“Do we offload [social feedback] and say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what that person thinks of me,” or do we take those cues as very clear indicators of how we should see ourselves?”
An interview with Leah Somerville, PhD
Associate Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
By: Michelle Johnson, October 12, 2018
When you were little, did you want to be a scientist?
No, and I didn’t have a lot of scientists around me where I grew up to even really understand that this was a viable career path for people. I’m from a family with teachers in it, so when I was growing up, I always said I wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until college that I really understood how science gets done. [The] intersection between the more technical, analytical side and the communication and teaching sides of doing science and research was the perfect combination of things that was exciting to me. I’m really lucky that I get to do that every day now.
What got you interested in the topic you’re researching now?
It wasn’t really until I was a postdoc that I oriented my work toward developmental questions, and I think that that was really circling back to a much earlier interest I had in college when I volunteered at a crisis center for youth, seeing youth who are homeless, who were in foster system, seeing adolescents who had committed crimes trying to come back to rebuild their lives. And all of those kinds of populations really made me interested in understanding what makes this time of life so consequential for our future outcomes.
What’s the main research question on your mind?
We’re really interested in how adolescents learn about themselves within social environments right now. So, the idea is that people of all ages are on the receiving end of social feedback, and that feedback can sometimes be positive and sometimes negative. But what we choose to do with that feedback is a matter of our own interpretation. Do we offload it and say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what that person thinks of me,” or do we take those cues as very clear indicators of how we should see ourselves? Adults are much more able to offload or reduce the impact of that negative feedback on how they feel about themselves, [perhaps] finding ways to explain it away. Adolescents don’t seem to do that. They don’t explain it away. They take it as very clear information, and this is very much in parallel with a characteristic drop in self-esteem that we see during adolescence. And the reason we’re really interested in that from a health perspective is that this drop in self-esteem during adolescence, especially for girls, has been very clearly linked to an increased risk for the onset of depression.
Have you had any interesting experiences with interdisciplinary work? Or do you have a dream collaboration?
I’m engaged in interdisciplinary collaboration right now that’s really stretching my mind. I’m a part of a large-scale consortium study called the Human Connectome Project and Development. This is a big study that’s being run across the country at four different locations that’s aiming to use the most cutting-edge tools and technologies to measure brain connectivity development in people from age 5 to 21. There are several scientists that are running or leading the project, and they have a combination of different expertise—each of us brings something different to the table. It reminds us that it’s really easy to get in deep thinking about our narrow research areas but doing that comes at the cost of really benefiting from the advancements in other areas. It’s sort of kept me on my toes.
What piece of advice would you give someone interested in pursuing science?
I think the number one piece of advice I would give is to identify something that you’re really passionate about and pursue it. I think that being a scientist is amazingly rewarding, but it isn’t rewarding every minute of every day. There are a lot of moments of rejection or moments where something you were really hoping would pan out doesn’t work or where you’re toiling away on a project or eight, and in all of those moments, I think the thing that keeps people engaged science is that they’re intrinsically excited and passionate about their topic.
To learn more about Dr. Somerville’s lab and her work, click here.