Former BMB Professor Danny Schnell passes away in Michigan

Headshot of Danny Schnell in his office, smiling


We were deeply saddened to learn that former faculty member Danny J. Schnell passed away on December 15th, 2021. Danny was a beloved professor, a wonderful friend and colleague, and an outstanding member of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus for nearly fifteen years before continuing his career at Michigan State University.

Danny received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics from the University of California, Davis in 1987. After working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rockefeller University in New York City with Dr. Günter Blobel, he was hired as an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University. In 2001, Danny was recruited to the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB) at UMass at the rank of Professor.

Danny made the most of his time at UMass. One year after his arrival on campus, he was appointed to be the second director of the Interdepartmental Plant Biology Graduate Program. In 2005, the BMB faculty unanimously chose him as Department Head, a position he served in for six years. He spearheaded several multi-investigator projects on campus, including the development of The Institute for Massachusetts Biofuels Research (TIMBR). His leadership led to successful competition for a $5.1M Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) project through the Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO) program. Danny was also an important part of the team of researchers from BMB and Chemical Engineering who were gifted a collection of plant cell cultures from industry. The Plant Cell Culture Facility is still active at UMass and provides more than 1,000 diverse plant species available for use in research by both academia and industry. He remained at UMass until the end of 2015 when he moved to Michigan State University to Chair the Department of Plant Biology.

Danny was a leader in plant organelle biogenesis and the biochemical analysis of protein translocation into chloroplasts. His specific area of research focused on the mechanism of protein import into chloroplasts, the organelles in which photosynthesis occurs in eukaryotic cells. This highly successful work was supported over the course of his career by funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Danny brought creativity and enthusiasm to his research that was admired by his colleagues. He was honored at the 2013 University Convocation for Outstanding Accomplishments in Research and Creative Activity with the Chancellor’s medal and was also a recipient of the University of Massachusetts President’s Science and Technology Award in 2009.

Danny’s research was highly visible nationally and internationally.  He served as a faculty mentor to the University of Miyazaki through the Troika Mentorship, which involved mentoring a small group of junior faculty and advising the university on the cultural standards for establishing a tenure system. He was a member of numerous societies including the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) and was named Secretary from 2007 to 2009 and a fellow of the organization in 2012. He served on numerous Editorial Boards including Frontiers in Plant Science, Journal of Cell Biology and PLoS Biology, and was also a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Danny Schnell was an exceptional researcher, mentor, and friend who inspired many. He will be deeply missed by his colleagues at UMass, Michigan State, and around the world.

From colleagues:

Lila Gierasch, BMB Distinguished Professor: Danny Schnell was a consummate scholar, passionate about scientific questions, exceptionally articulate in his presentations, and focused on the most significant implications of his research. But more importantly, Danny was warm, caring and selfless. He gave generously to his trainees, colleagues and institutions. I have cherished my friendship with Danny since we first crossed paths about 25 years ago. I was so pleased when he joined our faculty at UMass Amherst, and happy for him but sad for us when he moved to Michigan State. He leaves us way before his time and will be so missed.

Peter Chien, BMB Professor: Danny was the head of the department when I was hired and was a big part of why I felt so welcomed here at UMass. As a colleague, Danny was always willing to talk about interesting science, challenges with starting a new lab, and general mentoring. As a friend, Danny was equally always willing to relax together, try odd places to eat, and general camaraderie. I was excited for his new ventures when he left us, but so sad to not have him as part of my day to day community. He will be sorely missed.

Ludmila Tyler, BMB Senior Lecturer: I owe an immense debt of gratitude to Danny Schnell for his wisdom, practical support, and friendly encouragement when I was beginning my career as a faculty member at UMass.  As a scientist, colleague, and friend, he made a lasting impact on many.

Dong Wang, BMB Associate Professor: It is still rather impossible for me to accept that Danny is truly gone. Not only did he recruit me to this welcoming department, he and I had always had adjacent offices and laboratories after I arrived. The images of Danny sitting in front of his computer, or stepping out to teach, with his signature suit and tie, were indelible in my memory. When he was in his office, his door was always open, and I had always felt welcome to seek his advice on matters big and small. Even after he left UMass, his friendship toward me never diminished. Just the other day, I had a work-related question and thought it would be great to email Danny for his thoughts. The realization that I will never hear his voice or receive his wisdom again is unbearable.

Scott Garman, BMB Professor: Danny was a great scientist. I always marveled at his ability to take different experimental observations and forge them into rigorous science by coming up with testable hypotheses. He was a role model and mentor for me, and I will miss him.

Sam Hazen, Biology Professor: Danny was someone I admired from the day that we met. I often sought his advice, and often for the final word on a challenging situation. Soon after I arrived at UMass, he invited me to collaborate with him on a project and my group became highly invested. Before I could ask if I could take the lead, he leaned over with a smile - while he switched from one pair of glasses to the other, probably with a very sharp tie - and asked if I would lead the project. I miss his chuckle and optimistic smile. He was a colleague and a leader with a warmth and poise that we should all admire.