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Combating Graduate School Stress, One Click at a Time

Biology Ph.D. student develops mobile application with help of student entrepreneurial services

May 9, 2017 — Article by: Elizabeth Droge-Young

Luka Negoita

Biology Ph.D. student, Luka Negoita (Photo Credit: Amanda Chou '19)

Like all of Luka Negoita’s Ph.D. work on plant biology, his latest venture began with an experiment. But this time he didn’t investigate the vegetation of central New York, he turned the microscope on the Ph.D. process.

“Grad school is a very stressful and mentally challenging experience for a lot of people, myself included,” Negoita says.

To combat the all-too-common stressors of academic life, Negoita tested a smattering of the 80,000 wellness apps on the market, but found them too prescriptive or even too stressful to use. Taking notes from his own journey and leveraging student entrepreneurial services on campus, he created HabitU: a new mobile application to help users develop desired habits while reducing stress in the process.

“I had this epiphany that my stress was linked to feeling out of control. I realized that doing a few things in particular, even as simple as spending five minutes washing the dishes, brought back some of the control I was missing,” Negoita says

After tracking habits in spreadsheets for over a year, Negoita decided to turn his personal tinkering into a publicly available tool. To go from concept to app, he tapped into Syracuse’s free entrepreneurial resources, including mentorship and professional business services from the Whitman School of Management’s Couri Hatchery and the Blackstone Launchpad at Bird Library.

The end product is an easy to follow path to self-improvement, Negoita says. HabitU is simple to use: just make a list of tasks that your “ideal self” would do daily, assign tasks a difficulty rating, and tally your progress—the app takes care of encouraging you to improve over time. 

Smartphone app

Screenshot of smartphone application from website. Program is currently looking for beta testers.

"Habit-tracking applications are fantastic tools for staying organized, being more productive, and building healthy habits, but can often be complicated or stress-inducing,” says mental health promotion specialist, Kristelle Aisaka, from Syracuse’s Office of Health Promotion. “HabitU takes those useful habit-tracking features and integrates them into an easily navigated, low-stress interface.”

A compassionate and personalized approach separates HabitU from other available habit tracking apps, Negoita says. HabitU employs an algorithm to suggest daily point goals shaped by an individual’s past performance, including cutting users slack when appropriate.

“HabitU pushes you by learning from your successes and providing progressively more challenging goals over time—but it does this in a very kind way. If you don't complete a task one day, that's fine. You can do another in its place, or just skip it for now. HabitU pushes you with personalized daily goals that account for the fact that we all have bad days.” Negoita says.

An early tester of the app, biology Ph.D. student Alex Ebert, echoes HabitU’s unique approach: "This is exactly the way a good habit-building app should work: it doesn’t feel like a chore, it doesn’t guilt me for having a bad day, and the flexibility keeps me excited about fulfilling the items on my list!" 

For now, Negoita is seeking beta testers for HabitU, beefing up the website with developer Max Matthews ’16, and designer David Badillo; and finishing up his dissertation work for May 2018. Ultimately, he envisions HabitU growing into “the go-to app for personal development,” with the ability to integrate data from niche wellness apps, like Headspace and Fitbit. And with a couple local start-up competitions under his belt, including an award for Student Entrepreneur of the Year from the Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises program at the Whitman School of Management, he is headed in the right direction.

“The early beta we’ve seen from Luka and his team has been very promising,” says Aisaka,”we’re looking forward to see how HabitU continues to grow and evolve.”

Contact Information

Amy Manley