Holly Tyrrell Kitchin (2012, BA in Psychology & Sociology)

Research and Grants Manager at Degnon Associates, Inc. in Washington, DC
Woman with brown hair smiling at camera

Tell us about your current job role and employer. What are you currently working on?

Degnon Associates is an accredited association management company providing services to professional associations, national organizations, and international societies. We work exclusively with medical, health, and scientific organizations focusing on education, research, patient care, and advocacy.

My time is dedicated to supporting an association whose membership consists of child health professionals engaged in research, advocacy, improvement science and educational scholarship to enhance the health and well-being of all children, especially those most vulnerable. In my role, I oversee all the education and research programs and activities within the organization. This includes national, practice-based research networks, multiple small research grant programs, faculty development programs, career awards, webinar series, and contributions to various mentorship and scientific conferences. I have the privilege of working alongside physicians and trainees across the U.S. and Canada on their research spanning topics from improving vaccination rates, childhood overweight/obesity, mental health, newborn care, addressing unmet basic social needs, and training the next generation of pediatricians. Our team is always preparing for the next research grant submission and upcoming conference.

What key personal and/or career experiences led you to where you are today?

After Wake, I earned my Master’s of Science in Social Work with a specialization in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Louisville fully intent towards a career as a licensed therapist.

To be honest, though, I struggled. Not in the classroom, but as an actual therapist. Maybe it was because I was working with adults more often than with children (and my expertise is in child development), but I felt like I stumbled through each session. Student Therapists typically have multiple practicums, some as a group so they can watch classmates in sessions from behind a two-way mirror. Watching my classmates, I knew exactly how to play out a session and give advice for next steps. In the room by myself, my anxiety kicked in and I reached a point where I was dreading each day of my internships. I felt drained and defeated and feared I would eventually hit burnout. I wanted so badly to make an impact on children and families, and becoming a therapist no longer felt like a feasible option.

But, what did come naturally to me was research. My research coursework and previous collaborations I started at Wake Forest kept me going. I found a small research opportunity at Louisville and started using my practicums as a way to develop research questions, which led me to explore doctoral programs and employment as a research assistant.

A few months after graduation, I was hired as a RA at Degnon Associates to work with a national, practice-based research network of pediatric residency programs – engaging pediatric residents in research happening within the clinics where they care for patients. I was at home from Day 1.

The clinical experience was incredibly eye-opening and an excellent learning opportunity, but I ultimately decided to go into pediatric research knowing that I could have a greater impact on the work that informs advocacy and, ultimately, policies.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?

The most challenging aspect of my job is stepping away at the end of the work day. I love what I do – working with multidisciplinary teams towards providing better health care for children and their families – but there are only so many hours in the day. While I thrive on staying busy and working on even the smallest of details until it feels perfect, that is not sustainable over time. I work from home, so I utilize my mornings to sort through my inbox and calendar, taking time to select 3-5 priorities to focus on for the day. Then, I let it all sink in as I walk my dog. When we come back inside, I’m ready to start meetings and projects. In the evening, my laptop, notes, etc., get put away out of sight. Does this happen every single day? No, because some seasons are busier than others and require longer hours. But, it’s a system I’m consistently working to improve.

What advice would you give to Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?

My best advice is to grow as you go – be flexible! When I was younger, my family and friends would roll their eyes at my response to any inquiry – “I’ll figure it out!” I was stubborn and most certainly anxious, but I didn’t want to do what everyone else was telling me to do. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but I felt out each step, gave some things a go that didn’t work, and tried to follow my instinct for what felt natural to me. That doesn’t mean take the easy route.

The best route is going to be one that makes sense to you (how you think, how you see the world) and still challenges you. It may sound cheesy, but this is your story, so you should craft it as such. There isn’t one single path for everyone. If you head in one direction that doesn’t seem like the right fit, then take the lessons learned and pivot. If you find something you truly love, then continue working towards it.

We know that relationships are important for any kind of development. How do you build and maintain your network?

When meeting someone, whether for the first or hundredth time, I like to say, “It was nice to see you!” instead of, “It was nice to meet you.” It just feels a little more special (and helps avoid the uncertainty/awkwardness if you don’t remember them from a previous interaction).

Professionally, the field of academic pediatrics is pretty small, so I focus on connections, finding out who has collaborated with this individual, who is interested in this research topic, etc. I am connected with health care professionals across the country, so I utilize Zoom most days, but relish in annual conferences to finally engage in person. The in-person events can be draining, so I build in time to recharge alone, but the benefits of connecting with everyone, letting them know you are prioritizing meeting with them – invaluable!

Personally, my friends and family are pretty spread out across the country, so it’s important to send the text or make the call when you think of someone.

Tell us about your mentoring relationships. What impact have these relationships had on your career and life?

During undergrad, I worked in Debbie Best’s lab in the Psychology Department – She was (and still is!) an amazing mentor and friend. Her expertise and guidance truly spurred my next steps post-graduation and beyond.

What’s funny is that I didn’t immediately approach her about working in her lab. It was actually a family friend from home who connected me with her friend, who happened to be a Psychology professor elsewhere, who then read the WFU website and suggested I reach out to Debbie. This is a great moment to mention how unbelievably anxious and insecure I was early in my time at Wake. I loved every moment at Wake, even the difficult ones, but I always wondered if I was good enough – especially in the first couple of years.

Walking up to Debbie and plainly asking, “Can I work on some research in your lab?” was that pivotal moment for me. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about her work, other than her focus was in Developmental and Cross-Cultural Psychology. I probably wouldn’t advise cluelessly walking up to a busy professor, but something just clicked for us. I didn’t just work in her lab. I managed it and touched so many different projects during that time. I completed my last bit of interviews for a study the day before graduation.

Debbie was there for me when I was struggling through grad school and we’ve continued to check-in with each other ever since. I can’t emphasize this enough – find your people! They are the ones who will see in you what you struggle to see in yourself and continue to support you when you feel like you are floundering. And then, pass it on.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are interested in working in your industry?

Make sure you put in the hours and try to go a little bit above and beyond when you can (emphasis on when you can). Take the time to meet with people. Ask them their story. Introduce them to someone or something new that might be helpful to them. Try collaborating. Always be willing to have the conversation and see where it goes. It might be nowhere, but people will recognize that you paid attention, took the time, and responded (kindly)!

In the industry I am in, partnerships really matter, and you never know who knows who. So why not approach with curiosity, respect, and the hope that you’ve just gained another great friend, mentor, sponsor, or colleague?

What’s next for your career? What future goals or plans are you pursuing?

I am working towards building the research capacity at Degnon Associates. I am also very excited about some upcoming research initiatives within the association I serve. We have a few grants still under review, so my fingers are crossed that we hear some good news soon and can finally start collaborations that have been a long time coming.

Lastly, I truly love my team and what we have the privilege of working on each day. My main goal is making sure we feel prepared to tackle each season together, whatever it ends up looking like.

Story published in May 2023. For current updates about Holly, visit her LinkedIn page.