In 1841, Blessed Basil Anthony Moreau, a French priest and the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross, sent Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., to the northern end of the Diocese of Vincennes to set up a new school for boys.
Moreau’s educational philosophies, outlined in his 1856 work, “Christian Education,” set his intentions for the study of science at the new university he had a key role in founding the following year — the University of Notre Dame. At a time when many religious were skeptical about how science and theology could co-exist in one institution, his thoughts were clear.
“One of the critical missions of a Catholic university, particularly in a college of science, should be the cultivation of the higher understanding and purpose of the universe and life.” —Santiago Schnell
“Even though we base our philosophy course on the data of faith, no one need fear that we shall confine our teaching within narrow and unscientific boundaries,” Moreau wrote. “No, we wish to accept science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times.”
Santiago Schnell, recently appointed as the William K. Warren Foundation Dean of the College of Science, espouses a similar perspective: Those in the college must collaborate not only with other scientists, but also with engineers, philosophers, theologians and others.
Developing a functional, college-wide philosophy of working among disciplines is one of the key goals Schnell aims to achieve as dean.
“One of the critical missions of a Catholic university, particularly in a college of science, should be the cultivation of the higher understanding and purpose of the universe and life,” says Schnell, who is Venezuelan but holds a German last name that means “fast.”
An internationally recognized expert in theoretical and mathematical biology as well as biophysical chemistry, Schnell was formerly the chair of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan. Under his leadership, the department was ranked the top National Institutes of Health-funded physiology department in the United States. He developed his multidisciplinary vision at an early age, while growing up in a house in the middle of a tropical rainforest in Caracas, Venezuela.
He was acutely aware of nature from the moment he woke up each morning, and had to perform a mental checklist before getting dressed. Are there scorpions in my shoes? No … check. How about a snake on the sleeve of my shirt? No … check.
“These things make you aware not only of the natural environment and ecology, but the way nature interacts with humans,” says Schnell, who has been named a 21st Century Science Scholar by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and an Emerging Leader in Health and Medicine by the National Academy of Medicine. “At the same time, these things make nature approachable to scientists.”
Schnell was introduced to the intricacies of the natural world by his neighbor, Serafín Mazparrote, a Spanish biologist and expert in the public understanding of science. Mazparrote established himself in Venezuela and created one of the largest elementary, middle and high school publishing companies in Latin America. In a way, growing up with Mazparrote was like having access to a living textbook.
One time, Mazparrote took Schnell into the forest and predicted what type of birds were in the trees by merely identifying the insects scurrying across the soil.
“For me, it was incredibly illuminating that an expert is able to perceive things that nobody else can, just by noticing the small elements in nature,” Schnell describes. “It really inspired me to become a scientist.”
Schnell’s father, a lawyer, had originally studied to become a priest, but was forced to return early from the seminary after his mother died and his help was needed to run a household with a large family. Though he had a legal mind, Schnell’s father was attuned to the computer revolution and purchased his then 10-year-old son a computer — a Sinclair ZX81, manufactured in the United Kingdom.
The elder Schnell (and later, Schnell himself) soon became enthralled with using mathematical approaches to solve problems. And computers were the answer, his father decided.
“My father could foresee that computers were going to be taking an important role in the future, and he wanted me to be prepared,” Schnell describes. “It was to the point where, and this really amazes me, my father predicted that something similar to Amazon would exist someday — where you would have robots collecting things and drones delivering them to people.”
Neighbors and teachers assumed Schnell would become a computer scientist, but illness soon drew him toward a field in biology. He began to be plagued with chronic gastrointestinal difficulties — symptoms that other family members also experienced. Schnell underwent aggressive treatments for severe allergies and immune hypersensitivity, which caused him to develop cancer by age 15. Though the cancer was treated with an experimental therapy that worked well, he still suffered from gastrointestinal symptoms that were properly diagnosed years later as Crohn's disease and colitis. Unfortunately, the severity of his disease caused Schnell’s gastrointestinal system to degenerate, requiring him to undergo surgery seven years ago to remove his large intestine and colon.
“The interaction with physicians (as a child), seeing them work, inspired me that if I could work in biomedical sciences, I would potentially be able to save and help people like me,” says Schnell.
His career path decided early on, he earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Universidad Simón Bolívar in Venezuela. Later, he received his doctorate in mathematical biology from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and held two prestigious research positions at Oxford.
Because of his illness, Schnell battles with several disabilities caused by multiple immune diseases that include Crohn’s disease, psoriasis and arthritis. His supervisory duties for the Office for Health Equity and Inclusion at Michigan Medical School allowed him to create and implement a strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion — work he is pleased to have done.
“I have these invisible disabilities that are there, but the fact that I am able to handle them very well gives me satisfaction in life,” he says. “I do struggle, but these disabilities are not noticeable to other people.”
As such, Schnell is a champion for people with disabilities as well as for having a diverse student and scientist population.
