At my first lab meeting, I was both amused and mildly horrified to watch my PI compete in the Spicy Noodle Challenge. (Think instant noodles whose packaging has pictures of chili peppers with evil eyes. And a chicken breathing fire and holding an about-to-explode bomb.) At my second lab meeting, he walked in with a paper bag, pulling from it an assortment of hot sauces which he carefully laid out in order of spiciness and sampled one by one with wings from Heav Buffs.
When I sat down to chat with Dr. Jason Somarelli for the first time, I knew little about him besides that he had a ridiculously high tolerance for spicy food. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to hear about his experiences and learn from his wisdom. These were a few of my takeaways:
1. Life is non-linear
Dr. Somarelli received a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College, a Master’s degree in biology from the State University of New York at Brockport, and a Ph.D. in Biological and Biomedical Sciences from Florida International University. After completing his post-doctoral training at Duke, he stayed at Duke as a Research Associate and is now a Medical Instructor at the Duke Medical Center and the Director of Research for the Duke Comparative Oncology Group. However, behind this seemingly straightforward, LinkedIn-simple chronology is a story of resilience in the face of disappointment, of a relentless pursuit of education despite a string of rejections from graduate schools, and of a professor at FIU who “believed in [him] when nobody else would.” When life took unexpected turns, Dr. Somarelli turned moments of rejection into opportunities to learn perseverance, a lesson I think must have contributed to Dr. Somarelli’s continued success as a scientist.
2. Science is hard, even for scientists.
“Challenges in science are constant. They’re challenges that you face professionally, but it feels like they’re directed at you, personally.” Dr. Somarelli explained the idea of Imposter’s Syndrome in the scientific community–how incredibly smart scientists feel like they don’t belong and fear being “exposed” as less intelligent than they really are. Tacked above Dr. Somarelli’s desk is an essay published in the Journal of Cell Science titled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research.” My favorite quote from the article was this: “Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity.’ That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown” (Schwartz). After weeks of feeling stupid in the lab, “stupid” has taken on a new, more positive meaning for me, and I take comfort in knowing that embracing stupidity makes great scientists.
3. Science should never be just about you.
One of Dr. Somarelli’s biggest goals is mentoring. “I don’t think I’m going to win a Nobel Prize, but I think my enthusiasm for what I do can bleed through onto people. If I can do that for enough talented people, one of them will be able to revolutionize something. Mentoring has far-reaching consequences,” he told me.
I’ll leave you with something Dr. Somarelli said that I found really beautiful–
“Science is a challenge because you don’t know what you’re doing all the time. It’s equally amazing for that reason.”
I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Somarelli this summer, and excited to witness some more spicy challenges!