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Kristen Choi talking in a meeting

Leader, Change Agent

Kristen Choi, PhD, RN

Fellow, National Clinician Scholar Program
Hillman Scholar in Nursing Innovation

Learning to Lead

It is only now, with the benefit of perspective gained as a postdoctoral fellow, that Kristen Choi, PhD, MS, RN, can more clearly see how the Hillman Scholars in Nursing Innovation program instilled the skills and confidence that equipped her to take up leadership.

“One of my greatest surprises in the National Clinician Scholar Program at UCLA so far has been realizing how many opportunities there are for co-leadership and partnership between physicians and nurses,” says Choi, one of the first nursing fellows admitted to the prestigious health services and policy fellowship. “As the only nurse in my cohort, I’m fortunate to have many opportunities for interprofessional collaboration and to bring a nursing perspective to pressing health policy problems.

“Initially, I wondered if my relatively limited clinical experience as a nurse might put me at a disadvantage in a fellowship that emphasizes both research and clinical excellence, but the opposite has been true—I’ve found that the research and leadership skills I developed with the Hillman program are perfectly suited to interprofessional teamwork, community-partnered research, and policy-relevant work. I maintain a clinical practice as an RN at a community psychiatric hospital in Downtown Los Angeles and no longer see research versus clinical practice as a binary that nurses who want to be leaders must choose between. You can do both.”

Kristen Choi with powerpoint presentation projection overlaying

‘Seeing the World Through a Social Justice Lens’

At UCLA, Choi is extending her research on the impact of trauma and violence on children and communities, which she started in the Hillman program at the University of Michigan.

“I first learned about seeing the world through a social justice lens in nursing school,” she says. “My goal post-Hillman was to learn how to do high-impact health services and policy research where I could have an impact on systems and patients in a bigger way.”

One example of the “high-impact” research Choi is currently working on focuses on how recent mass shootings affected nurses working in hospitals in the immediate aftermath. It is just one piece of a large study by the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA that is looking at how mass violence events in Las Vegas; Newtown, Connecticut; San Bernardino, California; the Boston Marathon bombing, and others reverberated throughout the communities where they occurred.

“We have not yet explored the impact of mass shootings on responding nurses in great depth, and we think there might be unaddressed secondary trauma, grief, and need for occupational support among nurses as a result of exposure to such overwhelming violence,” Choi says. “We want to explore how health systems can better support and prepare nurses before and after these events—which, unfortunately, we can probably expect to keep occurring.”

Kristen Choi in a garden

Seeing the Impact of Trauma

Choi’s interest in trauma has family roots. Growing up, her parents—who had eight children of their own—would take in foster children, usually babies to age three. “I was able to see firsthand what trauma and abuse does to kids, how it often sets them up for a difficult path in life, and how there aren’t a lot of good resources or systems that can support them to succeed,” she recalls.

That experience informed Choi’s research after she was accepted to the first cohort of the Hillman Scholars at Michigan in 2012. It continues to fuel her passion to make a large-scale difference in the lives of those living in communities experiencing violence and trauma.

Kristen Choi looking out a window through venetian blinds

Thinking About the Big Picture

“I have a tendency to think upstream, to think about the big picture,” Choi says. “From day one in nursing school, I knew that I wanted to be a change agent—someone who could change the system, rather than work within it.”

And Choi continues to gain a greater appreciation for all that the Hillman Scholars program has done to help her embody that vision.

“I’m beginning to realize the value of what I learned and how the Hillman program model worked—particularly the emphasis on nursing leadership, even if I didn’t always see my own leadership potential as a scholar,” Choi says. “I’m really seeing the fruit of jumping into the program vision now that I’m beyond the program, and I imagine that will grow over time.”

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