisory committees she was on. There are many people now at the university playing leadership roles and speaking out in the environmental area. Her leadership was crucial to setting that as a role people should aspire to.” — Fred Rose, former co-director of the Acara program at IonE, part-time instructor


“Dr. Swackhamer served as my academic advisor and the lead for my final paper at the Humphrey School. It was about agricultural impacts on water quality in Minnesota. The blueprint she left for all of us to build upon has forever changed our work for the better. Her impacts on environmental science and policy are well known, but Deb was always behind the scenes supporting students, particularly women, and was always continuing her work through us. The last time I saw her we had lunch on a sunny summer day. She was encouraging and we talked about her singing and scuba diving to clean coral reefs. I will think about that lunch often and how she continued the work long after she ‘retired.’ How generous she was.”  — Whitney Place (MS-STEP ‘13), assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture 


Swackhamer is survived by her husband, two children, two grandchildren, and a sister. 

The family requests donations to the Deborah Swackhamer, PhD Environmental Health Sciences and Policy Scholarship at the University of Minnesota. 

Read Swackhamer’s full obituary at the Star Tribune.