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Power woman thinking outside the box

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on 8 March, IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems would like to give centre stage to a young woman who is following a remarkable path as a scientist. At the age of 31, Hanna Köttl has taken over as programme director of Angewandte Gesundheitswissenschaften.

Portrait von Hanna Koettl

International Women's Day: Hanna Köttl has taken over as Director of Studies for Angewandte Gesundheitswissenschaften at IMC Krems.

Hanna Köttl sees International Women’s Day as an annual reminder that even in 2022 great gender inequalities still prevail. Experiences she made in Bangladesh after the collapse of a textile factory or in Togo with victims of trafficking in women and kidnapping have significantly shaped her views. On the one hand, women in Bangladesh refused to accept help in order not to have to forego earnings because of their children, and she experienced women in Togo as victims of cruel practices. On the other hand, she met “incredibly impressive, strong and proud women who have shaped my own womanhood”. In Austria, too, there is still a lot to do in view of femicides, the gender pay gap, a lack of access to and regional differences in childcare. “Yes, there is still a need for International Women’s Day. Unfortunately,” Köttl sums up.

Strong mentors

Hanna Köttl has worked as an occupational therapist in psychiatry and geriatrics. She considers her patients to be mentors, through whom she was able to learn a lot about herself and about life. “I was also influenced by Prof. Louise Nygård from the Karolinska Institute and her team,” says Köttl. “They motivated me again and again to publish my master’s thesis in a peer-reviewed journal. When I wanted to give up after the third rejection, they just kept encouraging me and pointed out that rejections and failures are part of a researcher’s job and that these are learning opportunities for me.” She was also impressed by her supervisor in the PhD programme, Prof. Liat Ayalon. “She is a brilliant researcher and has managed many large research projects. She always gave me the feeling that anything is possible and that you can learn anything if you want to,” says Köttl. After all, she says, her parents also shaped her, two hard-working people who follow their dreams and never lose sight of their goals.

Broad horizon for master students

As part of an MSCA (Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions) EU Horizon 2020 programme, Köttl was based in Tel Aviv at Bar-Ilan University. As an MSCA Fellow, she had the chance to cooperate closely with UN and policy and advocacy organisations at the EU level. “It was fascinating to use my occupational therapy background to influence health and social policy decisions at UN and EU level.”
Due to COVID, she had to return home and finish her dissertation in Austria. After the birth of her daughter, she applied to IMC Krems and was selected in an extensive application process as programme director for Applied Health Sciences (AHS). “What excites me about AHS is the interprofessional approach. I firmly believe that we need to meet future challenges in the healthcare system in an interprofessional way,” says Köttl. “I also really enjoy teaching students at the master level. Our AHS students have a lot of professional and life experience, which makes for many exciting discussions and constant learning from each other.” After her own experiences in Israel, she wants to encourage AHS master students to think outside the box. “This master’s programme offers the opportunity to take a global, interprofessional health perspective and link it to your own practical experiences. I am really looking forward to working with the students.”

Technologies and health promotion

Already as a bachelor student, Köttl was enthusiastic about research. Back then, she was dealing with cultural barriers in occupational therapy. The logical consequence was a master’s programme in Switzerland, the part-time European Master of Sciences in Occupational Therapy, with modules at English, Swedish, Dutch, Danish and Swiss universities. “I built a large international network through this programme and gained a global understanding of health sciences,” says Köttl. In addition to her work as an occupational therapist, Köttl worked in Advanced Practitioner Therapy at the Psychiatric University Hospital Zurich, where her task was to “combine research and practice and promote evidence-based practice in everyday therapeutic work”.
In her dissertation, Köttl dealt with the barriers to everyday and health technologies in older age – especially ageism, i.e. discrimination, stereotypes and prejudices based on age. Ageism is very widespread and has been shown to be detrimental to health and well-being. For this reason, combating ageism in all areas of life, but especially in the health system, is a current priority of the World Health Organisation. Currently, she is particularly interested in health prevention, for example, how incipient cognitive impairment can be detected at an early stage and what role loneliness and social exclusion play. “I am currently planning a research project on the topic of activity balance of informal caregivers, with a focus on intervention development – probably digital intervention – and health prevention,” adds Köttl.

Career with a child

Köttl was employed in Israel but working remotely in Austria when she became a mother. She worked until giving birth and started working full time again 14 weeks afterwards, as this is common in Israel as in many other countries. She found support in her partner and her parents, so that despite working there was plenty of time to spend with her little daughter. “I think that motherhood has made me more efficient in the way I work,” says the young scientist. Her partner is now on paternity leave for six months. “I consider it a great gift that here in Austria we can decide individually how long which parent stays at home with the child and when a child is looked after by others, because every family situation is different. I hope that this will also be accepted by society and that in the future women will no longer have to justify staying at home with their child ‘not long enough’ or ‘too long’. I hope that in the future men in leadership positions will also be asked how they manage to combine career and family life,” Köttl puts a finger in the wound.

Köttl is convinced that it is not difficult to teach children about research because they have an innate instinct to explore. They are intrinsically motivated to discover the world, whereas adults have forgotten this curiosity. “I wish that our school system would encourage this thirst for knowledge and not take away all desire for school and education through dull memorisation and pressure,” says Köttl.
It is also refreshing how Hanna Köttl openly admits that not everything in her impressive career path was easy: “Although my CV may seem straightforward, there were many ups and downs. Especially the time in Israel was very challenging for me. Every day I felt overwhelmed and also often very lonely. I would advise people who would like to further develop not to compare themselves with others. Everyone has different qualifications and experiences. This diversity is valuable and allows exciting projects or initiatives to emerge.” That’s a nice closing thought for International Women’s Day – even if it’s by no means only women who should take it to heart.