From Bricks to Breakthroughs: Anna Holleman Weaves a Connection between Lego Builds and Research

 November 15, 2023

Like many others, Anna Holleman sought engaging activities to pass the time during the pandemic. While scrolling through social media and searching for Legos for her eight-year-old son, she began receiving ads for intricate Lego sets. These were no ordinary building blocks but complex projects like the Challenger, the Coliseum, and the Eiffel Tower. "The algorithm just started pumping Lego content directly into my veins," she jokes, "but it's been a fun, productive thing for me."

For Holleman, who earned her Master of Divinity (MDiv) and Ph.D. at Duke, her penchant for systematic and creative approaches extends into her postdoctoral work at RaSCL. Here, precise planning and a deep understanding of how research fits together are essential. RaSCL's latest research delves into the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on seminary students' long-term health and ministry. Notably, RaSCL's findings reveal that seminary students exhibit higher-than-average rates of ACES related to mental illness, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse – experiences that often correlate with later-life mental health symptoms.

Seminary students exhibiting the 'wounded healer' archetype (traumatized individuals drawn to helping careers) are particularly striking. It's a strength and a potential problem, Holleman says, especially without proper training. She hopes RaSCL's research can provide valuable insights into how seminaries can better prepare students to navigate the complex dynamics between their traumas and those of their congregations.

Pastors, like therapists and social workers, have privileged access to people during vulnerable moments. Yet many pastors aren't trained to deal with vicarious trauma, transference, and countertransference," says Holleman, emphasizing the need for specialized training.

Though this training wasn't available to her as a seminarian, she is hopeful that RaSCL's research will lead to future seminarians who can better care for themselves and the people around them.


Photo: (middle photo) Countless hours were logged building the LEGO® NASA Space Shuttle. Far right photo: Anna and her wife, Meagan Holleman, enjoying a vacation at the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

[NOTE: The following interview is part of a series of interviews with RaSCL team members to explore the motivations, pivotal moments, and values inspiring their work.]


What’s the question you never tire of asking?

The question I never tire of asking is: "What's behind that?" As social scientists, we often focus on the bivariate relationship between variables, such as X and Y. Responsible social scientists should delve even deeper and ask, "What are the variables that are influencing and shaping this relationship and our understanding of it?" We want to examine the world in which this relationship exists and question the assumptions we bring to the table, some of which may contain blind spots. By incorporating diverse perspectives and acknowledging biases in our discussions, we can foster richer conversations and ultimately enhance the quality of social science research. That's my hope anyway.

What’s the nerdiest thing about you?

Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea that Lego made these enormous kits that cost around $200. These aren’t like the typical bucket of random colorful pieces designed for freeform building type of Legos. Those never clicked with me; my mind just doesn't work that way. These are very intricate sets like the Coliseum and the Eiffel Tower, which come with a very detailed booklet of step-by-step instructions. It's like this very methodical process with a satisfying aesthetically pleasing result. It's going to take you 40 hours, but at the end, you're going to have the freaking Challenger. I'm already thinking towards Christmas and like, ‘Okay, which set can I ask for next?’

Do you think there’s any connections between your love of intricate Lego builds and your love of social science research?

They’re both highly systematic processes. Before you begin, you need to sort the pieces into categories, such as small yellow, big yellow, small green, etc. I'm 5'10" and I'm a very visual thinker. When I stand over the pieces, I get a bird's-eye view, analyzing proportions, anticipating the flow of the Legos, and planning the build.

A similar mindset is required for tasks like data cleaning in sociology. Just as I categorize Legos, I think about the data, organizing qualitative stories into buckets or understanding the variables and the characteristics of the people in the dataset before running statistical analyses. It’s about understanding what you have and how the pieces fit together, while also being open to the possibility that your assumptions might be incorrect.

Is there any aspect of RaSCL research that you’ve been involved with that feels particularly meaningful?

I’m very excited about our research around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). People in the helping professions often have a higher ACES prevalence and we wanted to examine how that relates to seminary students. We found that seminarians did not have higher overall ACES rates, but they did have elevated rates in domains that involve mental illness, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse. In these domains, they were higher than a demographically matched sample in the general population. Because these domains also tend to have the highest relationships in terms of correlations with negative or poor mental health symptoms later in life, this is something that’s really important to address.

What kind of impact do you hope this new research will have?

I hope the findings will inform discussions around how we can begin thinking more broadly about what seminarians are bringing into their field experiences, and how seminaries can best prepare and support them.

Pastors function in very similar roles to therapists and social workers; they have privileged access to people during very vulnerable moments. Many students are still very much wrestling with their own issues when they come to divinity school. While therapists are taught how to deal with vicarious trauma, transference, and countertransference, many pastors aren’t trained to deal with the trauma they’ll encounter.

Hopefully our research will validate the experiences of students who are struggling and help seminaries reimagine pastoral training so they can feel invited and supported to bring their entire selves into ministry and help others more effectively.