Alumna Dr. Lessard Describes Career Path and Current Research

Alumna Dr. Lessard Describes Career Path and Current Research

Alumna Leah Lessard '14 (BA), credits USD as a "springboard" for her advanced studies and career trajectory. Dr. Lessard is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut where she studies mechanisms to reduce stigma-based educational and health disparities in adolescence. We asked Dr. Lessard to answer a few questions for us. 

 

Describe your current position and the academic path you took in order to get there?

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Connecticut where I study mechanisms to reduce stigma-based educational and health disparities in adolescence. This work has been largely shaped by my graduate training at UCLA. In particular, as part of the UCLA Middle and High School Diversity Project, I investigated the damaging effects of peer exclusion (e.g., friendlessness, rejection, bullying) on adolescents’ academic and health trajectories. The striking harm associated with peer exclusion called my attention to the social underpinnings of disparities that have remained persistent across adolescents with stigmatized identities and attributes, including youth with obesity, sexual minorities and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. That is, until we are able to minimize the peer exclusion these adolescents frequently experience, stigma-based educational and health disparities are likely to persist. This is what guides my current work on identifying mechanisms to promote social inclusion and acceptance within the school setting.

Can you describe the research projects you are involved in?

My research projects involve a variety of psychological and quantitative (methodological) approaches to examine mechanisms of inclusion across multiple levels of influence, such as within dyads (e.g., cross-group friendships) and within schools (e.g., diversity, extracurricular activities). Most recently I’ve also begun to examine the potential of structural mechanisms (e.g., policies, laws) to support healthy development for marginalized adolescents. For example, can weight-based anti-bullying policies improve the social wellbeing of youth with obesity in ways that promote educational and health outcomes? In addition, this summer I’ll be launching an experiment with adolescents to test whether peer influence can be harnessed to reduce weight-based bullying. That is, if the “cool” kids are sticking up for bullied youth, are their peers more likely to do the same?

How did your undergrad education at USD prepare you for your advanced studies?


USD really functioned as springboard for my advanced studies and career trajectory. The intimate learning environments, with faculty who are truly invested in the success of students, equipped me with the motivation and resources to delve deep into the material that I was most interested in. Drs. Kowalski and Taylor, in particular, provided me with incredible research experience and mentorship which proved to be invaluable throughout the graduate school application process. The built-in opportunities to actively engage with and “do” research in courses gave me the confidence to begin conducting my own studies. In fact, my first published study was an experiment I conducted for Advanced Research Methods in collaboration with a classmate.

Leah Lessard

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