Featured Investigator: Jessica Fish, PhD

December 2021: Jessica Fish, PhD (she/her) 

Assistant Professor of Family Health and Wellbeing
Department of Family Science
University of Maryland School of Public Health

Deputy Director for Research and Evaluation
University of Maryland Prevention Research Center

Dr. Jessica Fish is a human development and family science scholar whose research focuses on the health and well-being of sexual and gender minority (i.e., lesbian/gay, bisexual, and transgender) people and their families. Broadly, Dr. Fish studies the social and interpersonal factors that shape the development and health of sexual and gender minority youth and adults. Her overarching goal is to identify modifiable factors that contribute to sexual and gender minority health disparities in order to inform developmentally-sensitive policies, programs and prevention strategies that promote the health of sexual and gender minority people across the life course.

Q: What are your current research interests?
A: 
Most of my research uses population-based data sources to identify and understand mental health and substance use disparities between SGM and cisgender heterosexual youth and young adults. I’m particularly proud of the work that emphasizes the importance of development and life course perspectives for SGM-related stress and health vulnerability. More recently, I’ve been exploring the day-to-day experiences that support and undermine the positive development and health and SGM youth and how this experience might inform the development of programs and resources that help SGM youth thrive.  For example, my research team recently completed 48 in-depth interviews with SGM youth and their parents to better understand how they discuss topics and experiences related to sexual and gender identity and how parents and their children perceive these interactions. We’re just now getting into the data, and I am excited to see what we learn.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?
A:
My career path was anything but intentional and organized. I originally went to school to become a therapist and received a terminal master’s degree in Couple and Family Therapy (CFT). During my master’s program, we were required to complete an empirical thesis which sparked my research interest and impetus for applying to Ph.D. programs. In the first year of my Ph.D. program, I was losing interest in therapy and became more absorbed in conducting research; simultaneously, I was immersing myself in SGM family and development literature. These shifts in my interests led me to change my concentration from CFT to Human Development and Family Science. Coincidentally, this all happened right around the release of the 2011 Institute of Medicine report on the Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People. I remember being enthralled with the report, and it was the foundation for my redefining my research interests to SGM populations. Unfortunately, like many SGM scholars in the early 2010s, few scholars were doing this work. So, I ended up completing an SGM-focused dissertation with a committee that lacked expertise in this area. This lack of mentorship and training motivated me to write a National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellowship (F32) proposal to work with Dr. Stephen Russell, to gain additional training in SGM youth development and health. I was incredibly fortunate to have the proposal funded, which afforded me protected time and proper SGM youth health research training. This experience and the incredible mentorship I received helped provide a foundation from which to build my current research program.

I know this is a long-winded answer, but I think it’s helpful for emerging scholars to see that the path towards a research career can be haphazard. In retrospect, I believe these experiences provided me with an interdisciplinary training background that lends itself quite well to conceptualizing and conducting research.

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?
A:
 I consider myself quite fortunate when I consider some of my colleagues’ institutional challenges. However, early on in my doctoral training, I received a lot of advice from faculty not to pursue a research career focused on SGM populations. I heard lots of comments that the population was “too small,” that I wouldn’t be competitive for tenure track jobs, or that this line of research “wasn’t fundable.” Additionally, like many young scholars interested in doing SGM research at the time (and even today), no faculty in my Ph.D. training department researched this population/topic, which limited my mentorship and training opportunities. Fortunately, I was persistent in my interests and was able to convene a supportive committee that helped me develop my interests as best they could. Since then, I have been so fortunate to be in SGM-focused research teams and SGM-affirmative environments, making the work that much more enjoyable!

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding? 
A:
Mentorship is so critical. I attribute most of what I have been able to accomplish to the mentors and peer support systems that have been in place at each stage of my career. Although it can take time to identify someone who can play that role for you, I think finding a formal or informal mentor who genuinely supports your research and professional development is one of the best things you can do. This includes finding a mentor who can support your efforts in applying for NIH funding. Peer support is also essential—I find it so helpful to have a cohort of peers to rely on for support, guidance, and community.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?
A: Regardless of your research method, it is essential to build genuine and authentic partnerships, collaborations, and coalitions with the community. I believe that researchers who create and maintain these connections produce work with significant impact.

Q: Who inspires you?
A: At each stage of my career, I continue to be inspired by early SGM researchers, who provided not only a foundation from which to build the current and growing body of science but who were unabashed and resolute – sometimes at great cost –  in creating space for SGM scholars and research. As a youth-focused researcher, I am also constantly inspired by SGM young people and their incredible resilience, resistance, ingenuity, creativity, authenticity, and self-advocacy. 

Q: Any final words of wisdom?
A:
I want to acknowledge that, at times, this work can be challenging. Still, it’s important to celebrate the small achievements, recognize our accomplishments despite the challenges, and remind yourself why you do the work. 

This page last reviewed on December 16, 2021