Humans of INKspire

Dr. Leigh Vanderloo | Research Fellow

For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?

I’m originally from Calgary, Alberta. I did all of my schooling at Western University. My dad attended there as well as everyone on my dad’s side of the family, so there’s a bit of a legacy that I was always told about. I did a Master’s in Science and then further specialized in my PhD, focusing on pediatric exercise medicine. But I didn’t always think I was going to be a researcher, or anything in this field. I actually wanted to be a French immersion teacher, probably for kindergarten or up to grade three and teach kids about science. So I did an honour specialization in health sciences for my undergrad with a minor in French and thought those would be my two teachables, only to find out that health sciences wasn’t yet recognized as a teachable. At that point, I was done with school. I got a summer job working at a community-based lab through the university and the local health units, working with young children and helping them get more active in various environments, and also working with the Hispanic community within London in terms of physical activity, obesity and diabetes management program. And from there, I got hooked on research and wanted to answer more questions. So, that summer job completely changed how I considered research and how best I could see myself contributing to this field.

Before I finished my Master’s, I knew that I wanted to hone in on the behavioural and physiological sides of children’s physical activity and how it impacted various health outcomes and so I used my PhD as an opportunity to take a deeper dive. Interestingly enough, I still ended up working with kids and in the sciences, just in a different way rather than as a teacher. I would argue that I still get opportunities to fulfill a little bit of that educational role in what I do now.

After I defended my PhD, I interviewed for my first job two days later with ParticipACTION, which is a national nonprofit aimed at helping Canadians move more and sit less. It was an opportunity to work and lead parts of their research department and knowledge translation. As scientists, we’re taught the importance of conducting solid, investigative work, but it’s also no longer enough to just publish those findings — we need to think strategically about how we want to share and implement those findings and with whom. So, this opportunity seemed perfectly aligned with what I did for my PhD: taking the evidence of what we know about physical activity and sedentary behaviours, and trying to communicate it to the masses so they’re able to take advantage of the research we’re putting out.

How did you find your passion?

Ever since I was young, I was always that nerdy kid that was super inquisitive and the one that would always say, “but why?”. I think my parents did a great job of encouraging that: giving me a lot of different books, going to museums and lots of camping that further fed into my interests. All of my schooling and throughout my undergrad was all in French. That gave me the opportunity to explore the world very efficiently through different languages and allowed me to communicate with so many different individuals. My parents were big on traveling and I was fortunate to get a lot of experience in traveling. When you’re younger, you don’t always understand the value of that. But over the years, I’m grateful to have been exposed to different cultures and ways of life and that helped put things into perspective. The importance of practicing gratitude and helping others in need not only further fed into my desire to learn more, but also this altruistic desire to help others around me.

All throughout my schooling, and still now, I continue to volunteer with different organizations in every city that I’ve lived in, primarily around children and youth mental health. I’ve sat on numerous boards at treatment facilities and organizations that either work with parents, families or the kids themselves, so that’s been super fulfilling. I want to continue feeding that curiosity and know that I’m contributing to this larger goal of enhancing the community within which I find myself.

I’ve been fortunate that the schools, programs and mentors that I’ve aligned myself with have been really great. I think specifically as a female that’s in a science or medical field, it can sometimes be a bit male heavy. So in that regard, it can be more challenging to find your voice and be regarded the same way. I sometimes feel that I look better on paper or that people might have been expecting something different than when they meet me (I haven’t had any negative experiences, maybe some awkwardness), but I use those opportunities to challenge myself and be grateful rather than doubting myself. Of course, I’ve definitely had, like any grad student, bouts of imposter syndrome. But I’ve always tried to push myself forward, and I understood early on that hard work really does pay off.

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Snorkeling in the Canary Islands.

If you can envision five years from now, what do you hope to accomplish?

