During her undergraduate years at Washington University, Kristina Olson, BA ’03, wanted to better understand the origins of prejudice, so she double-majored in psychology and African and African American Studies (AFAS). That’s how she first became interested in children’s development in the context of race and, later, gender and social class. She also discovered her passion for research during these formative years.
“When I first got to WashU,” recalls Olson, now an associate professor at the University of Washington, “I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. But I got involved in the research lab of [psychology] Professor Roddy Roediger and fell in love with doing research.”
Olson’s research is now opening up our understanding of childhood experience in underrepresented populations. In the first study of its kind, called the TransYouth Project, Olson is looking at kids who, prior to the study, transitioned to a transgender identity. The project began in 2013 and will track 300 subjects across 20 years, documenting what their lives are like from childhood to adolescence and eventually adulthood.
Olson has found that peers play an especially significant role in children’s well-being. She’s seen kids who’ve come out and transitioned be shunned by other children, who stop inviting them to birthday parties or stop talking to them at all. “Having teachers, families and communities model positive relations with trans people can help kids be kinder to their own peers who are transgender,” she says.
Olson is also beginning to conduct research with children who are intersex, whose sex at birth isn’t clearly male or female due to a range of chromosomal or biological traits. In collaboration with Seattle Children’s Hospital, she will be exploring this population’s gender development across time. Olson believes that today, unlike even five years ago, people are more open to nonbinary identities. “We are developing new language around gender and new understandings all the time.”
In 2018, Olson was awarded the Alan T. Waterman Award, the U.S. government’s highest honor for scientists 40 and younger, for her groundbreaking research on children’s attitudes toward and identification with social groups. It is the first time the award was granted for research in the field of psychology, and Olson is the first woman to receive the $1 million award since 2004. (This year, a second WashU alumna, Jennifer Dionne, BA ’03, received the Waterman Award for her work in imaging dynamic physical, chemical and biological processes with extremely high resolution. Dionne and Olson were in the same class year at WashU, and they lived in the same residence halls — Ruby and Mudd — their freshman and sophomore years.) Olson was also named a MacArthur Fellow later in 2018, an honor often referred to as the “genius grant.”
Olson credits her undergraduate program for helping her find her penchant for research. “Having the opportunity to participate in research at WashU provided me a whole future career I didn’t even imagine,” she says. Olson is now paying it forward by developing research internship programs at the University of Washington and at Yale University, where she was a professor for five years after earning her doctorate at Harvard University. “We’ve been bringing students to my labs at both universities who either are at institutions lacking a lot of research opportunities or who are members of groups that are underrepresented in the sciences,” she says.
Olson remains grateful for her WashU experience. “I really couldn’t be the researcher I am today if I hadn’t had professors along the way who supported my intellectual interests,” she says. Of particular importance was Garrett Duncan, associate professor of education and AFAS. “He pushed me to think deeply about my own assumptions and taught me to care about the experiences of people who have lives different from my own.”