Being in the right place at the right time can not just change your life, it can change the lives of the people around you and even people you’ll never meet. Such is the case with Stephen Russell, PhD: president of the Society for Research on Adolescence, director of the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences and “the gay researcher.”
That reputation started in the late 90s, when Russell began publishing the first large-scale health data on sexual minority youth. By 2008, when California passed the Safe Place to Learn Act named for his report on persistent problems for those kids in school, the moniker was fully his.
The thing is, Russell hadn’t set out to be that authority. As a gay man, he had a personal stake in what it meant to grow up gay, but at the start of his career, there was almost no research to build on. That’s when stars aligned.
“I had this very unusual, serendipitous opportunity to be affiliated with research that was the first national, population-representative study asking questions about sexual orientation. It was just like I was at the right place at the right time — in my life and in my career — and I got to ask questions that, at that time, were personally meaningful to me.”
Paying it Forward
Today, Russell gives that same opportunity to students working in the research lab at the Norton School’s Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth and Families, and for some, the experience is equally life-changing. Raymond Moody, who worked in the lab as an undergraduate, even uses the same language to describe feeling the hand of fate: “I was in the right place at the right time.”
Moody had left college an uninspired junior, not sure if he’d be back. While away, he did intake for a drug and alcohol treatment center for about three years before deciding he’d give college another try. “When I came back, I was much more engaged,” he says. “An advisor directed me towards working with Dr. Russell, and that really shaped my future.”
That’s because even as an undergraduate, Moody wasn’t just crunching other people’s data — he was able to bring his personal interests to the table. “If we had questions and there was a project in the lab that might help answer them, we were definitely encouraged to explore those questions more,” Moody says. For him, when helping with a study on bullying, it meant being able to also explore factors that might protect against substance abuse.
To say Moody thrived in Russell’s lab environment would be an understatement. When he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2011, he was asked to stay on in a new position as lab coordinator. Today, he manages a dizzying agenda for 15 researchers and assistants engaged in research grants totaling roughly $1 million a year. But it’s not a position he’ll hold much longer: He’s just finished applying to doctoral programs, looking to use research to drive better clinical interventions, and there’s no telling how many lives his work will touch, in turn.
Saying Yes to Change
Last fall, Russell presented preliminary data from the bullying study Moody had helped with, including the surprising finding that one in ten kids don’t actually know what bullying is. For Russell, those unexpected results underscore how some of the most important knowledge is often “hidden” in plain sight.
In that same vein, last year in a blog on The Huffington Post, he recounted a conversation with his teenage son, who’d been silently suffering over an excoriating comment from an uncle. “I'm supposed to be an expert,” Russell wrote, “…but I never fully understood that every single day, boys and girls everywhere are taught unthinkable shame and guilt.”
Working to help eliminate those blind spots for all of us is why Russell currently serves as an advisor to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. It’s why he’s on the board of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
It’s also why he’s now involved with a new inquiry, exploring how educators may inadvertently be creating a “schools to prisons” pipeline for sexual as well as ethnic minorities, both of which are disproportionately represented in prison populations. It’s one more thing on an already full plate, but for Russell, the need and opportunity are too great to turn down.
“I’ve said yes to these things because they’re important,” he says, “I think we’re at the beginning of the exponential curve in terms of knowledge and awareness, and there are finally people who are compelled to be in the room to have these conversations.”