by Deborah Melman-Clement
Karen Blair is fulfilling a lifelong dream by studying at Queen's University.
"I always wanted to go to Queen's," she says. "As a kid, I thought it was the best school in the world. A lot of my friends went there and so did my mom." The Winnipeg native eventually made her way here, but only after stops at the University of Guelph for her undergraduate degree and Acadia University for her Master's degree.
Karen's decision to come to Queen's for her Ph.D. in Psychology ultimately had less to do with her childhood ambitions and more with finding the right environment to continue her research. While studying at Acadia, she was inspired to study romantic relationships and how support from family and friends impacts both the relationship and the couple's health.
She wanted to know if differences exist between same-sex couples and mixed-sex couples. "The topic came from personal experience," she says. "I did some reading and that helped me turn it into an academic topic."
"It's a huge topic," she adds. "The study collects so much information that I could look at things forever. I really want to see how the support aspects play out. I want to see if there are differences between places where same-sex marriage is legal and where it's not legal yet, because legalized marriage is a form of societal support."
Karen found support for her research from her supervisor, Caroline Pukall of the Sexual Health Research Lab. "I was looking for a supervisor who would let me do what I want to do," she says. "That's very important to me. I told her when I interviewed that I wanted to do my own thing. She was okay with that."
In fact, Dr. Pukall has been more than just okay with Karen's work. She's provided her with just about every kind of support imaginable, from emotional to intellectual to financial. Because Karen's research requires input from people worldwide, the costs are high. A new version of her online survey required $12,000 in start-up money. "Caroline is incredible," she says. "She doesn't bat an eye about the investment."
In addition to Dr. Pukall's investment, she's received grants from the Lesbian Health Fund and the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association in the U.S.
After finishing her course work in early 2009, Karen received an SSHRC grant that will fund six months of study in a high-profile lab at the University of Utah with Dr Lisa Diamond. While she's south of the border, Karen will also be working on her recently-launched dissertation study — an online survey about relationships — available through her website,.
In addition to the research, she supervises an Honours student, works as a Teaching Assistant and travels frequently to present at conferences across North America. And when she's not doing those things, you'll find her enjoying herself in what might be the liveliest lab on campus. "We have a lot of research assistants in our lab," she says, "probably because we have the word sex in our name, but we have a good time and the work is fascinating."