Former Dean Castellino celebrates 50 years at the University of Notre Dame

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When Francis Castellino attended scientific conferences during his early days at the University of Notre Dame, his colleagues primarily wanted to talk about just one topic. The football team.

“Not the academic accomplishments of the University,” said Castellino, a biochemist who has been at the University of Notre Dame for 50 years and is currently the director of the W.M. Keck Center for Transgene Research. “But the football program is really important to this place, and it makes a huge difference in terms of the university being known all over the country, having alumni coming together for certain activities, and generating loyalty in those who follow us. “

He’s thankful that he doesn’t get asked exclusively about the football program anymore, but added, “that ‘community’ does lead to academic excellence.”

That community of alumni, however, wouldn’t have formed without the dedication of professors including Castellino, according to Victoria Ploplis, a research professor and associate director of the W.M. Keck Center for Transgene Research. She was one of his graduate students in the 1970s, when Castellino did rounds in the lab, talking every day to all the investigators and students about current experiments.

“He was on top of everyone’s research, and still does that to this day,” she said. “Asking, ‘What’s the science?’”

Castellino has watched that academic excellence unfold since his early days. He joined the University of Notre Dame in February 1970, and recounted many of the highlights that range from University-wide academics, to his time as Dean of the College of Science, to presidential candidates and other notable people he’s met, and beyond.

He researches the structure, function, an activation of proteins that participate in blood coagulation, blood clot dissolution, inflammation and infection. Although there was no official form of “biochemistry” when he arrived, he landed a research grant in 1975 through the National Institutes of Health that has been continuously renewed through today. His most important discovery is understanding the interconnections of the hemostasis system in inflammatory diseases.

He became the founding director of the then-Center for Transgene Research in 1996, which developed mouse models with designed gene alterations. This allowed researchers to study functions of components of the hemostasis system, which is the process that stops blood loss from a damaged blood vessel. Today, the W.M. Keck Center for Transgene Research maintains among the world’s largest collection of models with modified hemostatic systems in the world, and consists of several complementary research programs. Its translational program collaborates with Memorial Hospital trauma and emergency room physicians in developing models of traumatic brain injury, to further characterize how blood coagulates after those injuries.

“When I came in 1970, I was just a naïve kid. And in 1978, I went through the ranks of promotion, and I was appointed chair of chemistry,” he said. “But I only lasted a month, because then I was appointed dean.” He went on to be the longest-running dean of the College of Science, serving in that role from 1979 to 2003.

He vigorously maintained his laboratory while working as dean, and still teaches courses to graduate students. He’s an adjunct professor at the Indiana School of Medicine-South Bend, and enjoys and works hard at teaching..

“I think I’m viewed as a very good teacher, but my biggest disaster was trying to teach a new course in chemical biology to first year students, and I had a huge class at the time. Let’s just say it didn’t go well,” he joked. “Sometimes, my wife tells me my expectations of them were too high. I asked her if she wanted me to lower my expectations? And she said, ‘no.’”

Castellino’s greatest legacy so far, according to A. Graham Lappin, professor of chemistry who was hired by him in 1982, is the quality of professors retained during his tenure as dean.

“Frank was a master at figuring out how to marshal the resources required to hire leading faculty,” Lappin said. “Whether it was by offering spousal hiring or unique facilities, Frank found a way.”

Though he has been successful in the lab, in his establishment of core facilities, and persistence in getting an undergraduate laboratory building planned and constructed—Jordan Hall of Science opened in 2006,  three years after he stepped down as dean—some of Castellino’s best memories are centered around University culture. He fondly recalls working with former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., and former Provost Timothy O’Meara when, in his words, “everything was on the table, and all we discussed was how to achieve excellence.”

He met five United States presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan—during his years as dean, as well as global dignitaries. Castellino, who grew up in Pittston, a blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania coal town made infamous in the recent movie “The Irishman,” felt it was remarkable to be put in situations where he could meet high-ranking public officials.

“Particularly special was one commencement when both Stephen Hawking and Lech Walesa were honorary degree recipients,” he said. Walesa was the leader of the Solidarity movement, who later was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and elected president of Poland. Because he was imprisoned during the time of the commencement, there was the flag of Poland draped over an empty chair.

“It was a very emotional commencement and when Provost O’Meara read the citation—I almost cried. It was unbelievable,” he said. “I am still moved by it.” This was, at the time, the only honorary degree awarded by Notre Dame in absentia. 

Castellino has always enjoyed his research, starting from his days in graduate school. After earning his Master of Science in 1966 and a doctoral degree in 1968 from the University of Iowa, Castellino completed a National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellowship at Duke University, before joining the Notre Dame faculty.

Castellino’s lab is currently doing research to understand Group A streptococcus, on a molecular and cellular level, as well as on an evolutionary basis.

“His research relied on keeping abreast of the development at the forefront of biochemistry to provide a vision of how these might affect his own work,” Lappin said, adding that the rise of molecular biology in the 1980s provided a challenge to put in place key personnel to develop expertise on the faculty at Notre Dame.

Castellino quickly moved to expand these efforts to work with the latest molecular biology and immunology studies.

“Advances in cancer research and other important areas followed these fundamental developments,” Lappin said.

With the importance of balancing both research and teaching, Castellino advises new professors to concentrate on teaching, but also to make sure they can develop notable research programs.

“Teach well, but know that teaching involves many things, including how well you run your research lab,” he said. “A student can’t define what good teaching is, but they know when they’ve had a good teacher, because they learn something.”

Castellino’s passion for mentoring has continued during his career, and last year he nominated Ana Lidia Flores-Mireles, Hawk Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, to give a talk in California in February at the Gordon Research Conference on Plasminogenic Activation and Extracellular Proteolysis, which, “for a junior investigator, this is a big deal,” she said.

“My participation in that conference opened the door for me to new collaborations, and to enter into a new scientific field,” Flores-Mireles said, praising his generosity and collaborative spirit. “I cannot thank him enough for his support and guidance — scientifically and personally.”

Castellino and his wife, Mary, raised three children, all of whom graduated from Notre Dame as undergraduates, and one who also received a law degree from the University. And though he’s been at the University for 50 years, he’s not looking to retire soon. He’s in good health, he’s active, he still runs an active research laboratory, and he publishes frequently.

“My wife says that if I retire, I better have something else to do, and I don’t,” he said, adding that he doesn’t foresee himself thinking about retirement within the next five years, and he and his wife have already traveled the globe.

“Of course, God is going to make that decision for me to retire someday, but I’m not quite ready yet,” he said. “My only need is to be part of something bigger. If I were to wake up in the morning and nobody gave a darn about what I was doing, that would kill me. Basically, I have to think about retirement because of my age, but I don’t want to have to think about it because I don’t want to think about what happens if I’m not being useful anymore.”

As Castellino continues his research into blood clotting disorders, he appreciates how far research has come across the University. Now that Notre Dame has become more well-known for its research, Castellino doesn’t hear the questions about football nearly as often at academic conferences.

“I’ve seen unbelievable progress in 50 years,” he said.