University News

Friends remember St. Louis ’15 as passionate, generous polymath

By
Arts & Culture Editor
Saturday, July 26, 2014

Mark St. Louis ’15 was an asker of questions and a seeker of answers.

“He was always excited about everything, about learning so many different things,” Maris Jones ’15 said. “It didn’t matter if it wasn’t his area, because obviously if you were interested in it, then there was something there that was worth it to him.”

Academically and athletically, he was gifted. Though he was concentrating in neuroscience, classmates said he took several classes in the engineering department and intended to earn a combined MD/PhD after college.

As a student at the prestigious United World College of the Adriatic, he played for the Italian Junior National Ultimate Team in the Junior World Championship. He also played for Brownian Motion, Brown’s men’s ultimate Frisbee team, for three years.

But former teammates, classmates and friends remembered St. Louis — who died last Friday — for the indefatigable spirit he brought on road trips, to dinner tables and to every conversation.

 

Spirit of the game

The ultimate Frisbee team held a vigil for St. Louis earlier this week, which former and current players from across the country attended, said former team captain Dan Jacobson ’14.

In interviews, teammates recalled St. Louis’ enthusiastic involvement with the game as a defining aspect of his life at Brown.

“He was in his element playing Frisbee — a uniquely powerful force of nature,” Isaac MacDonald ’15 said.

But his pivotal role on the team extended beyond sheer technical skill, teammates said.

When St. Louis was sidelined with a back injury, he was “the first guy” running onto the field to provide players with whatever they seemed to need, in the form of water bottles, ice or moral support, said Aron Lesser ’15, another teammate.

Jacobson first met St. Louis at the National Ultimate Training Camp, a weeklong summer program for competitive high school ultimate Frisbee players. The encounter was colored with expectations — rumors were circling around the camp about “some really good, sick-nasty guy named Mark St. Louis” who had played on the Italian Junior Nationals team, Jacobson recalled.

But over the course of the week, Jacobson realized the buzz about St. Louis’ reputation was only partially due to his technical skill. What truly made him stand out as a player, he said, was being “incredibly good at helping people find their own strength.”

 

Speak your mind

Frisbee team captain Ryan Brown ’15, a friend who also took several classes with St. Louis, said his “fire and commitment” on the Frisbee field was reflected in his academic pursuits.

St. Louis began to carve out a tentative academic path for himself early on at Brown, Jacobson said. While others were still “putzing around,” he said, St. Louis had already planned what to work on as a sophomore and a junior, pouring over graduate students’ research in preparation for the future.

For his thesis project, he was investigating whether the simulation of sensory feedback through the BrainGate system — which researches how technology can assist those with neurological disorders — would help patients “to improve their neural control over external devices” such as robotic arms, wrote Beata Jarosiewicz, a BrainGate researcher and assistant professor of neuroscience, in an email to The Herald.

Camille Spencer ’14, a friend and former lab partner, called it “a characteristically ambitious project that could have probably spawned like three different possible theses” in an email to The Herald.

In addition to serving as assistant director for the student group Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM), he was also the manager and STEAM liaison for the SpeakYourMind (SYM) Foundation, wrote STEAM director Victoria Wu ’15 in an email to The Herald. SYM, an offshoot program of the BrainGate lab, aims to design assistive technology for those whose neurological disorders impair their ability to communicate.

St. Louis “was passionate about learning and applying his engineering and neuroscience background to solve real issues,” Wu wrote. “It was apparent in the way he spoke and in everything that he did.”

“I really expected to see his name get published all over the place in the next 20 years,” Jacobson said. “I miss seeing what good he could have brought into the world.”

 

‘The Mark St. Louis smirk’

In interviews with friends, the word “intense” repeatedly surfaced to describe St. Louis. MacDonald called this one of St. Louis’ “defining traits.”

Many spoke of St. Louis’ engrossed conversational style. Not one for half-hearted small talk, he would “stop whatever he was doing, sit down, stare you in the eyes and really listen,” Aron Lesser said.

“For that time, you were going to be the only thing in the world that mattered to him,” Brown said.

When he had an opinion or an idea to express — which friends said was nearly always — his excitement was palpable.

“He had this smirk — the ‘Mark St. Louis smirk,’” said Gab Lesser ’15. “If he had to say something … that maybe other people were afraid of saying, or if he thought of something crazy he needed to tell everyone, he had that smile ready to unload knowledge on you.”

Spencer recalled outdoor lunches at picnic tables, listening to St. Louis pontificate on “deterministic universes and the nature of free will as a philosophical argument, and why Daniel Dennett is frustrating to read in front of all these older science people,” she wrote.

Even as she thought, “My God, Mark, you sound so full of yourself,” she was so struck by his sincerity that she “couldn’t help feeling … more fond of him,” she wrote.

In his larger-than-life presence, it was the “little things” through which the depth of his thoughtfulness shone, Aron Lesser said. He kept a mental record of what others liked, storing away tidbits of information to perform small acts of kindness in the future.

“If he knew you’d had a bad day, he’d bring you your favorite cookie. If he heard you say you loved this kind of fruit, he’d buy it for you if he found it,” he said.

In addition to tokens of generosity, St. Louis willingly sacrificed his time when he sensed his support was needed, Gab Lesser said. Once, midway through a 12-hour study binge at the Sharpe Refectory — when “most people wouldn’t even give me two minutes” — St. Louis devoted two hours to helping Lesser set up Frisbee drills, he said.

If it was late at night, he would “just drink another cup of coffee and go off to help you,” he added.

Spencer recounted a particularly stressful night: In addition to “desperately trying to complete my thesis on time to make my second deadline extension,” she was cramming for a test the next day in her neural systems class, she wrote.

When St. Louis showed up, she initially “snapped at him.” But he rubbed her shoulders and “gently explained … how the oculomotor reflex pathways were thought to work.” He brought her French fries and tea. It was 2 a.m.

 

‘Putting the world together’

“A lot of times when people die, you hear that the world is going to be a worse place because of his or her death,” Brown said. “For the first time in my life, I really understand what people mean when they say that.”

MacDonald agreed. “I think that in some ways, it makes it more of a tragedy that someone that dedicated, that committed and that forceful is no longer here to improve the world,” he said. “But in a weird sense, he — more than anyone else — lived the years that he had incredibly fully and with a tenacity that will multiply his time here.”

St. Louis’ friends and teammates said they will continue to be inspired by the uncommon intensity St. Louis brought to his endeavors.

“He thought about everything, synthesized it, thought about it again, questioned it again — always putting the world together,” Gab Lesser said. “It’s rare to find someone who so consciously does all that, and with such excitement.”

“We lost something big here,” Brown said. “In a global community, however small one person can be — I’m going to miss him.”

 

A memorial service will be held Saturday, July 26 at 4 p.m. in Atlanta. St. Louis’ family has encouraged donations to the SpeakYourMind Foundation in his memory.