UW News

October 4, 2018

UW’s Kristina Olson wins MacArthur Foundation ‘genius grant’

UW News


Kristina Olson, University of Washington associate professor of psychology, on Oct. 4 was named one of the MacArthur Foundation's Fellows. She receives a $625,000, no-strings-attached stipend.

Kristina Olson, University of Washington associate professor of psychology, on Oct. 4 was named one of the MacArthur Foundation’s Fellows. She receives a $625,000, no-strings-attached stipend.Dennis Wise/U. of Washington


Kristina Olson, University of Washington associate professor of psychology, has been named one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows.

The Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation comes with a $625,000 stipend, commonly known as the “genius grant,” for recipients to use as they see fit. The Chicago-based foundation announced 25 winners on Thursday.

Olson runs the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the UW and created the TransYouth Project, which is the nation’s largest longitudinal study of transgender children. She is considered a national leader in research into how children develop gender identity.

“I’m incredibly honored to have the work of my team celebrated by the MacArthur Foundation,” Olson said.

The official phone call from the foundation was such a surprise, Olson added, that she asked whether they’d contacted the right person.

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

Olson said she hasn’t decided how, exactly, she’ll use the grant. One priority is to support others in their research and training, such as through a mentorship program for underrepresented undergraduate students interested in her and related labs’ research at UW: LGBTQ students, students of color, first-generation college students, and those from small colleges with fewer resources for research.

The other priority, she said, is “to take on riskier, challenging new projects that wouldn’t be supported by traditional grants.”

In announcing the award, the MacArthur Foundation cited Olson’s work “advancing the scientific understanding of gender and shedding light on the social and cognitive development of transgender and gender-nonconforming youth.”

See a related story in The Washington Post.

After receiving her master’s degree and doctorate in social psychology from Harvard University and a faculty appointment at Yale University, Olson was recruited to the UW in 2013. Here, she established the Social Cognitive Development Lab to explore three strands of child-focused research: the emergence of prosocial behavior, the development of bias and responses to inequality, and children’s reasoning about social categories. She launched the TransYouth Project to examine, over the course of 20 years, gender development and well-being among participants who were between the ages of 3 and 12 when they joined the study; to date, more than 300 transgender children have enrolled from 45 U.S. states. (Many of their siblings have been recruited, too, as a comparison group.)

Early results from the TransYouth Project have shown that children who have socially transitioned to the gender they identify with firmly embrace their gender, just as children who identify as the gender they were born with. A social transition is one in which a child identifies as a gender different from the one they were born with, which may involve a new name, clothing, toys, activities and friends. And depending on where the child lives, families may be surrounded by a supportive community, or isolated and ostracized.

The research team is now recruiting children who identify as gender nonconforming – those who haven’t socially transitioned, as the current transgender participants have. Olson plans for the study to eventually include teenagers who are in the process of transitioning as well as intersex children.

Earlier this year, Olson, 37, won the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, the U.S. government’s highest honor for an early career scientist or engineer, recognizing an outstanding scientist under the age of 40 or within 10 years of receiving a Ph.D. As part of that award, Olson received a five-year, $1 million research grant. She is the first UW faculty member to receive the Waterman Award in its 43-year history.

“Kristina’s work is striking both in its brilliance and its bravery,” said Cheryl Kaiser, professor and chair of the UW Department of Psychology. “She continues to explore important lines of research on inequality and prosocial behavior in children. She jumped into the TransYouth Project when she arrived at UW, and this project had so much risk but also so much reward. She’s using psychological science to explore an unknown frontier that’s of critical value to families, children and society.”

In winning the MacArthur Fellowship, Olson joins 11 other winners who were current University of Washington faculty at the time of their awards. The most recent winner was Shwetak Patel, professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, who received his fellowship in 2011.

The Fellowship is awarded, in the words of the foundation, to “talented individuals in a variety of fields who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.” Winners have been nominated anonymously by leaders in their fields and chosen by an anonymous selection committee.


Olson may be reached through the UW News office.