Kristina Olson, 37, is a research psychologist at the University of Washington who was awarded a $625,000 from the MacArthur Foundation.

Share story

A University of Washington researcher has been named a winner of this year’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly dubbed the “genius grant.”

Kristina Olson, 37, was one of 25 fellows selected by the foundation, which announced the winners Thursday. Each of the fellows will receive a $625,000 “no-strings-attached” grant “to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society,” the announcement said.

Olson is a research psychologist who was nominated for her ongoing study of transgender youth who are supported by their parents or guardians to live their preferred gender.

“This is a win for my team and other researchers studying people who are understudied, for the trans community and all the people who helped us do this work,” Olson said in a phone interview.

“I think the only thing that makes me a little sad is that it makes it seem like it’s about me, when really it’s about this work that we do,” Olson said.

Olson’s TransYouth Project, started in 2013, is a large-scale study of transgender and gender-nonconforming child development. The study is the first of its kind, following more than 300 children across the U.S. who have been living their preferred gender from an early age.

Olson and her team for about 20 years will collect information on the effects of transitioning at a young age in a supported environment. As the children enter puberty, begin dating and working and become young adults and experience other milestones, Olson’s study will measure the trans-youth-gender development, mental health and well-being against a control group of cisgender children, kids who identify themselves with the genders they were given at birth.

The study’s findings from the past five years show that trans children who are supported at an early age are “remarkably similar to their cis peers” in terms of gender development, and exhibit “very good mental health,” according to Olson.

Trans kids who are supported early don’t suffer from higher rates of depression than other kids their age, and experience anxiety only at “trivially higher” levels, according to Olson. That contradicts past studies of transgender teens and adults, which suggested that they have very high rates of anxiety and depression, she said.

“These kids are showing a very different pattern. But of course, they are living a totally different life by socially transitioning at age five or so,” she said.

With the grant, Olson plans to train and open opportunities for people who are underrepresented in research. She said the money is also a chance for her to push the boundaries in her research and pursue some “dream projects” as the grant money is dispersed in the next five years.

“I have no idea why they chose me,” Olson said. “There are so many cool people in the world doing such interesting work.”

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards grants across all disciplines to people who are nominated by others in their communities. This year’s recipients include computer scientist Deborah Estrin, investigative journalist Ken Ward Jr., and performer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili. Fellows are selected for their “exceptional creativity,” and “promise for important future advances based on significant accomplishments and potential.”

The last MacArthur Fellows with Washington ties were environmental engineer Tami Bond and playwright Samuel D. Hunter in 2014, according to MacArthur Foundation data.

Since 1981, almost 1,000 people have been named MacArthur Fellows, according to the foundation’s website.

The rest of this year’s winners:
Matthew Aucoin: Composer, conductor and artist-in-residence, Los Angeles Opera.
Julie Ault: New York City artist and curator.
William J. Barber II: Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Clifford Brangwynne: Biophysical engineer and associate professor, Princeton University.
Natalie Diaz: Associate Professor, Department of English, Arizona State University.
Livia S. Eberlin: Assistant professor Department of Chemistry, University of Texas-Austin.
Deborah Estrin: Computer scientist and professor, Department of Computer Science, Cornell Tech.
Amy Finkelstein: Health economist, professor of economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Gregg Gonsalves: Global health advocate, assistant professor of epidemiology, Yale University.
Vijay Gupta: First violin, Los Angeles Philharmonic, co-founder and artistic director of Street Symphony.
Becca Heller: New York lawyer, co-founder of International Refugee Assistance Project.
Raj Jayadev: Co-founder Silicon Valley De-Bug, San Jose, California.
Titus Kaphar: Painter, founder and president NXTHVN, New Haven, Connecticut.
John Keene: Writer, Department of African American and African Studies, Rutgers University.
Kelly Link: A Northampton, Massachusetts writer.
Dominique Morisseau: Playwright, Signature Theatre, New York City.
Okwui Okpokwasili: Choreographer and performer, New York City.
Kristina Olson: Associate professor, Department of Psychology, University of Washington.
Lisa Parks: Professor, comparative media studies and writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rebecca Sandefur: Legal scholar, Department of Sociology, University of Illinois.
Allan Sly: Professor, Department of Mathematics, Princeton University.
Sarah T. Stewart: Professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of California, Davis.
Wu Tsang: New York City filmmaker and performance artist.
Doris Tsao: Neuroscientist and professor of biology, Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology.
Ken Ward Jr.: Investigative journalist, Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia.

Editor’s note: Due to the number of comments on this story that violated our Terms of Service, the comment thread has been removed.