#SheWearThePants: Scientist Kristen Koche on Ambition, Motivation, and Productivity

#SheWearThePants explores the themes of ambition, motivation, and productivity as experienced by high-performing women.

Kristen Kocher, Senior Research Associate in the lab of Dr. Valerie Hu (Dept. of Biochemistry & Molecular Medicine) at The George Washington University in Washington, DC

What are some of the most important things to know about you?

Science fascinates me, cooking relaxes me, coffee keeps me going, and all dogs are my best friend.

Why do you do what you do?

I would love to say that there was some big, dramatic event in my life that drove me into the field of biomedical/scientific research, but the truth is that “science” has simply always just been a part of my life.

Ever since I was a kid, I have just gravitated toward this field. My parents are both physicians, so it’s not a far stretch to say that I am genetically predisposed to have an affinity for the sciences. My favorite crusader for the sciences- Bill Nye (yes, the Science Guy) has made amazing strides in “mainstreaming” science and making it accessible to everyone- a fundamental understanding of the sciences opens up a whole new perspective through which one can view the world. Funding for STEM fields is so competitive and this breeds a secretive culture, where scientists are paranoid to share their work and findings until they are published. Additionally, many scientists “work with blinders on” and get so focused on their particular project and super specialized niche-science that they lose the ability to maintain a larger perspective by which they can articulate their work to a layperson (or even another scientist who’s not in their direct field). My hope and passion is that I can not only be an advocate for scientific education and women in STEM fields, but also mainstream “science” in a way that makes it more accessible for everyone.

What does ambition personally mean to you - what place does it have in your life?

Ambition is the drive and passion I feel for accomplishing the goals I set for myself. Without ambition I do not think I would be where I am today because throughout my life I believe my ambitious nature is what has always encouraged me to push myself and set the loftiest goals, despite the odds or obstacles ahead.

Let’s put it this way, in this country, a woman could win the popular vote and still lose the presidency to a completely unqualified reality TV star. We as women have so much work to do and I am just getting started.

Do you think our culture perceives “ambition” to be a dirty word for women? Why or why not?

    I have had a unique experience professionally, in that my bosses and mentors have been predominately women- strong, independent, unapologetically badass women. I was also raised by an incredibly inspiring mother, who somehow also juggled a full-time professional career as a physician. These women have taught me to never question my abilities or qualifications and that I should never feel trapped by the “glass ceiling.” That said, I have witnessed and heard of so many instances, especially in the STEM fields, where a lot of hate and negativity transpires between driven, professional women, which seems counterproductive. I love working with and meeting ambitious women- it is absolutely inspiring.

    Regardless, I do not perceive “ambition” to be a dirty word at all, and in fact, should be a word that all women are not only familiar with, but should feel comfortable embodying.

    Please share one of your current, important goals (can be personal or work-related).

    Getting my PhD, specifically in neuroscience. This has been a professional goal of mine since I started my career in research about 3 years ago. Telling people I was going to be a doctor, however, is among some of my earliest memories. Be it through an MD or a PhD, I knew I wanted not only to help people, but I wanted to be at the forefront of developing new ways to help people.

    Why is this a goal and how did you realize it was something that you wanted to work on?

    As I explained above, I love being a researcher and using the scientific method but so much of what I do and the field I am in is veiled behind a curtain of scientific jargon. I want to make science and the STEM field accessible for everyone. My love of sharing my research and teaching scientific concepts to others is what has motivated me to start on the long and winding road toward my PhD and ultimately being a professor.

    What’s your plan for achieving it?

    I’m currently in the process of applying for my PhD. It’s an arduous process but absolutely worth the time and effort. I love to learn and I think I’ll always be a student, so I am really eager to start this process, which is 4-7 years of immersive learning and researching that prepares me for the rest of my professional career as a scientist, researcher, and professor.

    What do you do if you are having a hard time defining goals?

    For me, nothing works better when I’m in a rut than talking things out. I’m so lucky that I have a network of wonderful people that I can turn to during times when I’m lacking focus or feeling off-center. I am overly analytical by nature, so there have been instances where I’ve probably taken too many factors into consideration when trying to define a goal and overwhelm myself with possibilities or overcommit myself to plans. However, when I articulate these concerns to someone else, I not only gain perspective but also
    receive advice and suggestions I may not have otherwise considered.

    How do you stay motivated to fulfill your goals and sense of ambition, and what do you do when you get stuck?

     When I am lacking motivation or inspiration, I find it helpful to temporarily step away from whatever is boggling me. Sometimes it’s as easy as just getting some fresh air or going to yoga and letting my mind wander away from any feelings of anxiety. If I feel like I’m having trouble fulfilling my goals, I’ll take the time to write out a checklist of things that need to be done to get me to the point of achieving that goal. Nothing makes me feel like I’ve made progress toward something like crossing something off of a to-do list and for me, that is incredibly motivating.”

    What is one tool/trick/lifehack/resource/service do you use to stay productive?

      In this age of technology, I feel archaic saying this, but having a physical planner is the most effective organizational tool I have in my productivity arsenal. I spend a lot of time curating my planner for the year- finding one with the perfect aesthetic & layout that is conducive to my schedule. I find that having a monthly, as well as weekly setup in my planner allows me to manage big events and smaller daily tasks in a very efficient way. The planner also has to be the right size since I take it everywhere with me. The one

      I’m currently using I found on Etsy from an indie company based out of Pasadena, California called Hadron Epoch Design- it’s probably my favorite planner I’ve used to date. I also always have a pen on hand, too-usually, quite literally in my back pocket. There have been so many instances when I’m walking down the hall or performing an experiment at work and can’t grab my planner but I’ll think of something I need to jot down and just use my hand as a notepad- I picked up that useful lifehack from my mom! I also have a desk calendar at work, where I keep a separate to-do list of work tasks, separate from my personal to-do list, so I can mentally separate my work and personal life responsibilities.

      What activities do you do outside of your full-time gig? How do you find time to do it? How does it make you more successful in your full-time gig?

      I’m involved with an amazing organization in DC called Brainfood. One day a week, I take about 3 hours of my day to work with high school aged students through this youth development organization. The goal of Brainfood is to “use the power of food to engage, empower, and employ DC teens and young adults.” We cook, we have fun, and most importantly, I really feel like I’m able to be a part of something bigger than myself.

      Volunteering with Brainfood has been by far one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. It gives me an outlet where I don’t need to be so analytical and focused- as someone who loves to cook, there’s no joy like sharing great food with others, and in this case, teaching someone how to cook for themselves and be creative throughout the process is even better.

      What would you do with an extra 15 minutes a day?

      Start a podcast. Realistically, this would definitely require more than 15 minutes a day but I am addicted to podcasts and I would absolutely love to have my own show and a platform to express my thoughts and voice (especially about science!). While one of my best friends tells me on a daily basis that podcasts are really just “radio shows,” but I think the ability to listen to them on-demand is a fantastic way to curate the news and information you expose yourself to- especially for professionals on-the- go.

      *For those who have similar ambitions, we found this great article, "Recording Podcast Audio: How to Get Started."