Undergrad researcher explores transgender issues

Greg Staskiewicz

An undergraduate researcher at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is opening new frontiers in the largely uncharted area of transgender issues.

Gina Comstock, a neuroscience major, is finishing up a research project for the Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experiences (FUSE) program.

The project is a survey of binary (either male or female) and non-binary (not identifying with a fixed gender) transgender people and their feelings of gender dysphoria. Gender dysphoria is the distress a person feels when their gender as assigned at birth doesn’t match with their identity.

The survey, which lasted from February to April, involved over 500 binary and non-binary transgender participants. The survey used a Likert scale which asked participants to answer on a scale of one to seven, or “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” about their feelings of gender dysphoria.

Comstock along with their advisor Associate Professor Jay Irwin, who holds a doctorate in medical sociology, redesigned the Utrecht Gender Dysphoria Scale for the survey in order to make the scale more friendly and inclusive for non-binary participants. The Utrecht scale which asked insensitively-worded questions about body image and use of gender pronouns was not ideal for the survey.

Irwin also advised Comstock on how to recruit participants, program the survey and receive approval from the Institutional Review Board based at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The board reviews research intended for human subjects to ensure it is ethical and will not harm participants.

Comstock said they chose to do the survey because of a lack of data on the topic of gender dysphoria, especially in how binary transgender people differ from non-binary people.

Irwin said the existing scholarship on the subject was mostly focused on binary transgender people with little nuanced information on non-binary people.

“Getting more data, getting more understanding, that’s always one of the major goals of science,” Irwin said.

“The main goal of the FUSE project is to get basic data on the differing experiences of binary and non-binary transgender people,” Comstock said. “The data would help medical providers and counselors provide the best care possible by understanding people’s different needs.”

The survey has potential to pave the way for more research and attention on gender dysphoria in the future.

“If no question exists, then your access to research depends on having hard data, proving that a problem exists. Not just trans people saying, ‘these are our experiences, this is what we need,’” Comstock said. “Having that data collected and published through an academic institution legitimizes it in the eyes of the people who hold the power to access resources like healthcare.”

Comstock, who identifies as non-binary, said it is very satisfying to conduct research on transgender issues as a transgender person.

Irwin said that much of the previous research in the field was done by people who were not transgender. Though this does not make the findings invalid, it has caused things to get “lost in translation” because of the differences in the personal experience of researcher and participant.

“Gina’s been great to work with,” Irwin said. “They are really a go-getter and was very comfortable with the research process, so it’s been a really great experience.”

Comstock applied for the FUSE grant in the fall of 2017. After finishing the survey in April, Comstock is now analyzing the data and preparing to present the findings at the Research and Creative Activities Fair. The fair will take place March 1 in the Criss Library.

The Office of Research and Creative Activity started accepting new FUSE Grant applications for the 2018-2019 school year on Oct. 1. The program, which is open to all undergraduate students enrolled at UNO, pays researchers a stipend in order to promote student-led research.

The FUSE program is a great way to get basic, foundational data for future studies, Comstock said. It is also a way to do work as an undergraduate student that you plan to do in the future, whether in graduate school or in a professional setting.

“I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to get paid to do research that I would like to do,” Comstock said. “I think it’s really great that UNO has the FUSE available to encourage undergraduate research, and sort of getting into the meat of the scientific process without having to wait until grad school.”