Ryan Watson, HDFS Faculty Spotlight, October 2021

Associate Professor

Ryan J. WatsonDr. Ryan Watson studies the health and well-being of sexual and gender diverse (SGD) youth and young adults. Coming from a family with no college graduates, he began his research career when he spotted a flyer that advertised a research opportunity. The flyer hung outside his classroom at UCLA, mostly covered over by spring break and fraternity advertisements. He figured research was important if he wanted to go to graduate school someday, and he might first pursue a chance to get involved in research before signing up to party for spring break.

After two years collecting data from children in intercity Los Angeles schools, Ryan found some preliminary evidence of health disparities among lesbian and gay kids. Specifically, it appeared that some gay kids had reported much more cyberbullying than everyone else (i.e., heterosexual kids) in a study he worked on, but there were too few gay kids in the study to draw any conclusions. This observation inspired him to further study SGD young people. One of his research mentors gave him the business card of a professor she had met in Europe while at a conference—and said to go study with him. Ryan put the card in his dorm room desk, re-discovered it a year later, and found himself completing his PhD in Human Development and Family Sciences with that same professor at the University of Arizona.

Ryan’s work has taken place in three countries: the US, Norway, and Canada. His dissertation, in part, compared Norwegian youth to U.S. youth. He was interested in whether or not young SGD people living in a country like Norway (where same-sex rights and marriage had been granted for many years) were better off than youth living in the US, where many of these rights did not exist. In Canada, Ryan completed his postdoctoral training, where he examined trends and disparities in health for both Canadian and US young SGD individuals.

Now Ryan focuses his scholarship on SGD youth and young adults, their relationships within family and school contexts, and their health experiences. For the past decade, he has employed quantitative techniques using large non-probability and representative datasets to better understand the mechanisms that drive well-documented injustices in health, school, and community experiences for SGD individuals. He currently serves as principal investigator on two NIH grants, both of which fund him to intervene in the health disparities facing young sexual and gender diverse young people.

In 2017, in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign, Ryan and his colleagues collected data from more than 17,000 SGD youth across the US. This project has resulted in more than 25 peer-reviewed publications, with another 10 currently under review. In 2022, Ryan plans to repeat this national survey– stay tuned!

Ryan’s research has been featured on CNN, NPR, Washington Post, Live Science, USA Today, and several other media outlets. He has leadership roles in the Society of Research on Adolescence and is a consulting editor for the Journal of Research on Adolescence, Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, LGBT Health, and AIDS & Behavior.

Outside of work, Ryan enjoys his bearded dragon (named Lizzo) that he adopted on day 1 of the COVID-19 pandemic (for company!). He was a collegiate bowler at one time, but now he just enjoys bowling for fun. Who knows, you might see him bowling with Lizzo on his shoulder someday in the future.

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