How Danny Wells Uses his ESAM Experience to Connect Different Disciplines

Wells honed his ability to collaborate at Northwestern, and he uses that skill now to link math to biology

When Danny Wells was looking for a graduate school to continue his mathematics education, he searched for a landing spot where he could explore the applications of math, especially to biology and more broadly human health.

He found the Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics at Northwestern Engineering, which heavily emphasized the interaction between mathematicians and scientists. Working with Professor William Kath, Wells learned how to apply math, and at the same time, had the opportunity to collaborate with multiple faculty members from different academic departments. As a result, Wells was effectively “triple advised,” by Kath, Margaret B. Fuller Boos Professor and professor of applied mathematics; Joshua Leonard, professor of chemical and biological engineering; and Adilson Motter, Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor of Physics.    

Danny Wells

Wells published papers with all three, attended seminars in the biology and physics departments, took courses in computer science and chemical and biological engineering, and was fully immersed in the interdisciplinary communities throughout McCormick as well as the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, and the then-nascent Physical Science Oncology Center (PSOC).    

“It wasn’t applied math for applied math’s sake,” Wells said. “We were really trying to apply math to scientific problems in order to advance human health. This is what I wanted to be doing.”

That experience set Wells up for his professional success.

As founder and CTO at Santa Ana Bio, a biotechnology company leveraging single cell genomics and advanced analytics to develop new therapies for patients with autoimmune disease, Wells is at the scientific interface between biology and math. At Santa Ana, he leads the genomic platform group and is a member of the executive team.    

He’s still leveraging his time at the McCormick School of Engineering through his understanding of biological dialects, something that came from his work with Northwestern biologists.

“In biotech, it’s the same set of skills, just learning different areas of biology,” Wells said.

One key thing Wells learned at Northwestern was the ability to approach data science in a mathematically principled way. Even though data science is currently very trendy, it can be easy to miss how much math underlies many of the techniques in use. Having a deep understanding of the mathematical foundations of data science approaches can help bring an understanding of why some approaches work, and why others don’t, and how to address problems that arise.    

That knowledge helps him now, and also aided Wells when he was the founding principal data scientist at the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, where he led the genomic data science and immunotherapy resistance group before his time at Santa Ana Bio.    

“My experience allowed me to really accelerate the transition into data science, because I was able to really go deep and be useful on the analytics side right away,” Wells said.

Clearly, Wells’s deep roots in collaboration, which were planted at Northwestern, continue to bear fruit. Biological data science is all about working with investigators from separate disciplines, and finding a way to answer questions despite disparate backgrounds.

“My groups exist to support ongoing therapeutic development efforts. We have to partner with immunologists and cell biologists and protein scientists and even medical doctors across the entire spectrum,” Wells said. “We go to them. We need to understand their questions and explain how we can use data to help support their decision-making process. The immense number and variety of collaborations I was exposed to really helped me learn this skillset to communicate across these interfacial barriers and find ways to do principled, mathematically rigorous data analysis that was still meaningful and helped address questions.”

McCormick News Article