Born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, associate professor Dr. Valerie Carson has spent the past four and half years teaching and conducting research at the University of Alberta. The former Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation Master’s student chose to pursue a career in academia at UAlberta largely in part to the institution’s positive reputation and the Faculty’s strong commitment to research and teaching excellence—something she experienced first-hand as a student. In her young career, Dr. Carson has published over 80 publications, predominately in the area of physical activity, sedentary behaviour and health among young people (birth to 19 years), and has mentored a number of graduate and doctoral students who all hold her in high regard.
We sat down with Dr. Carson to learn more about her career and what drives her passion for research and teaching.
What first interested you in going to the University of Winnipeg to pursue your combined degree in Arts and Education? What career were you hoping to pursue upon completion?
I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My main reason for going to the University of Winnipeg was for the basketball program. I played on the varsity basketball team for three years at the University of Winnipeg. My team went to the National Championships all three years winning silver once and bronze twice. I stopped playing basketball after my third year primarily due to injuries.
Originally my career plan was to be a high school teacher and basketball coach. During the final years of my degrees, I was hired by one my undergraduate professors to work on a research project. This job ultimately shifted my career path in a different direction as I discovered that I had a passion for both teaching and research. Through some guidance from a few of my professors I decided to pursue graduate studies.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time as a Master’s student at the University of Alberta?
I have many fond memories of my time at the University of Alberta during my Master’s degree. One great aspect of graduate school is the relationships you build with other students who are going through the program and living similar experiences. I still keep in touch with a number of people who I went to graduate school with at the U of A. One of my favourite memories was attending our regular faculty Friday afternoon speaker series followed by drinks, food, and further discussions at the Sugar Bowl with my close network of peers.
Were there any professors during your time as a University of Alberta student that influenced your current teaching methods?
During the first year of my Master’s degree I was a teaching assistant for PEDS 203 taught by Dr. Brian Maraj. In attending his lectures, I got to see first-hand the passion and enthusiasm he put into his course material and how engaging this was for his students. Consequently, when I teach, I aim to engage students in the learning process by showing my own interest, enthusiasm, and passion for the material.
Your current research program is investigating physical activity and sedentary behaviour among children under the age of five. What influenced your decision to target this age group? What impact do you hope your research will have on social and cognitive development?
My research to date has primarily focused on the relationships between physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and health, and on determinants (factors that influence behaviour) and measurement of physical activity and sedentary behaviour among young people (birth to 19 years). Currently, my research primarily targets the most under-studied segment of the pediatric population, children in the early years (birth to 5 years). The early years are a critical and intense period of development that lay the foundation for life-long health and wellbeing. Children in the early years gain many short-term health benefits, including optimal social and cognitive development, from regular physical activity and minimal sedentary behaviour. Physical activity and sedentary behaviour habits that form in the early years also persist over time and can predict health in adulthood. Unfortunately, 85% of Canadian children in the early years have increased health risks because they are not meeting recommended amounts of physical activity and sedentary behaviour. The overall goal of my research program is to understand how to effectively promote healthy habits of regular physical activity and minimal sedentary behaviour among children in the early years. Achieving this goal will support healthy development and life-long active living to optimize overall health throughout life.
Your graduate students hold you in high regard. What is it about your leadership style that allows you to support them so successfully?
Mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is one of my favorite parts of my job. Since I started my position in 2013, I have been fortunate to work with exceptional and hardworking people. Within my Behavioural Epidemiology Laboratory, I aim to offer a platform of learning opportunities for students and fellows to develop both depth and breadth of skills and knowledge, along with a diverse network of collaborators that is tailored toward the career goal of each student or fellow. I also aim to create an supportive team environment where everyone’s input is valued and everyone’s successes are celebrated. I see my mentorship role as a “two-way street”, in that I also learn from my students and fellows.
What has been your most proud and or significant moment as a researcher?
I recently co-led a large team of researchers and knowledge users in developing and releasing Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Youth (5-17 years): An Integration of Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep. The guidelines represent the world’s first evidence-based guidelines that address the whole day. I currently co-lead a similar project for the early years (0-4 years), with guidelines set to be released in 2017. These are large projects that involved years of work. It is very rewarding to see your research and work help create a tool that through further dissemination efforts can be used by relevant target audiences in optimizing the health of young Canadians.
Do you have any advice for current PhD students on how to achieve a career in the academic/research field?
I think there are a number of different factors that enable someone to achieve a career in academia, and the key factors for one person may not translate to everyone. Obviously this career path takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Beyond these more obvious factors some keys ones that come to mind for me personally during my graduate training include: surrounding myself with supportive people, asking research questions I am passionate about, actively seeking different opportunities in different environments with different people, and continually trying to expand my knowledge, skills, and experience. I was very fortunate to gain invaluable expertise and experience in excellent research-intensive environments under the guidance of world leaders in children’s physical activity and sedentary behaviour during my graduate and postdoctoral training, which helped launch my career.