#WomeninSTEM · #WomeninTech · imposter syndrome · inspiration · Medicine · women who reign

Women Who Reign: Alaina Kafkes

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – Kurt Vonnegut


Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!

I’m a senior studying CS at Northwestern University, but I’ve dabbled in everything from theoretical chemistry to linguistics along the way. One of the things I’m most proud of is my dedication to championing #WomenInTech, all within a year of declaring my CS major. Currently, I’m the co-president of Women in Computing, a professional development & mentorship organization, and the founder of BuildHer, Chicago’s first-ever student-run women’s hackathon. I love to build new technologies that improve human health and happiness.

Personally, I’m that girl who points and waves at cute dogs in public — no shame — and, despite seeming very outgoing, I would much prefer the company of a few friends over a meal or in the midst of an adventure.

Fun fact: I’m ambidextrous.

Do you experience impostor syndrome? If so, how do you deal with it?

alainaQuite often. I’ve experienced it since before I had even heard of the term.

To me, impostor syndrome means feeling like I am mediocre, and that I will forever be mediocre unless I do something about it. Some days, this is incredibly motivating: in fact, it is often what pushes me to achieve all that I have achieved. If not kept in check, however, this mentality can get toxic: I start to believe that my efforts are fruitless, that I will disappoint those I care about, and that mediocrity is an unchanging fact about me.

The way I keep impostor syndrome at bay is finding other things to motivate me besides a vague fear of mediocrity. Motivators can be professional — like improving tech diversity — or personal — like participating in a triathalon — but either way, motivation should come from wanting to reach a goal rather than trying to avoid failure.


Favorite website / app:

I find it quite valuable to listen to the stories that all sorts of people share, so you can find me reading Medium posts daily.


Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:

My Yiayia (“grandmother” in Greek) was, in my opinion, the original women in STEM superstar. She was one of a handful of females that studied both math and physics in college, and my sister and I like to say that her dowry was her education.


Song that makes you want to dance:

“Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas


Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:

I’ve dreamed of becoming a physician for the longest time. As a high schooler, I took the hardest courses that were offered and sought out involvements in clubs that would make me “doctor-worthy.” In fact, part of why I chose to attend Northwestern is because it has a stellar medical school only 30 minutes away from the undergraduate campus. I looked forward to September, when I could finally start to prove myself as a pre-med freshman.

fbThings did not go as planned. I was rejected from almost every club that I wanted to join — even “waitlisted” by one before the rejection came — and found my general chemistry class to be less engaging than I had expected. Many pre-med students had the “memorize, but only for the test” mindset, as if they were biding their time in hopes that by medical school they’d somehow become passionate about their work.

As an undying nerd at heart, I could not stand this dulling environment. I began to feel like I did not belong in medicine, but, since medicine in praxis was still the coolest thing to me, did I belong anywhere at all?

Enter MIT’s introductory Python MooC. The “problem sets” that I did in the MooC were basic arithmetic and string manipulations, but I loved architecting complex solutions from Python’s logic and syntax. You’ve heard this before, and you’ll surely hear it again, but coding is fun because it’s like solving a constantly evolving puzzle. It’s both invigorating and empowering to build code because the real magic is done by you, not just by the experts.

I enjoyed learning Python, but stuck with my pre-med classes at the beginning of sophomore year because I could not give up the part of me that loved medicine. I was academically miserable, and my friends knew it. They kept nagging me to at least try one computer science class, so I did… and I fell in love with coding all over again.

This time, however, I had an epiphany that made me stick with CS: why couldn’t I study both CS and medicine? Even though other pre-med students shy away from engineering in fear of a ravaged GPA, that didn’t have to be me. Simply put, I value the pursuit of my passions over pre-med expectations.

Since then, I’ve built a smart mirror to study body confidence, founded both a women’s hackathon and tech mentorship program, and contributed hundreds of lines of code to a medical imaging tool that will enter the market by the end of the year. I wouldn’t change my decision to pursue both technology and medicine — sometimes separately, sometimes together — for the world.


What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives?

Surround yourself with people that believe in you, your goals, and your impact. They may be few and far between, but they’re out there, and just you wait: everyone else will be scrambling to jump on the back of your kickass bandwagon before it’s too late.


Learn more about Alaina Kafkes by following her on Twitter @alainakafkes!

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