Elizabeth Somsen — Scientist, Christian, and Upper House Fellow
May 27, 2021
There is nothing more basic to being human than being alive, so doing work to prevent a pandemic like we just witnessed—it is a way I can serve God’s kingdom. It’s a privilege. I am just so lucky and blessed to do what I do.”
Elizabeth Somsen, a graduate of UW-Madison, Upper House Fellow, and Fulbright Scholar on her way to Turkey, is feeling both excited and somewhat overwhelmed these days. She is winding down her time at UW working in a research lab on COVID-19 and preparing to live and work for nine months in Istanbul, doing research at Boğaziçi University. After that, she will join Emory University, where she will pursue a Ph.D. studying viruses like SARS-COV-2.
“This past year has been a contemplative time for me,” reflects Elizabeth, a year of hard work and trying to reconcile her desire to do science versus “ministry” as a Christian.
On the one hand, she was involved in researching COVID and staging the roll-out of a rapid test. She also consulted with Public Health Madison-Dane County and UW Hospitals on precision epidemiology, providing them useful data to draw more robust conclusions about the evolution and transmission of COVID in the community and ways to manage it.
On the other hand, she was pondering what it means to “do ministry” as a scientist who cares deeply about God, prayer, and theology. The Upper House Fellows Program gave her a place to test her questions and expand her thinking about Christianity and vocation—the main programmatic focus of 2020-21.
“I have always felt that the science work I do isn’t really ‘ministry,’” she said. But listening to other fellows talk about their work and aspirations changed her perspective.
“They shared such great examples of what it means to bring God’s light to the world… It was clear listening to them that they viewed their work was a type of ministry.” Ministry and academic work did not need to be separately conceived.
“Then one of the other fellows turned that back on me. They showed me that what I am doing to shed light on the pandemic is in fact ministry.” To Elizabeth, this shift in thinking was not only affirming but a confidence-builder.
Because of the pandemic, the Upper House fellows mostly met online and only occasionally for dinner, a change from the typical in-person format. Nevertheless, the participating grad students, undergrads, international and local students managed to develop a rich sense of community online.
About the other fellows Elizabeth said “I was so delighted to meet all of them! While I loved the readings and all the guest speakers, what I valued most was the experiences and diverse perspectives other fellows shared.”
One thing that surprised her, Elizabeth admitted, was the readings. “I really was not aware before this program how many Christians have spent time thinking about Christianity, career, and vocation.” Integration of these three strands in the university is uncommon.
The other thing that struck home was the depth of care program leaders had for students.
“When I tell people about my Fellows experience, I share this. ‘There’s a very big difference between, say, taking a class with a professor who doesn’t want to be there, than being in a class with professors who go above and beyond. The Fellows Program leaders truly care about what they’re doing and the students involved. There’s no better learning experience than being with people who love and care about helping you think about big things like vocation and helping you learn. That is the biggest selling point – because of the leadership team. Their investment in the students is incredible.”
Now when anyone asks Elizabeth how she sees her skills and knowledge serving the kingdom of God, she has a ready answer. “My research sits at the intersection of basic science and public health. It is clear that the science I do in the lab can have an impact on what people are doing in public. And these people are human beings knit together by God. There is nothing more basic to being human than being alive, so doing work to prevent a pandemic like we just witnessed—it is a way I can serve God’s kingdom. It’s a privilege. I am just so lucky and blessed to do what I do.”