Leah Somerville

Harvard University


What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on the study of human emotion, especially factors that explain variability in emotional responding across people, in social and nonsocial contexts, and across the developmental course. In the last few years, I’ve focused on asking how brain development during the second decade of life relates to common changes in emotional processes and social cognition in adolescents. To inform these issues, my work combines behavioral, psychophysiological and brain imaging approaches.

What drew you to this line of research and why is it exciting to you?

During my senior year in college, I worked in two labs that researched the brain bases of emotion perception and regulation, and also volunteered at a teen crisis center. The lab experiences inspired me to pursue graduate training in cognitive and affective neuroscience, but adolescence was a phase of the lifespan that continued to fascinate me. So, in my post doc I sought out the opportunity to incorporate a developmental perspective into the study of emotion. Studying emotion is exciting to me at both intellectual and pragmatic levels. Intellectually, it’s a neat puzzle — how can one emotional event lead to hugely variable reactions across time, situation, and person? But I’m drawn to this puzzle for pragmatic reasons because it gives us clues to the neurobiological mechanisms of resilience, emotion dysregulation, and risk for psychopathology

Who were/are your mentors or scientific influences?

I could not be more thankful for the mentors who have supported my career in various ways! I would not be where I am without the mentorship of B.J. Casey, Richie Davidson, Todd Heatherton, Tom Johnstone, Ned Kalin, Bill Kelley, Hackjin Kim, Steve Petersen, John Walkup, Paul Whalen, and many others.I’m also thankful for the support of so many of my colleagues, past and present, and for the advice, support, and scientific inspiration provided by my scientist peers, collaborators, and friends scattered across the globe.

What’s your future research agenda?

My lab is currently focused on adolescent brain and socioemotional development, but we are planning to incorporate some new approaches to this issue. We’re considering ways to drill down to understand emotional processes more fundamentally, by targeting constituent processes that contribute to emotional reactivity and regulation. We‘re also expanding our scope to draw clearer linkages between laboratory measures and real-world behavior such as emotionally guided decision-making, and risk for mood and anxiety disorders.

What publication are you most proud of?

Somerville, L. H., Jones, R. M., & Casey, B. J. (2010). A time of change: Behavioral and neural correlates of adolescent sensitivity to appetitive and aversive environmental cues. Brain and Cognition, 72, 124133.

When I joined B.J. Casey’s lab as a post doc, my first task was to immerse myself in the literature on emotion and adolescent development. This paper was the result of that several-months-long effort. At the time, I didn’t know if anyone would read or appreciate this paper, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the interest it’s received.

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