Carnegie Mellon University
September 12, 2022

Undergraduate Researches the Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Identity

By Michael Henninger

COVID-19 gave Alana Silva-Cacdac and those close to her ample time to reflect. The senior psychology major at Carnegie Mellon University saw friends in social isolation examining their gender identity. Silva-Cacdac wanted to know how the isolation experienced affected one's gender identity and began a research project to better understand this novel situation.

The pandemic upended Silva-Cacdac's early college experience. A first-generation student, she planned on attending community college and applied to several top-tier schools just to see if she would be accepted. With aid from programs like the Tartan Scholars, which helps meets the needs of high-achieving students from limited-resource backgrounds, she chose CMU, though a first year of virtual classes was not the college experience she had envisioned.

Silva-Cacdac still made the most of isolation, identifying a research topic that she would follow through the rest of her undergraduate career.

"The research we have now establishes that gender identity is formed around puberty, influenced by the ideas and gender of your peers and the social barriers you have. There's also a self-reflection, the interaction between your social environment and your personal, private identity," said Silva-Cacdac. "During COVID, that whole social part was taken away. You didn't have an audience to perform your gender to. I think taking away that audience made people reconsider how they represented themselves."

With the basis of her idea, Silva-Cacdac approached Vicki Helgeson, a professor of psychology and director of graduate studies in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Helgeson's guidance shaped the project, and Silva-Cacdac was able to join Helgeson's Gender, Relationships and Health Lab

"Alana is very thoughtful and resourceful. She was able to bridge what she had learned from social media and blogs — more informal anecdotal sources — with scientific research. Observing her excitement about this research topic is contagious,” said Helgeson. "We will be studying the effects of the pandemic on well-being for some time to come. It is truly an area ripe for psychological research — especially the implications of the pandemic for whether we interacted with others and how we interacted with others — and how those changing relationships are still affecting our overall health."

Together, they came up with the basis of the research study, a survey that will be conducted in multiple steps. Aiding in the research, Silva-Cacdac received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which awards $3,500 to undergraduates for summer research in any field of study.

Stage one will be a broad survey, identifying whether participants questioned their gender identity or changed their pronouns during the pandemic. It will examine the impact of isolation and ask what kind of online platforms and support systems responders turn to. In stage two, Silva-Cacdac will conduct in-depth interviews with a smaller sample of participants based on the results from stage one.

"Gender minorities are at significantly higher risk for lower mental health or to be impacted by social isolation. We don't actually know much about these identities so before we can develop interventions, we first have to understand them better," said Silva-Cacdac. "Having a better idea of how gender identity forms could give us better methods to help."