Academics and Research / Magazine Feature / People

Furman breaking ground in adolescence research

Wyndol Furman, a professor in the Department of Psychology and an internationally renowned researcher in the area of adolescent psychology, juggles “behemoth” studies, mentors dozens of students and alumni, tracks his study participants all over the globe, and maintains a busy personal life. And yet, one task defies him.

“My desk is a daily fight,” he confesses.

Behind his chair, resting precariously atop a 12-inch stack of paper, sits a sign that a former student gave him: “Dull people keep immaculate desks.”

Throughout his career, Furman has focused his work on children and adolescents. He admits that “chance” has played a role in his journey.

“Social scientists don’t like to talk about chance,” Furman says, “but many things in my life have happened thanks to chance.”

Furman first began working with children as an undergraduate at Duke University. He was studying mathematics and philosophy when, by chance, a summer internship opened up at a nearby mental institution. There he realized that he wanted his life’s work to help people, and he switched his major to psychology.

While he was a graduate student at George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University, Furman worked in a center for autistic children. That experience served as the foundation for his entire career. Furman decided that he wanted a balance between academic research and practical application, he says.

His focus has been laser-like ever since. Furman joined the University of Denver in 1977, and over the next two decades, he studied close relationships of children and adolescents, and also sibling relationships. Then, again by chance, the results of those studies led Furman to tackle a study that he calls his “true love.”

In the mid 1990s, Furman began studying romantic relationships in adolescents. That three-year study became the foundation for a project that he launched in 2000—Project STAR, which stands for “Studying Teens And Relationships.”

When Project STAR began, Furman selected 200 local 10th-graders to follow throughout their teenage years. Five years later, he and his graduate students continue to personally interview the subjects who are working and attending college throughout the country.

“It’s the best work I’ve done,” Furman says. “Prior to this, there was no work done on adolescent romantic relationships. It was a funny anomaly. We knew a lot about their sexual behavior but not their relationships. If you want to understand their sexual behaviors, you have to understand their relationships.”

His work led to a chapter—“Love is a Many Splendored Thing: Next Steps for Theory and Research”—in a 1999 book, The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence (Cambridge University Press).

Lauren Berger, a fifth-year graduate student in the child clinical psychology PhD program, says she came to DU because of Furman.

“I was drawn to DU because of Wyndol and his great work on adolescent relationships,” she says. “What’s more, Wyndol is fun. He is committed to making time for his students and helping them shape their own career paths.”

Project STAR will continue as Furman and his students track their subjects for several more years. In the meantime, Furman continues to explore new adventures in his personal life.

“My life has been full of passions,” he says. “I bike, ski, snowboard and backpack. I recently started to draw. My interests change all the time, which keeps my life fun.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, January 2006.

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