In five years, I hope that I’ll be in a position that allows me to have more of a leadership role. Right now, I have a cross appointment between ParticipACTION and a fellowship at SickKids, which is phenomenal as they both align so well, and I’ve been lucky to be supported by both organizations. But a lot can happen in five years. So I would hope that I’m still doing research, and still in a field that allows me to not only help generate new knowledge with regards to children’s physical activity, but also to play a leadership role in disseminating and shaping how those findings are communicated to the various audiences. I hope to be playing a bigger role in shaping a research program and taking on more of a visionary role in directing future projects. I hope that I’ll also have more experience mentoring or supervising a couple grad students. I have taught courses throughout my PhD and now as an early career researcher, and that’s been great. But I would love the opportunity to work more one-on-one with Master’s and PhD students, so the mentorship is definitely huge for me. I think I can shine a bit further when I’m able to work one-on-one or with smaller groups, and to be in the position to pay it forward. I had a lot of great student mentors and more senior grad students when I was in my lab. So in five years, I want more of a leadership role in terms of student mentorship, knowledge generation and knowledge dissemination.

If you could take anyone out for coffee, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

I thought about this a lot. Because I was watching a lot of Killing Eve, I would like to meet Villanelle if she were real and see what her typical day is like (haha!). But if I’m thinking more in line with my career, it would probably be Frederick Banting and Charles Best. It was such a huge innovative breakthrough that they came up with. Both of them had interesting stories about serving in the war, their interest in fine arts and being artists themselves, and to think that they were still very prolific researchers and investigators. The fact that it was done here in Canada, Toronto and London being the birthplace of insulin, and knowing the impact that it’s had on millions of people across the globe is impressive. But more importantly, I’d want to know more about what kept them going. Especially being a researcher back then and what you had available to you versus now. How did they initially stumble on that investigation and what kept them moving forward? And then once they had that breakthrough of being able to distill and synthesize insulin, how did they deal with the aftermath of being the discoverers of insulin? Did they have any idea how much it was going to change healthcare and disease management? I’m just interested to know what kept them going at night because it was not an easy feat; they would’ve had numerous failures before then. But I think also given how lifestyle management has changed in Canada and how we are today is very different from how we behaved and looked back then, I’d want to know what their hopes or aspirations for Canada would have been at the time of their discovery.

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Climbing the Great Wall of China.

How do you stay resilient in these uncertain times? And how have you adapted to the new norm?

I would say I’m still somewhat transitioning because it’s been almost two years since I finished my PhD and now with this pandemic and having to work from home. It’s interesting that the one thing I wanted the most as a PhD student, or a grad student in general, was to have my nights and weekends back. To not have that guilt associated with “I should be doing more, there’s something else I should be doing”. Once I started working, there was no longer that expectation that I was working outside of working hours. Funny enough, I actually had a hard time adjusting. I didn’t know what to do with all the free time. So taking that time to find out who I was now that my identity is no longer “Leigh the student” was a big challenge. Fast forward to now, I still struggle a bit at times. I’m someone who likes to schedule; I find that I’m more efficient that way. But over time, because quarantine has gone on much longer than anyone anticipated, it has given me the opportunity to slow down and appreciate this time. I’ve developed my own schedule. I gave myself time to lounge and do what I needed to do and establish this new normal, and having this routine really worked. I have made a point to go outside for 30 minutes every day. Having that exposure to fresh air and sunlight is invigorating, and when I come back, I’m ready to tackle the next thing. I also made a massive to-do list in March and seeing myself cross off more things has been helping me stay motivated.

As we start to reintegrate into society, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to take some of those things with me and not revert back to what I was doing before. I’m hoping that I’ll still make more time for self care. That’s always been a struggle for me, despite the fact that I tend to be a perfectionist in every other aspect. And making time for family and friends every week, because sometimes weeks can pass and I realize I haven’t done anything except for my research. All things considered, I’m very fortunate that I still have my job and I still have things to do. If boredom is the worst thing I experience during COVID-19, I think I’m pretty blessed. No one in my family or close friends were negatively impacted from a health perspective. But when you think from a societal perspective, it’s definitely been more devastating. Trying not to spend too much time dwelling on the “what ifs” and just dealing with the present has been how I’ve been able to muddle through.