In their words: LGTBQ+ researchers study trauma, substance misuse

In their words: SU lab prioritizes inclusivity

SU's Minority Stress & Trauma lab pushes back against negative perceptions of "mesearch."
Published: May 20, 2022 | Updated: May 22nd, 2022 at 6:18 pm
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At 426 Ostrom Ave. on Syracuse University's campus, many psychology department labs share the collective space. Some rooms like this may look like a storage closet, but tucked away under the letters "B.R.E.A.T.H.E." is doctoral candidate Emily Helminen’s workstation.

Warning: This story contains accounts of sexual assault.

The concept of “mesearch” refers to a scholars or scientists focusing their research on topics that relate to them personally, such as their identity or personal experiences. Mesearch has a negative connotation in the scientific community – the thinking being that scientists must be emotionally divorced from the topics they study.

But, what if this passion, this drive to discover more because of your personal experience, could be a force for good?

Syracuse University’s Minority Stress & Trauma Lab focuses on researching issues of trauma, alcohol misuse, and minority stress – stressful experiences that are unique to persons who identify as a minority group – in the LGBTQ+ community. Dr. Jillian Scheer directs the research that primarily focuses on LGBTQ+ health disparities and strives to create an inclusive environment in the lab.

Most of the researchers in the MST lab, including Scheer, identify as LGBTQ+. This is the story of the people who make the lab run, and how their individual experiences and identities pushed them to learn more about issues facing the LGBTQ+ community. It is guided by two truths: First, human beings are biased, passionate creatures, especially regarding things that personally affect them. Second, bias and passion can be translated into motivation to do exceptional things.

Dr. Jillian Scheer

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Dr. Jillian Scheer is the Cobb-Jones Professor of Clinical Psychology and clinical psychology assistant professor in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Scheer uses she/they pronouns and identifies as a queer, nonbinary person, meaning that their identity is not male or female.

Dr. Scheer has sought to create an inclusive, validating setting that allows people to explore their professional interests and personal connection to the work in the MST lab.

“Fostering an environment that’s affirming, culturally sensitive, dynamic, and co-created by my mentees is something that I really value,” Dr. Scheer said. “I can only hope that someone could feel supported enough to talk about how they feel solidified in their identity, or that their identity is starting to shift.”

The effect of this support has been palpable, as members of the MST lab frequently discuss their connections to lab work. Dr. Scheer noted that they hope the environment they have created challenges lab members to think critically about their work and conduct more rigorous, more inclusive scientific research.

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Dr. Scheer prepares for a lab meeting in their office.

Before arriving at SU, Dr. Scheer pursued their Ph.D. in counseling psychology at Boston College and completed their post-doctoral studies at the Yale School of Public Health. Their research has been funded by several prestigious institutions, most notably, the National Institute of Health division on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

One of their NIH-funded studies, known in the lab as “Project DAWN,” aims to gather information about trauma-exposed LGBTQ+ women who are heavy drinkers of alcohol. Dr. Scheer hopes this study will provide data that will inform future NIH grants and serve as a foundation for developing innovative therapies for LGBTQ+ women.

In the immediate future, Dr. Scheer is excited to welcome two new doctoral students to the MST lab and to continue fostering a validating, inclusive space that is conducive to rigorous science.

Emily Helminen

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Emily Helminen is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the school psychology division of the psychology department. Helminen uses she/they pronouns and identifies as a nonbinary/ genderqueer person, meaning that their identity falls outside of the male/female binary.

Though they are officially a doctoral candidate in school psychology – the division of psychology that primarily works with children and adolescents – Helminen has become immersed in the MST lab, which is a part of the department of clinical psychology. Helminen first became acquainted with Scheer when they were recruited as a faculty member and began collaborating because of their overlapping research interests.

With funding from the likes of American Psychological Foundation and the Lesbian Health Fund, Helminen’s research interests pertain to studying how self-compassion can provide a buffer against stress reactivity, especially in those who experience incidents of minority stress. In their words, “I want to teach Queer people how to love themselves.”

