Five Questions and an Elevator Pitch:
1. What it the need your project seeks to address?
Anastasia: PhD students are more likely than the general student population to experience mental health struggles because of their intense academic and work environments, especially since their personal lives are tightly integrated with their academic commitments. However, they are generally uninterested in traditional mental health resources because they provide emotional support but don’t address the material problems the students are facing as they struggle to balance research, writing, teaching, conferences, etc. Because it is these obligations that cause so much of their stress, PhD students are more willing to use resources that improve their mental well-being by helping them organize their work and careers.
Chloe: We also found that a good relationship between the student and the PhD advisor plays a meaningful role in students’ mental health. A lot of the PhD students reported that talking to a faculty member who could relate to their current struggles really helped. However, the communication between the advisor and the student isn’t always as frequent and individualized as it could be, especially when the PhD advisor is a senior professor.
So the need we are addressing is a way to help PhD students take care of their mental health and well-being while helping them manage their academic career and communicate more easily with their advisor.
2. How does your solution work?
Chloe: We’re developing an app that has three parts. There’s a project management tool that adds structure to the PhD journey and alleviates stress by helping the students organize their time, stay on top of their academic obligations, and helping them get a grand view of their PhD journey when the day to day gets rough. The second part is a communications platform for the PhD advisor and the student that makes it easier for them to be on the same page. Both the advisor and student have their own interface. Often times, there is a gap between what the student wants or hopes to do in the PhD and what the advisor has in mind. The ability to share the student’s planned PhD timeline with the advisor help to create a space for discussion, align expectations and build strong advisor-student relationship. The last part is a mood tracking tool along with a curated list of mental health and well-being resources. Graduate students get bombarded with wellness resources, usually in email, and most of it gets ignored or lost. Our solution solves that by pushing the right resources to students at the right time, in a place they are already visiting often because it’s the same app they use for academic and research project planning.
Anastasia: There’re two ways the app can put mental health resources in front of PhD students in a timely way. The first is through the advisor. By improving the communication flow and strengthening the relationship between the advisor and the student, the advisor is more likely to know when the student is struggling and send resources that may help the student emotionally or academically. The second way is through mood tracking. When the student logs on, they’re asked about their current mood. If their mood declines continuously or stays in a low zone for a certain period of time, the app will either activate a chatbot or notify the student’s PhD advisor to send wellness resources.
3. What motivated you to keep working on the project and what activities did you undertake?
Anastasia: I was motivated by the positive feedback we received from the instructors, our classmates, and some of the other stakeholders at Stanford. We received encouragement on the potential impact and feasibility of our project, so that pushed us forward to see how far we could take the project.
Chloe: The project also resonated for me personally. As a graduate student, I see that mental health struggles are really prevalent. I wanted to keep working on our technology to help students have a better PhD experience.
Anastasia: In terms of activities we undertook, we did more user interviews to deeply understand our need, then worked hard to synthesize the information we gathered. We used techniques like empathy mapping to have structured brainstorms, make decisions, and then defend those decisions so we felt confident about our understanding of the need and our new solution concept.
4. What’s one of the most important things you learned from advancing your project beyond the academic year?
Chloe: We learned how to process feedback – including criticism – from people with experience in the field, then decide when and how to respond. Everyone’s advice is a little different and everyone has their own opinion. If you listen to all of it you, you could end up going in 10 different directions. It’s up to the team to see through the noise and evaluate what input is valuable and actionable, and if it aligns with our mission and values.
5. What advice do you have for other students who want to become health technology innovators?
Anastasia: Make sure that your innovation is grounded in user research. It’s a lot easier to design for someone like you who has similar needs, but it’s essential to learn to empathize with those who have had different life experiences and practice bringing their voices into your innovation process.
Chloe: The team and your relationship with your teammates is really important. It’s critical to maintain a healthy dynamic and communicate clearly about your expectations. This ties back into getting feedback and sieving through the noise. Sometimes after getting lots of disparate advice we needed to come back and have a team discussion about what why we were here and what we were trying to do. In order to have those kinds of conversations you need to have good team dynamics and great communication among your team members.
Original Team Members: Ben Maines, Chloe Su, Melissa Tan, Anastasiya Vitko
Course: Biodesign for Digital Health, winter 2021
Biodesign NEXT Funding: Awarded for spring quarter 2021