This is the first in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
In third grade, Jennifer “Jenna” Kotler was perfectly happy counting the tiles in the classroom ceiling instead of doing her work. What she tried hard to do was sit quietly like her classmates in their French-immersion school in Toronto.
Sitting quietly isn’t a requirement at Harvard, a place no one ever expected Kotler to land. At age 8, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a learning disability that can challenge even the most determined student.
“I was not disruptive, never got into physical altercations or had vocal modulation,” Kotler said. “But my third-grade teacher knew I had a learning disorder because I could not do the written work. My mom had to stand behind me with her thumbs in my ears and her hands around my eyes so I could finish a page of multiplication tables.”
Twenty years later, Kotler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Organismic & Evolutionary Biology (OEB) at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. An evolutionary theorist, she uses clinical and genetic studies to reinterpret how humans think about health, disease, and the human evolutionary path, especially as it relates to biological and psychological development.
David Haig, the George Putnam Professor of Biology and Kotler’s doctoral adviser, worked with her to create an interdisciplinary research program that would accommodate her condition. While she doesn’t count the ceiling tiles in her brightly lighted office at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Kotler still spends nearly every waking moment combating her ADHD, which affects both her memory and her personality.
“My brain works differently … I struggle daily with how to be in the workplace and constantly monitor myself,” Kotler said. “I’m really enthusiastic and eager, so I talk a lot, and really loudly. I interrupt a lot, and can be distracting to others. I’m extremely friendly, and tend to come on very strong. It sets you up for a lot of heartbreak, because that’s not how people typically interact.”
Kotler credits her early ADHD diagnosis with summoning a mission to help others who face arduous paths and learning to convert her own challenging characteristics into strengths.
“It’s really difficult to separate your personality, your identity, from your diagnosis. They are deeply connected,” Kotler said. “Most of the training I got through school was how to be successful there, which was important, but not sufficient when you are trying to survive the rest of the world. I needed support.”
She got that growing up in a family of feminists and activists. Outings with her parents often involved bringing snacks to teachers on a picket line, or sitting with striking daycare workers. Her early engagement in local activism, and her rejection of gender stereotyping, grew into a commitment to social justice.
“I never felt like I wasn’t smart because of ADHD; my parents did not emphasize my diagnosis, and my family talked to me about complicated issues,” she said. “They knew I was capable and also knew I needed to learn the skills to get things done.”
Kotler combined multiple therapies, including neurofeedback, focus training, and muscle-relaxation exercises, to manage her symptoms, but it was years before she could sit still in a classroom. As an undergraduate at McMaster University, studying psychology, neuroscience, and behavior, she often needed to Skype with her mother to do her work.
“It was hard for me to sit and do the work alone. I have some hyperactivity,” she said. “I just needed to know somebody was there helping me.”