Unity in Diversity: Leading through a Crisis

Filippo Screpanti and team members

Wellness is an underappreciated aspect of academic performance, often overlooked in the never-ending deluge of experiments, readings, papers, and exams in the lives of graduate and postdoctoral researchers. Maintaining optimal physical and mental health is important; when wellness is neglected, mental wellbeing can suffer, and performance often follows. Mental health concerns continue to see a gradual rise among graduate students. A recent working paper by Harvard economists showed that a graduate student is three times more likely to suffer from mental health problems compared to an average American. Surveyed students reported inadequate sleep, insufficient exercise, and loneliness. The authors reported that students who found meaning and usefulness were more likely to experience better mental health.  

Team Diversity

 Daniel Luo, Ph.D., Shreyas Hegde, Filippo Screpanti, and Courtney JohnsonAs scholars participating in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), we formed a multidisciplinary team and were tasked with using our diverse backgrounds and skillsets to improve the Duke graduate student and postdoctoral community. In our initial survey of campus voices, maintaining wellness and mental health was the most frequently cited area of concern. Our developing team had to determine the best way to harness our skills, abilities, and backgrounds in approaching this sensitive topic. How could we operate as an effective team to benefit our community? Collectively, our backgrounds spanned the range from humanities to medicine. Coming from such different disciplines proved challenging to integrate our thought processes and build solidarity. But over the course of the project, we were able to better understand how to harness each member’s unique perspectives and strengths, thanks to the tools provided by the experienced and knowledgeable ELI facilitators. This helped us understand where each team member could contribute best and how the working style of each member would differ so we could work effectively as a team. For example, those with an extroversion personality preference were tapped to conduct interviews with wellness leaders across campus, while the more introverted contributed more to planning and brainstorming.

Leading Under Challenging Conditions

We ultimately realized that we could create a social media campaign that would accomplish two objectives: raise awareness of wellness resources available at Duke and thereby encourage participation in wellness activities. When you see others working hard in the lab, you are motivated to work harder as well. When you see someone going for a run or talk about their weekly yoga class, you want to keep up. This positive form of “peer pressure” is even greater when led by those in positions of influence, such as PIs and administrators, so our original plan involved having graduate students, postdocs, PIs and others post photos of themselves participating in wellness activities on campus using the hashtag #Wellness4Researchers. Just as our project began to take shape, COVID-19 rapidly changed our daily lives. As the impacts of COVID-19 became apparent, we were forced to rapidly adapt our plans and keep everyone synchronized amidst constantly changing conditions.

As a team we realized that it was irresponsible and irrelevant to continue sharing resources for wellness on the Duke campus, but that wellness in this time of rapid change, uncertainty and isolation was about to become even more important. Everyone committed to locating resources for indoor wellness activities, and we posted these on our Twitter and Instagram accounts. The resources we curated showcased the importance of diversity in teams as each team member approached wellness from their unique perspective and experience to share a broad variety of resources. For example, Filippo, a cultural humanities student, contributed resources such as virtual museum tours, while Daniel, a medical postdoc, contributed health-oriented resources.

Social media post examples from the Wellness 4 Researchers campaign

What Do We Feel about this Project in Retrospect?

We were thrilled to find that our Wellness4Researchers project resonated with the campus community and generated excitement. We hope those who viewed our tweets were inspired to take better care of themselves, work out at home, participate in cultural enrichment, or expand their definition of wellness the way we did. We hope that our project will stand as an example of the power of harnessing diversity and flexibility in less-than-ideal conditions to succeed as a team. From visiting virtual museums to practicing basic exercises at home, a lot can happen over a cup of coffee. Our social media campaign was highlighted by various departments and our follower base has grown since then. Although the ELI program has ended, we intend to continue running this campaign and eventually achieve what tour original goal:encouraging grad students and postdocs to share their wellness activities on social media to build awareness of the importance of wellbeing.

What Did We Learn?

While the ELI program has been running for seven years now, it can certainly be said that our cohort faced unique and unprecedented challenges that tested the leadership skills and concepts learned in the program. We learned the importance of embracing flexibility to achieve a goal that preserves the original intent of the project. We learned how diversity of thought and background can result in unique contributions that enhance the value of the project.

Importantly, each person walked in with a uniquely narrow perspective of what constituted wellness, often thinking of it from a health and fitness perspective. Through this project, we discovered that cultural exploration, cooking, gardening, art, and other activities can also contribute to wellness, so each of us emerged with a broader, more holistic view that we were able to share with the Duke community.


Filippo Screpanti

Filippo Screpanti, Ph.D.

Ph.D. candidate, Romance Studies

Filippo Screpanti recently defended his dissertation in Romance Studies, pursuing a dual-track program in French and Italian Literature with a focus on the 16th and 17th centuries. His research interests include early modern Mediterranean Studies, early modern Orientalism, Travel Literature, and Interreligious studies. He is currently a faculty member at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Courtney Johnson

Courtney Johnson headshot

Ph.D. candidate, Chemistry

Courtney Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Chemistry working in the lab of Dr. Kevin Welsher. Courtney develops novel 3D microscopy and image-processing methods for enhanced live-cell imaging. Courtney’s work involves the design, construction, testing, and operation of optical instruments to interrogate life at the molecular level.

Shreyas Hegde

Shreyas Hegde

Ph.D. student, Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science

Shreyas is a PhD student in the Aeroelasticity group working on gas turbine compressor Aeromechanics, funded by the GUIde consortium. Before his arrival at Duke he completed his undergraduate at NITK Surathkal, India. Shreyas is an Aero enthusiast and spends a lot of his free time reading about the latest technology and business developments in the Aero industry, particularly commercial and military aviation.

Daniel Luo, Ph.D.

Daniel Luo, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral associate, Pharmacology and Cancer Biology

Daniel is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology, where he conducts research on the role of bromodomain proteins in DNA damage repair with implications for cancer. He is also interested in using animal and slice cultures as models for brain metastasis. Prior to his role as a postdoc, Daniel has worked as a biotech consultant specializing in asset scouting and landscape analysis in the pharmaceutical industry.