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New dean continues research, sets goals for College of Science

| Wednesday, December 1, 2021

“I imagined myself on my deathbed thinking, ‘Oh, what did you do with your life? I made hair more shiny and beautiful’ — I couldn’t be doing that.”

Santiago Schnell, the new dean of Notre Dame’s College of Science, began his career working in the beauty care department of Procter and Gamble. It was there that he realized he had a different calling, he said — to contribute more to the world than just superficial beauty. Prior to becoming a dean, Schnell contributed substantially to an up-and-coming area of science: mathematical biology.

Courtesy of Barbara Johnston | University of Notre Dame
Santiago Schnell, Notre Dame’s new Dean of the College of Science, began his term Sept. 1.

Schnell said his unique undergraduate training at Universidad Simon Bolivar in Venezuela helped him in his chosen field of study.

“[Universidad Simon Bolivar] forces everyone to go through an advanced mathematics degree regardless of the subject you take,” he said. “The philosophy is that math actually provides you the tools to be an effective scientist, effective engineer or an effective scholar. So, it gives you clarity of mind.”

Schnell said the university in Venezuela also required students to pursue a minor in a non-scientific discipline. He also ended up completing a minor in philosophy, which he said helps him have a more comprehensive view of the world.

It was after his undergraduate years that Schnell briefly worked at Procter and Gamble and said he realized his career was meant to take on greater challenges. He then completed his doctorate in mathematics at the University of Oxford — an easy transition, he said, due to the advanced degree in math he obtained during his undergraduate years.

At Oxford, Schnell specialized in mathematical biology. He said this field aims to contextualize biological processes in mathematical models to help laboratories work more efficiently.

“I specialized on a field that was relatively new at the time that’s called mathematical biology. It is where you are trying to frame biomedical problems and chemical products in mathematical terms,” he said. “If you have a very complicated hypotheses that you need to test in the laboratory, sometimes what you can do is you can test it first with a mathematical model.”

During his doctoral studies, Schnell focused on improving models for biochemical pathways, he said. On the side, he also researched mechanisms in the formation of the backbone during development called somitogenesis. This became the basis for the research he would do for the rest of his career and that he continues to do at Notre Dame.

“I mainly focus on doing hypothesis-driven research, which I do as a team scientist,” he said. “But what I do as an individual scientist is all measurement science.”

Schnell spent 3 years completing his doctoral degree and graduated in his fourth year. He explained that it is a long process because, in order to receive a doctorate, a scientist must contribute new knowledge to their field.

“When you’re doing the Ph.D., you create the information in your textbook,” Schnell said. “You cannot teach in the classroom how to create new information. The only thing that can be taught is working closely with another scientist.”

Schnell continued his career researching and holding various positions until he was hired as the head of the department of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Michigan. He said this position leading a department helped shaped the rest of his career.

“It was a good experience for me because I learned how to impose strategic planning with deans and faculty, negotiating and working with the president’s office, I end up getting a better experience of how the research enterprise works from that point of view, but as well from other points of view, such as improving your programs, improving research centers,” he said.

At Notre Dame, Schnell said he has ambitious plans he’d like to carry out to improve research centers and collaborations across colleges.

“I’m in love with this institution, there’s so many great things that can be done here that I would like to have the opportunity to make sufficient changes, and I have an ambitious plan,” he explained. “One thing that actually is missing is having a uniform home where [all scientists that] are working with biomedical processes can all communicate more often.”

Schnell also said he intends to find new ways to “make more Domers,” such as increasing post-doctoral fellowship positions within the College of Science.

Overall, Schnell said he hopes to help foster a community of well-rounded students who can make good contributions not only to the sciences but to society in general.

“We need to create good human beings and understand how life works,” he said. “The mysteries of life, they don’t boil down exclusively to the chemical components and the physical — they’re … bigger than that.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described that Schnell completed his doctorate in 10 years. The Observer regrets this error. 

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About Bella Laufenberg

Bella Laufenberg is a sophomore biological sciences major, who likes news much more than organic chemistry. She has a supplementary major in classics and is in the journalism, ethics and democracy minor. At The Observer, she is the New Writer Editor and works production.

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