Urbana native a recipient of MacArthur Foundation's 'genius grant'

Urbana native a recipient of MacArthur Foundation's 'genius grant'

URBANA — It's not $1 million, but it's pretty darn close.

Urbana native Kristina Olson, who was honored last spring with a $1 million early career grant from the National Science Foundation, is one of 25 winners of this year's MacArthur "genius grants," which carry a $625,000 prize.

Her mom, Pam Olson, called Thursday's announcement "unbelievable."

"We're so dang proud," she said Thursday. "She's just amazing."

Kristina Olson, now an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, was recognized for her work on understanding how children identify with social groups and the emergence of bias based on gender, race and class.

In particular, the MacArthur Foundation said, she is shedding light on the social and cognitive development of transgender youth, a population "that has been largely overlooked by prior scientific research."

She is best-known for the TransYouth project she founded in 2013, the nation's largest longitudinal study of transgender children.

"In addition to advancing the scientific understanding of gender, Olson's rigorous research is already informing standards of care guidelines for clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and pediatricians, and it holds the potential to yield valuable insights about how transgender youth function psychologically as they enter adolescence and adulthood," the foundation said.

The Urbana High School graduate got interested in the subject after a dinner party at a friend's house, where she met a young boy who insisted he was going to live as a girl. His family was trying to decide if he should "socially transition" to live as a girl.

Olson decided to research the subject but found that there had never been a study about children who had socially transitioned.

Her preliminary research results show that transgender children had rates of depression and anxiety no higher than other children of similar age and gender.

The grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation went to scientists, writers, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, activists, inventors and others, all honored for their "exceptional creativity," said Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the MacArthur Fellows Program. Most had no idea they'd been nominated.

When Olson got the call, she thought it might be a "mean prank."

"I asked whether they were sure they were calling the right person," she said. "Of course it was thrilling and surprising and exciting."

The money comes with no strings attached. Olson suspects some will go toward training the next generation of scholars and expanding her work in "new, creative directions."

Pam Olson said Kristina and her older sister, Susan Rider, have worked hard their entire lives, starting when they were very young as News-Gazette carriers. That's the way she and her husband, Ken Olson, were raised.

"You all work and you earn your keep. You don't complain and you don't whine," she said. "We're just so proud of them."

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