Dr Irene Salvo is a Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter
When I applied for the GW4 Crucible 2022 Programme, I could not foresee how enriching this experience could have been. As an ancient historian who studies religious rituals as affective phenomena and healing tools, and as an educator who embraces contemplative pedagogies, I was immediately attracted by this year’s theme BUILDING BACK BETTER: INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACHES TO MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLBEING RESEARCH.
GW4 Crucible is an Early Career Researcher Leadership Development programme delivered over four months. We were invited to two in-person residential labs, which were complemented by four online masterclasses:
1) How Change Happens;
2) How to move from researcher to research leader;
3) How to change a research culture; and
4) How to submit a great proposal.
During the masterclasses, we engaged with a variety of scholars, academics, and mental health experts. I found it refreshing to hear that change in the academia can be a real possibility—not just a rhetorical refrain. This sense of concrete hope derived not merely from the talks from external speakers and influential stakeholders, but it was shaped during the Q&A session and the discussion among other Cruciblees. From each of these conversations, we discovered something more about our communal values, shared opinions, and similar aspirations on how to be an academic at the best of our abilities and ideals. I realised that I was not alone in striving for an excellent academic performance as well as work/life balance.
I think that my favourite masterclass was ‘How to move from researcher to research leader’, because I am exactly at this stage of my career as I seek to transition to independence. For me, the main take-away point was to recognize how essential it is to silence crippling self-doubt if I want to act as a leader in the field. Moreover, it is equally essential to treat my research and academic work as a job rather than as mission at whose altar I must sacrifice everything in order to succeed. Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, University Dean of Research Environment and Culture at Cardiff University, offered an inspirational role model on how women can achieve their goals, while remaining kind and compassionate—towards themselves first of all.
The masterclass ‘How Change Happens’ helped me think further on how I can meaningfully contribute to innovating mental health and wellbeing research. I intend to find techniques for harnessing the value of history, literature, philosophy, and the arts to cultivate daily mindfulness, self-knowledge, and self-care. Bibliotherapy and meditation can be flexible coping strategies that combine self-help and professional, guided support.
Overall, the online masterclasses displayed the full array of elements that make academic research impactful and effective. They did so by presenting the points of view of professors, popular authors, charities directors, Pro Vice-Chancellors across the GW4 institutions, and research council programme managers. A common thread was the emphasis on empowering individual researchers by suggesting how they can stand out, but without forgetting the fundamental role in academia of generous and enjoyable collaborations with other researchers. Another recurrent theme was the apparently unsolvable tension between the need for systemic change and the responsibility of individuals. By believing in alternative images of brilliant academic leaders that care about well-being, and by embodying examples of good practice, everyone can bring lasting change to the UK research culture. The tension between structural inequalities and individual agency remains, but it was stimulating to see that it can be openly recognised and addressed.
This experience of collaborative, interdisciplinary research also happily forced me to raise my gaze beyond the horizons of my relatively small discipline. I could question and reflect on how I could input into solutions for global issues. At the same time, I could develop relationships with the other Cruciblees from different fields, even thanks to tiny things like chatting over Zoom, listening to their questions, or talking about the masterclass afterwards. The regular meetings online allowed us to build a dialogue and a reciprocal knowledge that turned out to be a crucial ingredient when applying for the Seed grants.
My work on healing rituals and on student mental health is being tremendously enhanced by the opportunities for interdisciplinary work gained from GW4 Crucible 2022, both during the programme and beyond it—with the Seed grant funding and the Alumni network. In my research agenda, I am interested in the interaction between mind, brain, body, space, and objects in modifying psychological states and social relationships. My area of investigation is ancient Greece, and I look for the voices of traumatised or marginalised members of society from material culture remains. At the same time, I aim at using ancient wisdom to tackle contemporary mental health challenges.
It is exciting to work with mental health scholars and clinicians, and to test together the feasibility of ideas and therapeutic approaches. I sometimes feel that the disciplinary constraints deprive everyone of the mutual benefits of holistically understanding knowledge. While I look forward to learning from colleagues in the Social and Medical Sciences, I hope I will manage to present Ancient History and Classics as fascinating subjects to learn from.