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Kristina Olson works with a child in the Social Cognitive Development Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle.

University of Washington

Kristina Olson is first psychologist to win NSF’s Waterman award

Calling Kristina Olson a path-breaking researcher doesn’t begin to describe all the doors this year’s winner of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) most prestigious prize for young scientists has opened.

A social and developmental psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, Olson is the first person from her discipline to win the 42-year-old Alan T. Waterman Award. She’s also the first woman since 2004 to receive the $1 million prize. Although scientists from every field that NSF supports are eligible, only three social scientists—the previous two were men—have ever captured the Waterman, named after NSF’s first director.

Olson’s research on the social development of transgender youth has expanded the traditional boundaries of academic psychology. And her plans to use a big chunk of the prize money on a new summer internship program for undergraduate minority students also may be unprecedented for Waterman winners.

Even so, Olson is far from satisfied by that impressive string of firsts. “I don’t think a woman of color has ever won,” she says. (Two black scientists, both men, have been honored.) “My goal is to use the money to move us in new directions, because things aren’t going to just change on their own. And unless we make room for all of the best people, it will be hard to make progress on any of society’s problems.”

Redefining early career

NSF’s selection committee had no doubts that Olson deserved this year’s prize. “Kristina Olson’s research on bias has been identified as enlarging our perspective on how people, cultures, and nations relate to one another,” says Gary May, chair of the panel and chancellor of the University of California, Davis. “She was a unanimous choice for this prestigious recognition.”

Even so, Olson wouldn’t have won without NSF’s new rules on eligibility, which went into effect for the 2018 competition. Candidates can now be 10 years out from finishing their Ph.D., not just seven, and NSF raised the maximum age from 35 to 40. The changes are designed to level the playing field for researchers whose careers may have been slower to take off because of family obligations, financial pressures, or physical challenges. Olson is 36, and she earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2008.

The more flexible definition of an early-career scientist may also have given Olson a few more years to overcome common misconceptions about the award. “I didn’t even know that psychologists were eligible,” she confesses. “I had assumed it was just for mathematicians or physicists. Nobody in my field had ever won the Waterman, so people never even talked about it.”

Another unwritten rule about the Waterman is that it goes to a narrow stereotype of a scientist. “Some people say that the Waterman is for prodigies, as if you come out of the womb knowing how to do brilliant science,” she says.

Paleoclimatologist Kim Cobb has spent years trying to erase those misconceptions. One of a handful of professors at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta with the remit to improve gender equity, Cobb has campaigned for more women to be considered for all manner of professional awards. And she says Olson’s selection shatters multiple myths.

“I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting, and now I can finally breathe,” Cobb says. “She’s an amazing role model. This news makes my day. It may even make my decade.”

Support for students

Olson has been on a fast track since coming to UW in 2013 from Yale University: She was awarded tenure last year and hopes to go up for full professor next year. Her research has focused on how children learn pro-social behavior, their attitudes toward inequity, and their understanding of social categories.

She’s probably best known for her TransYouth Project. Begun in 2013, it’s the first-ever longitudinal study of a large group of transgender children. A 2016 paper found that children who had socially transitioned were no more likely to show signs of depression than a control group. Those preliminary results suggest that the conventional wisdom about the propensity of mental health problems among these children may be incorrect.

Winning the Waterman prize will allow Olson to expand the study to include children who are gender nonconforming and those in the process of transitioning. The award will also give her the chance to promote the cause of diversity within the scientific workforce. Specifically, she wants to create a summer program for students underrepresented in science—by gender, race and ethnicity, physical ability, and sexual orientation—to do research across the UW campus. Undergraduates are already a staple in her Social Cognitive Development Lab, and she believes many of her colleagues are eager to make a similar commitment to diversity.

“NSF’s programs align with my work in advancing science and the people who do science,” she says. “So I’m really excited to have a platform to make changes in how we view science. I take that very seriously.”