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Emily Helminen sets up their experiment for their dissertation study that will measure a participant's blood pressure, cortisol (via saliva samples), and reported stress. The study aims to test whether a brief self-compassion intervention significantly buffers against feelings of stress.

Currently, they are executing their dissertation study, which aims to examine whether a brief compassion-based intervention can buffer the effects of a stress-inducing task. Further, they are collaborating with Scheer to run a similar experiment with a sample of LGBTQ+ women, trans and nonbinary people. This study would be a foundational step in developing therapeutic interventions for people who experience stress in the form of stigma.

Helminen noted the importance of the validating and safe environment that the MST lab played in their development.

“Being able to develop in a space where you see people who are on their own queer or gender journeys and having zero expectations about where you are – it’s nice to have the flexibility to just explore,” they said.

In fall 2022, Helminen will begin their clinical internship year – the last step in their doctoral training – at the Rochester Institute of Technology Priority Behavioral Health Clinic. They also look forward to collaborating with Scheer and the MST lab far into the future.

Kieran Kokesh

Kieran Kokesh Portrait

Kieran Kokesh is a graduating senior majoring in psychology and neuroscience. Kokesh uses they/them pronouns and identifies as nonbinary, meaning they do not subscribe to a male or female identity expression. Kokesh joined the MST lab as a research assistant in fall 2021 and has contributed widely to several of the lab’s ongoing studies. Namely, they have worked on the lab’s national multi-wave study of trauma-exposed LGBTQ+ women.

Kokesh is driven to investigate aspects of LGBTQ+ stress because of their own difficult experiences with their LGBTQ+ identity. They shared that throughout their gender identity journey, they have had a great deal of self-doubt. One key experience Kokesh described was the movement in the LGBTQ+ community known as “transmedicalism,” a belief that only people who experience a certain level of gender dysphoria can use certain LGBTQ+ labels. This is a profoundly invalidating idea for Kokesh and many other nonbinary folks. Since those experiences, however, Kokesh has found balance in following what makes them happy and feels less pressure to commit to a specific identity.

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Kieran Kokesh (right) presents their poster on how feelings of internalized homophobia are associated with sexual orientation concealment at Syracuse University's annual Undergraduate Research Festival.

Their research interests are motivated by their experiences of stigma, but also by the desire to harness their experience to be a positive force in others’ lives. Specifically, they are interested in studying how experiencing stigma during the critical years of a child’s development impacts their identity as an adult.

Kokesh hopes to become a child psychologist and offer others the support system they did not have during periods of their own development. They also hope to be an educational, compassionate voice that works to reduce LGBTQ+ stigma, particularly parental rejection.

“I want to come up with discussions that both empathize with parent concerns, but also gradually push them to a level of understanding their child’s identity.”

Briana Lavin

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Briana Lavin is a graduating senior majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. Briana uses she/her pronouns and identifies as a bisexual woman. She joined the MST lab as a research assistant n fall 2021 and has contributed to many lab projects, primarily the study of LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Central New York.

Lavin’s research and clinical interests pertain to sexual trauma, particularly the ways in which repressed experiences manifest as physical symptoms. She is also interested in how familial stigma creates stress for people exploring their LGBTQ+ identity. Lavin’s interests are motivated by her personal experiences of sexual assault during her youth. For a period of her life, she did not know that what she had experienced was sexual assault and described how repressed trauma manifested physically in feelings of irritability, anger, and general discomfort.”

“I had a lot of experiences of: ‘I don’t know why I’m feeling this way,'” Lavin said. “Times where I wanted to just crawl out of my skin.”

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From left to right, MST lab research assistants Uchechi Onyenkpa, Spencer Watt and Briana Lavin work together to build a poster presentation on the difficulties of recruiting LGBTQ+ people in Central New York.

