Dr. Leah Somerville is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. She earned her PhD at Dartmouth College and completed postdoctoral training at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology. Leah has been recognized with a number of prestigious awards including the FJ McGuigan Early Career Research Prize for Understanding the Human Mind, the APS Janet Taylor Spence Award for Transformative Early Career Contributions, and the Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award. Dr. Somerville also actively supports science education as an advisor to The People’s Science and by supporting the development and implementation of educational workshops for middle and high school students in her lab.
We checked in with Dr. Somerville to hear a bit about how she sees science, society, and the relationship between the two:
1. What questions drive you? Why are these important and how does science help you answer them?
I am driven by understanding how people – in all of their complexity – change across life with a special interest in late childhood until early adulthood. So many dramatic changes occur during this phase of life, on almost every level of a person. I’m interested in how brain and biological development fosters these changes. Science helps me answer this question by giving me the foundations to think about these complicated questions, and the tools to peek into the human system to observe the developmental process in action.
2. What has surprised you the most since becoming a scientist? What common misconceptions are still out there?
I had believed that science is something that is created by a brilliant person toiling away alone in a lab. But actually, the kind of science I do is all teamwork. It requires contributions on so many levels, and emerges from the discussions and interactions among people.
3. What do you like to do outside of science? Have any of your broader experiences shaped you as a researcher?
Lots of the things I like to do center around people and their thoughts. I enjoy experiencing new cultures through travel and literature, and I love being a part of peoples’ creative energy by consuming art and music. So, perhaps it’s no surprise I’m a psychologist!
4. Why do you think it’s important for scientists to share their work with the public? What role do you think science does or should play in broader society?
Science is for everyone! Hence, I think it is crucial to bring science outside of the lab to inform issues that face society today. However, there is a fine balance to these conversations. On one hand, scientists need to serve as translators, conveying the broader impacts of their work to the public. On the other hand, the public should not always expect clear answers from science. Science is provisional – it is constantly being updated to reflect new knowledge. So, I think it is our responsibility to set reasonable expectations for the science-public interface, and to make our science accessible to anyone who wants to learn about it.
5. What advice would you give young students who are interested in science?
The key ingredients to success are finding a scientific question you are passionate about, and hard work. Read, start conversations, get hands on experience. Don’t be intimidated – dive in!