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Professor Santiago Schnell FRSC

Santiago’s battle with cancer inspired his work, which combines experimentation research and computational modelling to study protein folding diseases.

Santiago tells us his experiences, combining computer science with chemistry, in his own words. 

Oil, computers, and chemistry

Santiago Schnell writing an equation on a laboratory fumehood

My father, who was a lawyer, inspired me to become a scientist. He had an extraordinary and acute sense of observation, which he made full use of to engage me in the discovery of scientific explanations. He also strongly encouraged me to learn how to program computers. In the late 1970s computers were rare, particularly in my home country of Venezuela. But in 1981, he bought me a Sinclair ZX81, and by learning and playing with my computer, I developed an intuition for solving real-life problems using mathematical principles and computational tools which has shaped my life and future career in science.

I also had multiple chemistry kits, which I enjoyed tremendously, and they provided me with independent and enjoyable access to the chemical sciences. Those first chemistry kits sparked my curiosity, but my love for chemistry is the result of the Venezuelan education system of the 1970s and 1980s. We were obliged to spin everything in terms of chemistry in order to preserve the growth of our single product economy: the oil industry. Chemistry permeated all aspects of our society, including some of our classical works of literature, which vividly described life in the petroleum fields.

My family and friends were absolutely convinced that I would become a computer scientist, but a couple of years before beginning my university studies, I had to battle cancer. This episode shifted my career interests towards the biomedical sciences. I wanted to use my mathematical and computational skills to investigate mechanisms triggering diseases.

At university, I studied biology with the intention of pursuing a research career in the biomedical sciences. Of course, the Venezuelan university education system gauged everything in terms of chemistry and the petroleum industry, so my biology degree had a heavy emphasis on biochemistry and biophysical chemistry. As I was learning more biology and chemistry, I started to understand that cells carried out their functions and experienced continuous change as the result of chemical interactions: if we want to understand life, we need to investigate the regulation of biochemical reactions.

Now I am a faculty member at a large research university in the USA. I enjoy every single aspect of my work. Every morning, I wake up really excited thinking about the new research problems and challenges we will be facing in the laboratory. Teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have in academia.  You have a unique opportunity to inspire the younger generation of scientists to pursue research. You can play an important role in transforming someone else’s life - it is a great responsibility, very similar to parenthood!

Hispanics in science

I think some of the affirmative action policies in the USA, while well-intentioned, have created challenging atmospheres for members of underrepresented communities to thrive. From personal experience, I have encountered colleagues who have discredited my success as policies of affirmative action. The attitude that underrepresented minorities will succeed with less is unethical and builds a barrier for minorities in the scientific community. It can also have devastating psychological effects. Many students and faculty members from underrepresented groups of science suffer from the “impostor syndrome”. It is not rare to find minority students or faculty saying: “I completely didn’t deserve to get in. I have no idea why they picked me”, or “Yes, I was invited to give a talk in the conference, but it is not a big deal. The organisers needed to meet the minority quota for the invited speakers”. “Impostor syndrome” builds doubt in the minds of those who may need encouragement the most to pursue careers in science.

The best way to help minority groups to advance in science is by teaching the parents and families of schoolchildren from underrepresented groups that a scientific career is very fruitful and can also be financially rewarding. As a Hispanic man, I had to face many of those idiosyncrasies myself. My friends and family believed pursuing a basic science degree at university will lead most probably to unemployment or a poorly paid job as a school teacher.

Hidden disabilities

I have suffered most of my adult life from an inflammatory bowel disease. This disease is considered a hidden disability, a disability with no visible symptoms and is not apparent from a single or brief interaction. Hidden disabilities cover a wide range of medical conditions which may be acute or chronic, and can also include learning disabilities and mental health diseases.

My disease has not been a barrier to my career. Living with a hidden disability requires the same qualities necessary for any successful career: discipline, patience, perseverance, and a positive attitude. You require the ability to weather a crisis of confidence and also to accept exhaustion as a part of life. In my case, I would argue that learning to live a good life, while managing a complex and exhausting disease, provided me qualities to have a successful career in academia. 

The major challenge a person with a hidden disability faces is that he or she does not obviously need assistance or accommodation. As a consequence, a person with a hidden disability must be constantly proactive about having his/her needs met. This can be exhausting, because people do not remember that someone with a hidden disability has a major health limitation.

People with hidden disabilities can find it very hard to talk about their diseases. If you suffer from an inflammatory bowel disease, I can tell you that people can be shocked to hear about chronic diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, gurgling sounds over the intestine, mouth sores, ulcers, etc. The problem is that if people with hidden disabilities do not talk about their disease, they can become reclusive and isolated from the work environment. This can have terrible consequences, because people with hidden disabilities who do not allow anyone into their world to help make adaptations to their working environment, hinder their ability to alleviate the effects of their disease.

If the members of the hidden disability community in academia directly bring us into their story, we learn from them extraordinary stories of perseverance against the odds and diversity immediately in front of us.

Interview by Rachel Purser-Lowman
Images courtesy Santiago Schnell
Published August 2014

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