The way mathematics is taught is a contributing factor to what Schnell considers a “leaky pipeline” of people who go into the sciences. The teaching method — chalk and board, pencil and paper — doesn’t work well for most students, and it has not changed since before the Cold War era. Students traditionally are not allowed to use a computer to support their mathematical results and analysis until they are pursuing advanced courses during their undergraduate studies.
“His insights, combined together with his very energetic and enthusiastic personality, mean that he will be in a position not only to help support the advance of science in a significant way, but also will help him to train the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers.” —Philip Maini
However, most practicing mathematicians do not use pencil and paper alone to solve complicated problems, because the approach decreases the value of the exercise when computers perform certain calculations easily. Schnell believes in a flipped model: Students should start with computers and check answers with paper and pencil, to be sure they understand the process.
Using computers alongside pencil and paper “would require a change of mindset, but it would revolutionize learning and wake up interesting things, and facilitate aspects of science that would be unique,” he says.
His thinking dovetails with his philosophy of the sciences, which Schnell believes should not be divided into specific disciplines. Though other scientists may disagree, Schnell prefers to think about the existence of impactful and critical questions that can be answered in a multidisciplinary way.
In essence: What is the big question that researchers should be answering? Take, for example, the question of “what is time?” The scientist will look at the concept of measuring time, and instruments to measure it — understanding how several pieces work together to tell the time, how the pieces are intertwined, allowing us to measure it with precision and reproducibility. An engineer or an applied scientist is more interested in the result: What time is it? And just as importantly, Schnell notes, a philosopher will ask the most profound question: What is the nature of time?
“I would like to have the College of Science work with the engineering sciences because we would like to make science tangible; we need the impact of engineers to translate things to society, through development of new technologies or implementation of more efficient technologies,” Schnell says. “But at the same time I want to talk to theologians, philosophers, people in the humanities, to create a more rounded understanding of the purpose of life.
“I think one of the fundamental problems we have in the colleges of science across the world is that they have become so distinct and separate from the rest of university life that they are losing a rounded understanding of life, but at the same time the rest of the academy is losing something more deeply,” he continues. “And if we don’t work together to answer those big questions, we are not going to be successful. For example, a philosopher would not be able to make advances in bioethics if they don’t have the biological facts at hand.”
Doing science isn’t inexpensive, an aspect of which Schnell is acutely aware. This is where his leadership as a scientist is special, because he has a keen understanding of the processes required to achieve financial goals. While chair of the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology at the University of Michigan Medical School from 2017 until being hired at Notre Dame, he helped it increase its total annual operating revenue from $20.7 million to $26.9 million, and total cash and investments from $11.2 million to $17.2 million. The department’s endowment also grew under his leadership — from $5.4 million to $8.3 million.
Active in several academic and professional societies, Schnell is past president of the Society for Mathematical Biology and continues to serve as chair of both the finance committee and the past presidents advisory board. Having a natural inclination to serve others, Schnell is proud of his time leading that organization and the substantial changes he was able to effect.
When he took over, the society had no organizational structure, an old website and membership dues that hadn’t increased in 50 years, describes Denise Kirschner, professor of microbiology and immunology at Michigan Medicine and the society’s current president. Schnell changed all of those issues, and hired a lawyer to ensure the society was in compliance with rules allowing it to keep its nonprofit status. The addition of dues allowed the society to begin to invest, and membership grew.
“Dr. Schnell brings incredible big-picture insights to all that he does, but it doesn’t stop there!” Kirschner writes. “Most leaders provide that, but what they don’t often have is understanding of the details that are necessary to carry out those ideas.
“And so what Dr. Schnell brings to the table is the ability to not only plan, but also execute programs, initiatives, etc.,” she continues. “He has a unique ability to think ahead for what things might be important and then build towards addressing those goals and issues.”
The field of mathematical biology, which integrates the disciplines of mathematics and medical sciences, is increasing at a rate never before seen, and will be one of the major scientific disciplines of the century, says Philip Maini, professor of mathematical biology at the University of Oxford, who supervised Schnell’s doctoral and postdoctoral research. Schnell’s background, coupled with a broad vision, means he can identify areas that can benefit significantly from a mathematical approach.
Schnell, who with his wife, Mariana (a librarian for the St. Joseph County Public Library system), has two children, Andrea, 21 (majoring in education and theater) and David, 19 (majoring in philosophy, politics and economics), says he enjoys working to help people — whether those people are students, professors, staff or others. He is looking forward to leading by example as dean of the College of Science. Noting his positive qualities, Schnell’s former colleagues expect he will be the perfect fit.
“His insights, combined together with his very energetic and enthusiastic personality, mean that he will be in a position not only to help support the advance of science in a significant way, but also will help him to train the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers,” says Maini. “We need this to translate scientific knowledge from the laboratory into industry, the clinic and the wider community.”