Two Faculty Receive Inaugural Bass Connections Leadership Award

April 8, 2021

Deb Koltai and Jason Somarelli.

Deborah Koltai (Associate Professor in Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Neurology, School of Medicine) and Jason Somarelli (Assistant Professor in Medicine, School of Medicine) are the winners of the 2021 Bass Connections Leadership Award.

This new award recognizes outstanding team leaders for their efforts to create a positive and enriching team experience for students. Nominations from student team members described how both Koltai and Somarelli created a clear path and exciting vision for the research, invested deeply in mentoring students and built a supportive team environment. Koltai and Somarelli will each receive a monetary prize.

Finalists for this award also included two individuals and one leadership team: 

Deborah Koltai

Associate Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and Neurology

Bass Connections Project Team: Healthcare Provider Education to Reduce Epilepsy Care Disparities in Uganda

Koltai’s current research investigates factors related to care for epilepsy patients in Uganda in order to inform capacity building and strengthen infrastructure efforts, particularly in a culturally sensitive context. In addition to co-leading her current project team (which will continue in 2021-2022), Koltai previously led Bass Connections project teams in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019

Deb Koltai.
Deborah Koltai (upper left) and her team on Zoom in 2021

As I look forward to graduation in a few months, I will miss the weekly meeting with the team and my time spent with Dr. Koltai: time spent advancing the goals of the project, but also spent sharing personal successes and challenges, discussing cultural competency and humility and developing a truly interdisciplinary and collaborative team dynamic. However, I know I won’t have a chance to miss her too much: given her fierce dedication to this project and my own stake, I have no doubt that I will remain closely involved. –Undergraduate team member

Dr. Koltai has genuinely been a blessing to our team. She is always encouraging us to push our limits to reach greater project developments while celebrating minor achievements along the way. Even when we face challenges, her poise and leadership provide us with the confidence that we need to continue moving forward. As a neuropsychologist, Dr. Koltai has modeled interdisciplinary collaborations by working with physicians, such as a pediatric and adult epileptologist … a dermatologist that has a focus on cultural sensitivity training for health care providers and international government health care providers in Uganda that influence the policy and guidelines for the country. –Graduate team member

Beyond being an extraordinary principal investigator from a study design perspective, Dr. Koltai coordinated the data collection process for this international study with a stunning degree of smoothness. She was not only able to organize an airtight schedule to allow for the collection of a plethora of valuable data, but she also gave each student the tools to lead interviews with various stakeholders themselves, making sure students took into account not only scientific concerns but also issues of cultural sensitivity and clarity of communication. Through this mentorship, I have learned communication skills that I will carry with me through the rest of my career that I have yet to find anywhere else. –Undergraduate team member

Jason Somarelli

Assistant Professor, Medicine

Bass Connections Project Team: Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity

Somarelli’s current research focuses on metastasis and understanding cancer through the lens of comparative and evolutionary biology. Somarelli’s current project team (which began in 2019-2020 and will continue in 2021-2022) is working to create a lab strain of bacteria capable of rapidly degrading plastic to restore environmental health and conserve marine biodiversity. This year, Somarelli is also leading the Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health project team. 

Somarelli with students in 2019.
Jason Somarelli (left) with a student in 2019

Dr. Somarelli is always available when you need him and cares about each of his students’ wellbeing. He works tirelessly to help his students gain the skill sets that we need to succeed. But most importantly of all, Dr. Somarelli is unafraid to take risks. He took a chance on me and welcomed me into a community that has been a highlight of my Duke experience. –Undergraduate team member

Jason is an inspiring and kind leader who has made me feel welcome on the team since the very beginning. He is very approachable, positive and understanding, while also driving everyone on the team to thrive and continue to make progress. –Undergraduate team member

It cannot be overstated that Dr. Somarelli cares deeply for each one of his students and mentees. I think the perfect example of this fact is his particular response to COVID-19 last semester. In our weekly meetings, he dedicated the first approximately 10 minutes to simply ask each of members how they were doing. Recognizing the unique and difficult times, Dr. Somarelli stressed to the students to just have fun with the research. –Undergraduate team member

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