How Confidence, Curiosity, and Swimming Motivate this Qualitative Researcher
Story: Langston Payne and Alex Haederle | Photography and Production: Melissa Blum
She’s consulted on over 5,000 research projects in her career, from health to medicine to education. She has multiple degrees, a family, and an insatiable interest in why we do what we do. A curious mind who’s never been afraid to dive into uncharted waters, Asher Beckwitt has built an impressive career for herself and grown into an expert qualitative researcher by making connections that no one else can. In this interview, she spoke with us about her humanistic outlook, entrepreneurship, her 16-track mind, and why she spends so much time in the water.
“I never thought I’d be a researcher.”
Surprisingly honest words from one of Ripple Effect’s brightest minds, not to mention one of our leading qualitative researchers. But unvarnished truth is something that permeates every part of Asher Beckwitt, from how she approaches her work to what keeps her hungry to learn and grow. Today, Asher is the Research & Evaluation Project Director for Ripple Effect, driven to uncover the human motivations behind decisions and answer the crucial questions that guide policies and programs. While the curiosity and appetite for discovery have always been there, how Asher got here requires a deeper dive into her own motivations—and her mind.
A Dive into the World of Research
Asher grew up in Northern Virginia, and stayed local as she chose her college and started to plot out her future. She attended George Mason University for undergrad, majoring in Integrative Studies—an uncommon area of study, yet something that suited her perfectly. “I was interested in so many things,” she reminiscences. “I’m a deep processor. I realized early on in my life that all things seem connected…but I also knew that I was interested in people—specifically, wanting to help them.” As she immersed herself deeper in sociology, anthropology, and culture, Asher enrolled in a master’s program at George Mason to continue pursuing her interests. Needing to supplement her studies with a steady job, one of her close mentors, Howard, offered her an opportunity that she didn’t expect: building a qualitative research program at GMU.
“‘You’re going to start teaching people how to do research,’” Asher says with a smile, quoting Howard’s mandate like it’s etched into her brain. “So, I said, OK.” Asher quickly got to work. Knowing nothing about qualitative research, she spent two months reading books and learning the programs and theories behind her subject. In designing research studies and methods, Asher explains, “I got to go behind the scenes and see how people think. I started to see things from different angles. Think of a director behind the camera—that’s me as a researcher.”
It was through that process that she fell in love with research, motivated not only by learning as much about people as she could, but by sharing her knowledge. Teaching others how to research built up Asher’s confidence and stimulated her curiosity, yet it also connected her with a pediatric oncology nurse named Jean, who would become one of the biggest influences in Asher’s life. They started conducting research about children with cancer. Powered by a personal connection to cancer—her mother had previously battled it—Asher felt inspired to change the way people get treatment, and motivated to stay on the path that had called her.
“I watched [George Mason] doctoral candidates walking across the stage at graduation,” Asher recalls, “And I told my mom, ‘That’s going to be me one day.” So, she doubled down and enrolled in a Cultural Anthropology PhD program at American University. It wasn’t long before Asher made the connection that this was her calling. In going behind the scenes and learning how people think, she could make good on her own mission. “I’m motivated by learning as much as I can about people,” Asher states, “So I can help as many people as I can.” Thus began a phase of her life that would prove as rewarding and fulfilling as it was challenging and humbling.
A New Jump-Off Point
After she completed her PhD in 2010, Asher saw that qualitative research was a scarce specialty in the marketplace, and the demand for it was immediate. With support and guidance from her entrepreneurial family, Asher decided to found her own research consulting firm, Asher Consulting LLC. She led research projects ranging from cancer study groups to influenza, balancing the demands of her work with the reality of running a business. This kept Asher on her toes, yet proved frustrating. “Learning marketing, finances, and business intrigued me, as a lifelong learner,” Asher states matter-of-factly, “But wading through endless contracts, books, reports, and business plans was a lot to handle.” Truth was, she also longed for a sense of community that her one-person shop couldn’t quite offer.
