Emerging Scholar Spotlight: Mollie McQuillan

Mollie McQuillan is a Doctoral Candidate in Human Development and Social Policy at Northwestern University. She is a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow for 2017-2018, given to scholars with unusual promise doing educational research, and was awarded a Presidential Fellowship, the most prestigious university-wide fellowship for Northwestern Ph.D. students who can communicate to both a disciplinary body and across disciplines. McQuillan’s research focuses on the development of gender-expansive adolescents, young people who do not fit societal ideals of masculinity and femininity, such as those with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer identities. It incorporates an interdisciplinary and mixed-methods approach to identifying health and educational disparities within this population, as well as a commitment to identifying possible policy and procedural interventions or supports within educational institutions.

McQuillan took a bit of an unconventional path to researching gender-expansive adolescents. She double majored in Political Science and Psychology at the University of Chicago in the early 2000s. Afterwards she worked in an immigration law firm for a couple of years post-graduation, and obtained her teaching licensure and a Masters in Teaching. As an AP Psychology Teacher, she was able to share her love of psychology with adolescents. Teaching the development unit was especially rewarding, as it felt like a privilege to guide students’ new sense of awareness and understanding of their own development and life experiences.

Throughout her 10 years of working with adolescents as a high school teacher and athletic coach in Minnesota, her interest in the relationships between gender, discrimination, physical health, and policies grew, and intensified with her academic training in the Human Development and Social Policy PhD Program. At Northwestern, McQuillan initially focused on how social stressors relate to physical and health disparities in marginalized populations. However, as she took more policy-relevant classes, she realized the many ways her professional and personal experiences could contribute to the existing research related to gender-expansive youth. Now, her research explores the intersection of adolescence development, educational policies, and health of gender-expansive youth. This research agenda is embedded in her three independent, but related, primary data collection dissertation studies. Her first study uses a clinical sample of transgender youth to investigate how distress from gender identity may relate to physical health through inflammation and immune deregulation pathways, and whether other social stressors or supports change this relationship. The second study is a document analysis describing the district policy landscape for gender-expansive students and employees in a representative sample of Illinois school districts, and how some districts have begun to implement these policies. These policies and procedures can be important sources of stress or support for gender-expansive youth. The third study, an interview study with district policymakers, delves into the processes involved in creating and changing policies, administrative guidance, and specific school practices disproportionately influencing transgender students. In addition to her dissertation projects, she has used secondary data to examine educational disparities by sexual orientation, conducted an evaluation of a gender-inclusivity training program for educators, and, using a difference-in-difference quasi-experimental approach, analyzed the impact of adding gender identity as a protected class of citizens to a state discrimination and hate crime legislation on health conditions and behaviors in transgender populations.

One of the project’s McQuillan is most excited about is a course she developed at Northwestern called, “Gender Identity Development, Minority Stress, and Policies: An Interdisciplinary Perspective.” Through this course, she teaches Northwestern undergraduates to discuss the diverse theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches researchers are using to explore the development of gender-diverse youth and related policies.

Through the lenses of a public school teacher, student, parent, athletic coach, district leader, and researcher, McQuillan has seen the influence that protective policies and affirming practices can have in schools, and the developmental costs of not providing such supports. You can learn more about Mollie and her work on her website.

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