Ms. Margaret Kocherga, a Ph.D candidate in the Nanoscale Science program at UNC Charlotte, is the recipient of the Younger Chemist Committee (YCC) of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Leadership Development Award. This award supported her participation in the YCC Leadership Development Workshop held in Atlanta, Georgia in January of this year. Her contributions, volunteer efforts, and empowering leadership qualities set a solid foundation as an emerging leader in the science profession. Heather Fant had an opportunity to interview Margaret on the phone after her workshop experience.
HF: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. I want to congratulate you on winning the YCC Leadership Development Award recently. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
MK: I am a Ph.D candidate at UNC Charlotte and I work in Dr. Schmedake’s lab, my main focus of research is organic and inorganic hybrid materials for organic electronics. That is what I do in my day job, among other things. I am a chemist by training, but nowadays I do a lot of work with the physics, optics and electrical and computer engineering departments, and have multiple interdisciplinary collaborations. I am originally from Ukraine, where I was training and performing as a professional dancer.
HF: You are a dancer. I love that! Would you tell me how you went from dancing to chemistry?
MK: Sure, it’s not a very interesting story. I came to the United States when I was fifteen and I was still dancing with the Charlotte Ballet and I tore my ACL. I graduated high school at 16. I always knew I wanted to go to college, so I started to attend college at 16. I took some general education classes while figuring out what to do. I had a very good chemistry teacher at the community college. I really liked it and began pursuing that area. It all just fell in the right place at the right time. I took organic chemistry as well and Dr. Esancy shared her research experience as a Ph.D student. I thought it was really cool. When I transferred to UNC Charlotte to finish my bachelor degree, I reached out to people about research and started volunteering in labs. I really enjoyed it and stayed in that field. I then had an opportunity to be a Summer Charlotte Research Scholar, where I had the chance to work on research full time on my own project in Dr. Rabinovich’s lab. I was training high school students and it was a turning point for me. It was an enjoyable experience, they had many speakers come and talk about grad school. So I decided to apply for a Ph.D, I got in, and now we are here.
HF: You recently attended the YCC Leadership Development Workshop in conjunction with ACS Leadership Institute in Atlanta, GA.
HF: Can you tell me about that experience?
MK: Absolutely! It was a three-day event. The first night was more networking, meeting and talking to people. Most things happened on the second day. I attended a Leading without Authority Workshop, and Coaching and Feedback Workshop. These were two of the many sessions they offered. I really enjoyed these sessions. The third day was more of a networking wrap-up. One of the greatest things that I experienced there was the positive, welcoming energy for everybody. I had to go off to a table to have breakfast/lunch/dinner with people, not knowing who they are. You never know walking there could be someone who is a CEO of a company or the chair of a department of a big school. It was amazing that everyone was super welcoming, willing to talk to you, and share their ideas. Plus, they would listen to my ideas that I have with the YCC right now. I got to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time. It was a great opportunity for all of us able to talk about various topics and work on our skills. There was a wonderful working setup, it didn’t matter if I was a student or a CEO of a company, everyone was at the same level and working together. I appreciated that opportunity, because otherwise I wouldn’t have a chance to talk to those people on a regular basis. The trainings I attended were two four-hour workshops and you are in there for four hours straight. It was a very packed and intense workshop with exercises and presentations. It was not all lecture style, you were engaged the whole time practicing your skills, asking questions, and coming up with different ideas. It was a very different and definitely a rewarding experience. I met people from Brazil, Egypt, Germany, and all over the US. It was incredible. I was very honored to be a part of it. And especially honored to receive the award considering the competition.
HF- So I think I know the answer to this next question then, would you recommend this workshop to other young students and chemists?
MK-Absolutely, it was an incredible experience. Even if you pay for it out of pocket, let’s say you didn’t get an award, I think it’s worth the money. It really is, it’s the training you are getting, and the people you get to meet. It is a good investment in yourself, absolutely.
HF- Being a young woman chemist, what would you say to other young women starting out in the field to fulfill their career goals and reach the highest level of leadership?
MK- I would just say if you have a good idea, go ahead and talk to people about it, because 99% of the time I had either positive supportive feedback or people would suggest other things that I haven’t considered. That is something I also want to point out about the workshop. I never felt pressured. Which often happens with females in the field and I see that a lot. There is a lot of pressure that: “oh you are female, you're not as smart and not as good as the male workers.” So, I would just say, do not be afraid, if you have a good idea, believe in it and stand by your values, then go ahead and work for it. That is definitely something I want to point out- is standing by your beliefs, your values, and work in that direction.
HF- That’s great advice. My last question: What do you see in your future?
MK: Where do I see myself in the future? I do not have an exact pathway paved out, I really enjoy teaching and training people as well as being in the lab, and there are many ways to satisfy these factors. So, as long as I can have these aspects, I will be happy in my workplace.
HF- Is there anything that you would like to add?
MK- I would like to talk about my outreach experience. I am currently in my third year as an outreach coordinator and I try to coordinate outreach activities between the PhD students, master students, and undergraduate students in the department. I was supported by NSF to work with the Charlotte Teachers Institute to get connected with teachers, help them with their training in research lab, go out to middle school and help them teach classes with hands on activities. Another great project that I was able to start is called Colors of Chemistry Workshop it is open to children of age 7-14. This event is possible with the support of UNC Charlotte Science & Technology Expo organizers and UNC Charlotte Chemistry Department, which supported us for three years now with this workshop. None of this would be possible without the support of like minded people!
HF- That is awesome, you are doing amazing work. I don’t want to take up anymore of your time, I really appreciate it and look forward to hearing and reading more about you in the future. Thank you.
MK- Thank you, if you have any questions go ahead and call me.
HF- Okay, great.
MK- Thank you for your time.
HF- Thank you!
Margaret has received many accolades and scholarships throughout her academic career. To name a couple: The Inorganic Chemistry Award for undergraduate research and The Community Service Award from Graduate Professional Student Government. She has been involved in over a dozen research presentations and one research publication. Out of all her accomplishments, Margaret’s actions that lead from a passionate place of intention are her many outreach and volunteer experiences over the last five years. A strong leader for young women and those inspiring to rise in the field of chemistry. In the words of William Shakespeare “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away”. An unfortunate injury led Margaret from a path of dancing to a journey in the science field. The world of chemistry is fortunate to have her involvement and leadership. Her helping heart and compassion can inspire us all to do good for others and to always keep going no matter how difficult the path. Thank you Margaret Kocherga for finding your gift and giving it to the world.
Heather Fant, is a Lenoir Rhyne University Alumni and webmaster for the ACS Piedmont Chapter. e-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org