Mulling her options and poking around job boards in the summer of 2017, Asher came across a Part-Time Program Evaluator position with a company called Ripple Effect. It looked intriguing, but she hesitated. When she resumed her search a week later, there it was again. And the week after that. For someone who believes that everything is connected, Asher took a leap and applied. She interviewed with Ripple Effect’s Research & Evaluation Director, Kristy Riordan, who was impressed by more than Asher’s portfolio and experience—she was drawn to Asher’s curious mind, interest in human behavior, and drive to help people and give back. Asher was hired in July, and her role, responsibility, and volume only accelerated from there.
Surrounded by a team of equally curious, adaptable colleagues, her position grew quickly in a short time. “When you’re in business with yourself,” she explains, “You learn about yourself.” The managerial skills Asher learned from running her consulting business served her well at Ripple. “I had learned how to communicate with clients well: managing expectations, which sometimes exceed capacity; defining and negotiating desires and needs; developing strong game plans—I brought that knowledge with me and shared what I knew with the team around me.”
Navigating the Currents
Because Asher views everything as connected, “You are where you’re supposed to be” is one of her credos. So, as a researcher she meets people where they are, and zeroes in on present-tense desires, motivations, and feelings to uncover insights. Speaking frankly, Asher shares her keys to success for researchers and consultants alike: the discipline to take a step back and look behind the scenes; remaining objective and divorcing yourself from agendas or foregone conclusions; patience in processing, because it takes time for light bulbs to go off; and the autonomy to trust yourself to do a job right.
Taking a step back is something that we could all do more of, but for Asher, it’s imperative to both her research and her mind. She’s an avid swimmer, the perfect activity for an already-active brain.
“I have sixteen different tracks going through my head at any given time,” Asher deadpans. “I’ve counted.” Not to be mistaken for an inability to focus or an overactive attention span, Asher discovered at an early age that her thoughts are connected and integrated—that whatever she’s thinking about has a relation to whatever idea floats alongside it. “My brain has to be busy with sixteen different things. I could be analyzing data and thinking about other data, thinking about multiple projects, what I want to write or teach next. Those all exist at once, but I can focus on each one of them with insane amounts of attention.” Think of an Olympic pool, separated into sixteen parallel lanes, side by side. Those are Asher’s thoughts, and she has a bird’s eye view of it all.
“I have to swim to process,” Asher explains. “It gets my endorphins firing, and ideas flow through me as I flow through the water. It’s perfect harmony.” It makes sense, too—constant motion, progress through resistance, the body and mind working together among a free stream of ideas. This is how Asher can connect seemingly insignificant data points from her research with larger theories about how the world works. By the time she’s exited the pool, she just may have a breakthrough conclusion.
Bringing it Back Home
What keeps Asher going after the swim is over, though? After she’s helped spot something no one else could and made another client successful? The answer, unlike most qualitative inquiries, is shockingly simple: “Easy—my family.” Her eyes glisten and a smile breaks out, “Every day they remind me of the impact I’m making, and I take little pieces of them with me everywhere I go. As I’m trying to help people, they help me be a better person.”
Beyond the home and the office, Asher pays it forward. She spends time working with young researchers, sharing advice and tips, and motivating them to pursue their interests and passions. “I work with them to develop and enhance their skills, of course,” she explains, “But I really try to increase their confidence in their abilities to perform research.” For aspiring researchers, Asher recommends joining the American Evaluation Association, noting their blogs, chats, and continuing educational courses, as great sources learning and networking.
At Ripple Effect, she’s an invaluable source of advice and expertise, a go-to for all things research, and it’s no surprise that the Research & Evaluation team has satisfied clients—and secured new ones—since Asher joined nearly two years ago.
Would she change anything about her journey? Is there anything she would have done differently?
“No way,” she says without hesitation. “I’m in exactly the place I’m supposed to be.”
And we couldn’t be happier to have her here.
Interested in research? Drawn to Asher’s story? Just want to say hello? Reach out! Asher loves to share advice and connect with curious minds. Connect with her on LinkedIn or drop her an email at KBeckwitt@RippleEffect.com.