MacArthur “genius” Kristina Olson created the first long-term study of transgender children

From lab to life.
From lab to life.
Image: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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It’s been a pretty good year for University of Washington psychologist Kristina Olson. She became the first psychologist (and the first UW scientist) to receive the National Science Foundation’s prestigious $1 million Waterman award, and the first woman to win it since 2004. And now she’s been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Olson’s early research focused on how children come to understand inequality, bias, and social groups, and over the past few years, she’s woven those interests together in the TransYouth Project, the first large-scale US study of transgender children. The study launched in 2013, and Olson aims to follow a group of 300 children for 20 years to better understand their social and cognitive development.

Preliminary results from the project have challenged many longstanding beliefs. Many studies have found that transgender people have higher rates (paywall) of anxiety and depression compared to cisgender people. Yet a 2016 study from Olson and her colleagues suggests that the current generation of transgender children may fare better, especially if they are receive healthy social support. The study found that transgender children who have openly transitioned to the gender they identify with have similar rates of depression and anxiety as cisgender children.

Data from the TransYouth Project show that transgender children reach typical milestones related to gender, like identifying their own gender or preferring to play with friends of their same gender, at the same time (paywall) as their cisgender peers. However, transgender children show less gender stereotyping—and so do their siblings. Transgender kids and their siblings were more likely to befriend gender nonconforming peers.

While Olson’s work has been lauded by colleagues and granting agencies and in media outlets like the New York Times, it also has received blowback in conservative news sources and on social media. Olson told the Seattle Times that she held off on media interviews for eight months after a stream of digital criticism.

With her MacArthur grant, Olson will receive another $625,000 to advance her work on transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. Olson told UW News that she also hopes to use some of the money to support underrepresented students in science, or to take on riskier projects.

“For a few days after I continued to think it was an elaborate prank,” she said. “Nonetheless, I’m grateful and thrilled.”