Campus Life

Balancing work and play

We've played with toys since we were kids, so it's hardly surprising that with the toys available in the University's kinesiology labs, students are lining up for independent study opportunities that allow them to keep playing.

The play, of course, is research-oriented, but it involves some of the most interesting gadgets on campus. The results are engaged students who often turn undergraduate degrees into graduate work that produces groundbreaking discoveries in everything from sports psychology and biomechanics to the creation of neuroprosthetic devices.

Jeff Newman tests out his research equipment.

"The independent study program is an opportunity for students to apply the foundational knowledge they've learned through their theoretical courses," says Dr. Lesley Brown, kinesiology professor. "For example, it's a chance to apply the biomechanical principles they learn about in a classroom setting, or take the research design knowledge they've gained in a statistics class and use it to design a research experiment."

The ability to step out of a traditional classroom and use theoretical skills in a real-world setting enthuses fourth-year student Jeff Newman.

"In class you have that structure, which is good, but here you're still learning but in a way that's unique to you and interests you," Newman says. "In that case, I find it a lot more rewarding when you finish. I've put a lot more effort into my independent study just because it's something a little closer to my heart."

A lifelong baseball player who played with the Prairie Baseball Academy program, Newman is studying pitch tracking in elite athletes. Using specially designed ASL mobile eyeglasses, he is able to determine the point at which an athlete disengages their eye from an approaching ball and looks elsewhere. He expects to find tracking distance changes between various pitches (fastball, curveball) and then apply that knowledge to coaching techniques.

Laura Hagstrom is in her final semester of kinesiology after starting a degree in biochemistry. She found an interest in the physiology aspect of kinesiology and decided to pursue the topic in the independent study program.

"The cool thing with my project is that I'm part of Dr. (Jennifer) Copeland's research team," says Hagstrom.

Studying hormone levels in elite female athletes, specifically ultra marathon runners, Hagstrom is measuring the effect endurance exercises have on the production of the hormone DHEA.

"I was able to choose what I wanted to do within the topic and was able to be involved with the actual physical testing," she says, having participated in the testing of athletes who participated in the Lost Soul Ultra marathon in September. "I'd never done that aspect before so to be part of that data collection and be out there on race day was really interesting."

The University of Lethbridge prides itself in being able to involve undergraduate students in faculty research programs, and as Brown says, the independent study course offerings are a testament to that claim.

"For us it's also been incredible in terms of recruiting graduate students," says Brown. "All the students who have come through my lab, even my PhD student, started with independent study courses within our department."

Cody Kempster (BSc '08) is currently pursuing a master's degree after having come through an independent study program while finishing off his undergraduate degree. He was given the opportunity to research movement in subjects with Parkinson's disease, exploring how walking with music affected their gait and whether the music being meaningful to them had any further effect.

"That's what sparked my interest and after that I just moved into the lab and started my master's studies. My research now is based on fear of falling and the attentional contributions related to maintaining balance," he says.
"For me, this kind of research has me working with people, and it's specific to them. It's very personal work, and I like the time I get to spend with the research participants, who are mainly seniors from the community."

Using a scissor lift and balance board connected to a data-collecting computer, he too gets to play with the lab's toys as part of his research methodology.

That's what also drew neuroscience student Jenni Karl (BSc '08) to the kinesiology lab.

Karl, who is currently pursuing a neuroscience master's degree, benefited from the collaboration between professor Dr. Jon Doan (PhD '06), kinesiology, and her supervisor Dr. Ian Whishaw, neuroscience.

"The compatibility of the courses offered in kinesiology and other departments is great, they work really well with each other," says Karl, who was able to study neuroprosthetic devices and how a device implanted in the brain to record motor signals could be applied to help patients with spinal cord injury or amputation.
"I was interested in the brain but also motor control Through my independent study I was able to bridge that gap between departments."

It's a program that has struck a chord with its students and produced real results, both in terms of building up undergraduate research and retaining graduate level students.