It would be difficult to imagine a scenario that more powerfully demonstrates the critical importance of science in society than the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Jason Somarelli, Assistant Professor in Medicine at Duke University. “On the one hand, decades of prior scientific progress enabled us to create a vaccine for a novel virus in record time,” observes Somarelli. “On the other hand, however, the pandemic has shown the profound need to increase science comprehension among the public.” To that end, supported by a grant from the Henry David Thoreau Foundation, the Duke University Marine Laboratory Scholars Program is training and educating a new generation of undergraduate students to both develop solutions to pressing environmental challenges and raise understanding among the public in ways that are accessible and actionable.
“Scientists will be integral to the survival of our species and our planet as we face the next waves of pandemics in the forms of ocean plastic pollution and climate change,” reflects Somarelli. “I’m excited about providing a framework for these incredibly-talented students to learn how to become scientists.” The DUML Scholars Program has three tracks: the Rachel Carson Scholars (marine science and conservation), the Scholars in Marine Medicine (oceans and human health), and the Repass Rogers Scholars (environmental engineering). Students choose the track most aligned with their research interests, participating in every facet of research, from design and troubleshooting to presenting at scientific conferences and writing papers for peer review, culminating in an honors thesis for Graduation with Distinction. In addition to research, the program supports a professional development series for Scholars in their final year in the program to prepare them for post-graduate careers in marine and environmental sciences.
An interdisciplinary approach is at the heart of the DUML Scholars Program. As part of their faculty-mentored research, Scholars have the opportunity to forge professional relationships with faculty and collaborators at DUML, the Duke University School of Medicine, the Pratt School of Engineering, and the Nicholas School of the Environment, equipping them to pursue a wide range of careers, from academia to NGOs to government to industry. In the past three years alone, Scholars have gone on to positions at the Center for Biological Diversity, NOAA, and Conservation X Labs, as well as advanced degree programs at Duke, Oregon State, and Stanford, to name just a few.
“Ultimately, the impacts of this program will be wide-ranging, both within the university and across the broader community,” predicts Somarelli. Through their independent research, Scholars will enhance Duke’s capacity for environmental and marine science research and will increase our knowledge about the natural world. The program will also create greater connectivity among departments across the university, specifically marine science, the biomedical sciences, and engineering, to foster an integrated understanding and appreciation for the marine environment. Additionally, Scholars will mentor high school students in local outreach programs, improving those students’ career readiness and developing Scholars’ skills in mentorship and project management. Finally, the program will equip Scholars with scientific communication skills that improve public awareness about environmental challenges. The end result: a new generation of Duke graduates prepared to pursue a wide range of environmental leadership careers after graduation.