Lavin is also motivated to provide professional support for LGBTQ+ people who have trouble exploring their identities. While this desire stems from her experiences of stigma, rejection and self-doubt, she has shifted these negative feelings to a desire to provide others with the support she lacked.

“I want to be someone who is a support system,” she said. “Someone who can advocate for change and make change at some point in my life.”

In pursuit of her goals, Lavin will be attending graduate school at SU to earn her master’s degree in mental health counseling. As a counselor, she hopes to be a supportive voice in her patients’ lives and provide affordable, accessible mental health care, particularly for the uninsured or those who cannot afford therapy.

Spencer Watt

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Spencer Watt is a graduating senior studying psychology and forensics who joined the MST lab in fall 2021 and has contributed widely to several projects. She is also earning an advanced certificate in Medicolegal Death Investigation, which is typically reserved for graduate students. Watt uses she/her pronouns and identifies as a bisexual woman.

Watt’s research interests pertain to, as she puts it, “the breaking point between adoration and harm.” In other words, how does someone go from loving their romantic partner to hurting them? Combining her interests in clinical and social psychology and forensics, Watt has become passionate about pursuing a career in clinical psychology that draws on forensic principles.

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MST lab research assistants act as participants for Emily Helminen's dissertation training. They are testing the stress-inducing task presented to participants later during the formal experiment.

Her interest in LGBTQ+ identity as a source of external rejection and intracommunity rejection stems from her experiences as a bisexual woman. Bisexual individuals face an increased level of stigma from the general population and from the LGBTQ+ community. This concept is known as bisexual erasure. This stigma can range from questioning whether someone’s bisexuality is “just a phase” to believing that the bisexual orientation does not exist. For bisexual people like Watt, consistently having to clarify their identity is, as she put it, “exhausting.”

Watt’s experiences of homophobia and intracommunity rejection have motivated her curiosity about how LGBTQ+ people might weaponize their partner’s identity as a form of abuse. Given the salience of invalidating someone’s identity, she is interested in studying how this abuse is associated with some of the adverse outcomes for LGBTQ+ people.

Watt is excited to continue building her research experience and pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology one day.

Uchechi Onyenkpa

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Uchechi Onyenkpa is a junior majoring in psychology with a minor in business. She uses she/her pronouns and identifies as a Queer woman. She joined the MST lab in fall 2021 and has primarily contributed to the lab’s assessment of LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Central New York.

Onyenkpa was born in Philadelphia but has lived all over the world. If you ask her where she’s from, though, her answer is clear: Nigeria.

“I love being Nigerian. I love the culture, I love the people, I love the food – it’s amazing,” she said. Despite the love of her nationality, Onyenkpa shared that Nigeria is a difficult place to be a queer person. Growing up and being educated in Catholic schools, she learned to conceal her identity from an early age.

When Onyenkpa enrolled at SU, she felt safer being open as a Queer woman, but she must shift back to concealing her identity when she returns home. This back and forth of being open and closeted is difficult.

“For the first few weeks when I come back, I’m usually in a bad place mentally,” she said. “It takes some time to feel relaxed again.”

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Emily Helminen demonstrates the placement of electrodes that measure skin conductance on Uchechi Onyenkpa as part of a study that examines anatomical reactions to stress in LGBTQ+ women.

Out of the experiences of racism and stigma, Onyenkpa has adopted a no-bulls— approach to life. She is strong in her resistance to discrimination, equating people who perpetrate acts of discrimination to “barking dogs.” Additionally, she has found a validating environment with people who share some of her identities in the MST lab.

Onyenkpa is still learning what her research interests are and how she will apply her experience in the MST lab to her future career.

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Austin Coldon (left), a senior working in the Mind Body Lab at Syracuse University, goes to greet a group of MST Lab research assistants during a research training session.

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Virinca Jaipuriyar (left), a post-graduate research assistant in the MST Lab, reviews a computer tablet while Mind Body Lab research assistants assemble the equipment for a study.