During his years of service, UA medical school student Ryan Schmoll spent time learning Arabic, controlling nuclear weapons and taking on leadership roles stateside and in combat zones.
During his years of service, UA medical school student Ryan Schmoll spent time learning Arabic, controlling nuclear weapons and taking on leadership roles stateside and in combat zones.

UA Med Student, Motivated by Community, Named Tillman Scholar

Ryan Schmoll is engaged in research to develop new, non-opioid pain management drugs to aid with the nation's current epidemic of opioid addiction.
June 12, 2017
Extra Info: 

Founded in 2008, the Tillman Scholars program supports the nation's active-duty service members, veterans and military spouses by investing in their higher education. The UA is among the 15 University partners that work with the Pat Tillman Foundation to identify and select qualified candidates on their campuses for the Tillman Scholar screening process. The scholarship covers direct study-related expenses, including tuition and fees, books and living expenses, for scholars who are pursuing undergraduate, graduate or professional degrees as full-time students at public or private U.S.-based accredited institutions.

Ryan Schmoll has been named a 2017 Pat Tillman Scholar.
Ryan Schmoll has been named a 2017 Pat Tillman Scholar.

Growing up in a military family in Mesa, Arizona, Ryan Schmoll was taught from a young age the significance of service before self.

At 18, Schmoll started his military journey at the U.S. Air Force Academy, influenced by his father, who was a U.S. Air Force pilot. Schmoll's grandfather also served in the then-named Army Corps. His maternal grandfather also was a mechanic in World War II and a pilot in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and other relatives also have served.

"My motivation to serve in the military stemmed from the same core objective I have always pursued: Do things that will make this world a better place to live," said Schmoll, a second-year student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson.

"I became completely absorbed in the discipline, leadership, teamwork and problem solving required for success as an officer in the military. The oaths I took provided comfort amid the chaotic lifestyle and moral ambiguity of professionally managing violence."

Upon returning stateside, Schmoll performed nuclear alert duties as a launch control commander and instructed junior commanders to ensure safe and secure operations with intercontinental ballistic missiles. He also worked with the Air Force Space Command assets to support counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan and Southwest Asia.

For his contributions and career promise, Schmoll has been named a 2017 Tillman Scholar, along with other students across the nation. The Pat Tillman Foundation is providing the cohort of U.S. service members, veterans and military spouses with $1.1 million in scholarships to pursue their higher education and continue their service in the fields of medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts.

"As the next generation of private and public sector leaders, the Tillman Scholars are tackling challenges across national security, health care, technology, civil rights and education," said Marie Tillman, board chair and co-founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation, in a statement announcing the new cohort. 

"They believe their best years of service to our country are still ahead of them, and they are committed to making a direct impact to strengthen communities at home and around the world," Tillman said. "We are proud to support this newest class of Tillman Scholars in their drive to serve and empower others as our country’s next leaders."

The UA is a partner with the Pat Tillman Foundation and each year helps to identify students for the scholarship. To date, the foundation has invested more than $15 million in academic support in more than 520 Tillman Scholars at more than 100 academic institutions across the nation. From July 20-23, the foundation will host the 2017 Pat Tillman Leadership Summit, bringing together Tillman Scholars from around the country to address some of the toughest challenges impacting the country and its communities.

From Service to Military to Saving Lives

Schmoll graduated from Desert Vista High School in suburban Phoenix, then completed his undergraduate studies at the Air Force Academy. He entered into active duty in 2004 and served until 2014, with only a few months remaining on an inactive ready reserve commitment.

Throughout his time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Southwest Asia, he observed a common thread: the power of medicine to de-escalate violence and improve relationships within the communities served. Moved by military physicians' ability to transform those communities, he decided to pursue a career in medicine.

At the UA, Schmoll said he is keen to apply the lessons he learned in the military to helping communities closer to home.

His research efforts are focused on non-opioid pain relief, health care record management and security, and improving access to telemedicine. By leveraging his big-data experience, Schmoll is working to develop a more secure way to manage health care records in a way that also will personalize patient care. He also hopes his work with non-opioid pain treatment will someday help reduce opioid dependence throughout the U.S.

"First and foremost, I will become a highly competent physician. Along the way, I will also continue conducting pain research and looking for ways to further integrate health data for medical research and clinical applications," Schmoll said. "When we are able to correlate patient records with genomes, innumerable studies will be performed to aid in the search of new approaches to save lives."

Schmoll recalls the very moment he decided that helping to save lives would become his life's motivation.

During a combat tour in Iraq, he saw a woman hit by small rocket fire. "There was nothing I could do, and it deeply bothered me," he said.

He began visiting a Baghdad hospital weekly to offer support. During that time, a physician showed him how to change the dressings of an Iraqi soldier who had been badly burned. Schmoll was transformed. 

"I began to question the path I had chosen," he said, saying that the doctor was highly influential in reshaping his career path. "I came to realize the medical care she provided was a far more effective strategy to win hearts and minds than anything I was doing militarily."

His epiphany would come two years later, while deployed to Afghanistan. 

"My unit had captured a Taliban insurgent for whom we provided food and medical care over several days," Schmoll said. "This 'enemy combatant' then politely answered our questions, came to understand our true intentions in Afghanistan, and even opened the door to future dialogue. I directly observed the potent influence of basic health care to de-escalate violence and bring some measure of peace to even the most broken relationships."

Beginning of Medical Journey

Although he has not yet chosen a specialty, Schmoll is continuing work with the UA Department of Anesthesiology laboratories to search for non-opioid pain interventions.  

"It is unfortunate that, while effective, opioids are addictive and can be dangerous," he said, noting that he and his colleagues are testing new approaches to pain, pharmacological and behavioral interventions. 

"I am excited to be a part of this transformative period in pain medicine. It is my goal to contribute to the next generation of chronic pain interventions to spare future patients the risk of addiction, and enable the responsible management of chronic pain, which will be critical to an aging veteran population after more than 15 years of armed conflict."

Schmoll said his own resiliency, born out of his military experience, helps him in his work daily.

"Medicine can be a heartbreaking profession, and had I not learned resiliency through my military tribulations, I do not believe I would be as capable of coping with the chronic stress and loss," he said. "Finally, our chaotic health care system requires good leadership to function. Having led people and organizations for most of my adult life, I will continue to do so in medicine.

"Like all postwar climates, patriotism will fade and the yellow ribbons will come off of the bumpers. Support for veterans will diminish, which will create a dire need in terms of dwindling resources among a poorly understood population," said Schmoll, who is set to graduate in 2019. "I want to be there to help meet that need."