For most people, being named director of the Research Science Institute (RSI), considered a premier science and math summer program for high school students, would be a career capstone. For Jamie Wells OPC ’92, it also completes a circle. Back in the summer of 1991, shortly before she started her senior year at PC, Wells participated in the program and recalls it as one of the most fruitful summers she ever spent. She believes it is particularly important to help a new generation of students receive the same benefits.
“Given the pandemic and its reverberating impact, there is no more crucial a time to invest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] excellence than now to ensure we stand at the ready to be proactive, not reactive, in the future,” Wells said when her appointment was announced earlier this year.
The RSI is collaboratively sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Education and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a normal year, the high school students spend the summer on MIT’s campus, attending lectures from Nobel laureates and working on research projects directly with mentors who are renowned in their field of interest. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the program was conducted virtually last year and will be again this summer, but Wells insisted that it will be just as strong—and just as needed.
“I’m a huge believer that our society loses a lot of innovation due to interdisciplinary knowledge gaps,” Wells reasoned. “People love to talk about collaboration, but once you’re in a field, you tend to stay there. What’s great about the RSI summer program is that the students learn and grow best by being exposed to different schools of thought.”
“Interdisciplinary” might be the perfect word to describe Wells’ own career. She entered Penn Charter in fourth grade as part of the groundbreaking first class of girls to graduate. Even before that, though, she worked daily with her grandfather, who lived with her family and who Wells recalls could simultaneously solve calculus problems with one hand and paint with the other. He taught her the Pythagorean theorem when she was only 4.
With that kind of head start, Wells took advanced math classes throughout her time at PC. She headed the Math Club and spent weekends in math competitions around the area. Yet she also found time to debate, write for The Mirror, and captain both the lacrosse and tennis teams.
Wells attended Yale, sure that she would pursue her lifelong dream of being a neurosurgeon, and took all the required pre-med courses while majoring in American Studies with a concentration in media and film. Moving on to Thomas Jefferson University’s Medical School, Wells was inducted into the medical honor society and elected its president while also serving as editorials editor of the school newspaper and editing a guide to passing board certification exams.
She began her residency in neurosurgery in New York, taking the next steps towards a career she had always anticipated, when 9/11 occurred. Wells’s studies and life were interrupted, which led her to reassess her goals. “The reality wasn’t what I had imagined in my childhood dream,” she recalled. “Neurosurgery is fascinating to me, but there are so many things in life that I am passionate about. I had pursued my dream, achieved it and realized it wasn’t what I wanted.”
Instead, Wells switched her residency to pediatrics and, not surprisingly, excelled there, too. She is now a board-certified pediatrician. She spent nine years in private practice but, typically, with a Wells-ian extra edge: She made sure all her patients had her cell phone number, and she made house calls.
At the same time Wells was practicing medicine, she was also branching into communications. Her written work has appeared in professional journals, and she has both written for or been interviewed by news outlets ranging from CNN and the Washington Post to Al Jazeera. As if all this weren’t more than enough to keep her busy, Wells serves on the leadership council of the Wistar Institute and is also an adjunct professor at Drexel University’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems, where she helped introduce the nation’s first degree program in pediatric engineering.
With her appointment at the RSI, Wells has indeed come full circle, but with additional insights gained from long experience. She believes her pediatric background will give her a unique developmental perspective on the high school students who attend. It’s another challenge for someone who not only welcomes challenges but seeks them out. “I’m always a believer in continued learning,” Wells said, “exposing yourself to things you’re afraid to do, and getting outside of your comfort zone.”