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Meet the Researcher - Leah Ferguson
Meet the Researcher - Leah Ferguson
October 23, 2017

Leah Ferguson
Assistant Professor, College of Kinesiology, University of Saskatchewan

What is your background and general area of research?

My undergraduate degree at the U of S was in psychology. I fell in love with the discipline and eventually realized that you could use psychology elsewhere, in my case kinesiology. So, I did a masters degree in the exercise psychology area and a PhD in the sports psychology realm, both through the College of Kinesiology.

When I started in my current role as a faculty member almost four years ago, I knew my research focus would include sports psychology and working with young women to co-create positive sport experiences. Being Métis myself and living in Saskatchewan, for me it was almost a no brainer to gravitate towards Indigenous health research. It’s been great. I have these two parallel tracks of research: one is non-Indigenous, “mainstream” sport, and one is Indigenous health – as a broad label.

Very globally speaking, my research area is sport, health, and exercise psychology, which really gets at a lot of the work I do with athletes and exercisers, but that psychology part really emphasizes that wellness and well-being aspect that I bring to whatever study I might be involved in.

Where do you conduct your research?

I do my research wherever the participants need it to happen. That can include things like online surveys, or it could be going out to sports teams and inviting athletes to take part in a focus group or sharing circle. You have to find a place that works for the people you want to engage with, whether it’s a meeting room, a coffee shop, or some of my research has been out in Indigenous or rural communities.

I actually find that to be a neat part of social science research. While I don’t get to show off a fancy lab with impressive equipment like some of my colleagues, which I am fascinated by, I do get to go where the research is needed, work with people and look at the wholistic side of health.

What is the most rewarding part of your research?

The people. I like being able to interact and engage with others, and I really like the variety. You work with students, you connect with community or with athletes; I definitely feed off of people’s energy. Working collaboratively is a motivation for me.

What is the most challenging part of your research?

Time! There’s never enough of it and it always seems to be going at a pace that doesn’t jive with you, so you have to make the most of it.

As an assistant professor in the College of Kinesiology, what courses do you teach?

The college was and is really committed to developing a Kinesiology-specific, Indigenous content course, seeing the value of bringing in Indigenous ways of knowing, worldviews and understanding about health and wellness.  Indigenous Wellness encompasses Indigenous health, physical activity and well-being, as well as provides a historical perspective on contemporary wellness. Students learn about residential schools, colonization and what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is all about – learning, but then also moving forward the sport, health and education calls to action as growing professionals in Kinesiology.

The course really tries to get at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of wellness, looking through an Indigenous lens. The students will learn about and respectfully engage in an Indigenous event and, instead of a paper, students will share an oral story telling about their experiences connected with some of the content they are learning about in the course.

The more students learn about Indigenous peoples’ wellness, the more I hope they realize there’s so much more to learn. I’m looking forward to the first iteration of the course this year. This course is incredibly valuable for our students, and I am delighted to be involved in its development and implementation.

Another course I teach is our undergraduate research methods course. I love, love, love that course!

I’m a mixed methods researcher, meaning I don’t just do quantitative research and I don’t just do qualitative research, it means that I implement whatever method is needed to answer the research question. That’s one key message I deliver to students in this course, that you need to learn about all of these methods for conducting research, especially with the diversity of research in Kinesiology-related areas of research.

Myself, my colleague Dr. Kent Kowalski, and two of our colleagues, one from the University of Alberta and one from the University of Toronto, are in the process of writing a new textbook for the class that is going to be published in December that’s going to be Kinesiology-specific, Canadian-specific and mixed methods oriented, which will be great for our students.

What are some key things you’ve learned from your research?

Always be a critical consumer of information, even of your own findings. Even when you think you have some findings or a theory that we cling to – is it relevant? Is it something we should be using to drive our research?

That’s really helped me with my sports psychology work with non-Indigenous and Indigenous athletes. A theory applied to Euro-Canadians that is in the literature and is “good” research, might not be relevant for a group of Indigenous athletes. Well-being may be unique to their experiences, and that should be respectfully explored.

What do you hope for the future of your research area?

Looking at sports psychology from an Indigenous or cultural lens, I really hope there’s just, point blank, more done in the area. Especially with women athletes and their experiences and what we can be doing to develop programs and to mentor young women athletes; helping them reach their potential. So I hope that body of research expands and I hope that I get to be a part of it. My SHRF Establishment Grant has been helping me start in that area of working with Indigenous women athletes.

The other side of things that I hope to see grow in the sports psychology realm really grew from my PhD research and is focused on the idea of having self-compassion in sport. The pressures that can be placed on athletes can be paramount and they can face countless challenging and difficult experiences that can take away from a lot of the benefits of sport. So I really hope self-compassion and sport research takes off, and again I want to be a part of it.  

This interview is featured in the 4th issue of Research for Health magazine. 

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