April 18, 2022
Class of 2022: One conversation led to exciting research projects and ‘a new passion’
“I’m not sure that I’d even be the person I am today if I had not done this research. It changed my way of thinking,” said Steph Cull, who graduates in May.
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Sometimes all that it takes is a push.
When Steph Cull first came to Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue an undergraduate degree, they had no interest in research.
All of that changed after one conversation with Chimene T. Boone, Ph.D., Cull's advisor with the TRiO program, which provides guidance, tools and resources for first-generation students, low-income students and students with disabilities.
“And once I got involved in research, I was just like ‘Wow. This is fun and it’s exciting and it’s important,’” said Cull, 43, a first-generation student who will graduate next month with both a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology from the College of Humanities and Sciences with a minor in LGBT+ and queer studies. “It sparked a new passion in me.”
Looking back now, a month from graduating, Cull, who uses the pronouns he/she/they, pinpoints this as the conversation that changed their entire undergraduate trajectory. Since that conversation, Cull has been involved in multiple research projects on LGBTQ+ issues with VCU faculty and presented findings at national and regional conferences over the past two years.
“I can look back at that one conversation I had that led to all these different pathways,” said Cull, who is also an Honors College student. “It’s amazing to look back and say that if I hadn’t had that one conversation then that door wouldn’t have opened that door and so on.”
Cull, a Chester, Virginia, native, made their first endeavor into student research with Spit for Science, an ongoing VCU project that creates opportunities for students to work with leading researchers in substance use and emotional health.
After the Spit for Science course, Cull was accepted into the Guided Research Experiences & Applied Training program, which connects undergraduate students from backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in health sciences with mentors for a research project. Cull was paired with B. Coston, Ph.D. an assistant professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, a partnership that resulted in a paper on mental health and alcohol use among LGBT+ college students.
Next, at the encouragement of Herb Hill, director of undergraduate research and creative inquiry at VCU, and Amy Adkins, Ph.D., teaching assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and director of undergraduate research of Spit for Science, Cull was accepted into the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development Scholars Program, which allowed a continuation of the work with Coston and prompted their next project, which examined religiosity and mental health in the transgender community.
One door kept opening into another. After they got started, they could not imagine stopping, Cull said. It was all so fascinating — the research itself, getting to know faculty and learning from them directly. Cull could see themselves changing for the positive, not only as a student but also as a person, they said.
“Where would I be without taking that Spit for Science class, or applying for that GREAT fellowship?” Cull said. “I know that I would still be getting ready to graduate, but I know that I would not be the student I am today. I’m not sure that I’d even be the person I am today if I had not done this research. It changed my way of thinking. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without Herb Hill, Dr. Amy Adkins, Dr. Chimene Boone, Dr. Sarah Golding [director of undergraduate research in the Department of Biology] and Dr. B. Coston.”
In addition to the previous research projects, Cull’s combined thesis project for the Honors College and the Department of Psychology examines the effects of COVID-19 on LBGT+ students’ mental health during the first two semesters of the pandemic.
Going forward: Representation and research
Cull wants to take what they have learned and researched thus far and continue to provide scholarship around LGBTQ+ issues, while also expanding that to include LGBTQ+ people living with disabilities.
“I’ve seen firsthand the disparity and adversities that people in my community face,” Cull said. “And from the research perspective, there is not enough research done — specifically on the transgender community. There’s just a big gap and it’s such an important field of research because our community needs representation. We need policy change and supports in place. And research like this can lead to those changes. That’s why it’s so important to me.”
It’s about moving forward on research around the LGBTQ+ community and continuing to contribute to the scholarship and mentorship that is driving Cull’s aspiration to one day become a professor, they said. After graduating next month, Cull will continue research and studies as a graduate student in the Health Psychology Ph.D. program in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“I hope to get my Ph.D. and become a queer professor to provide that visibility to the queer community and to positively impact the life of young people the way my life has been impacted by my mentors,” Cull said. “I want to be that person for the students who come behind me.”
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