In a highly competitive field, two School of Public Health doctor of philosophy (PhD) students have received the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Alexa Ferdinands and Laurie-Ann Lines, two of only 10 students at the University of Alberta to receive the award in 2018, will each get $150,000 over three years to conduct health research for their doctoral programs.
Ferdinands, supervised by Kim Raine, will conduct research into weight bias among children and youth, a social justice issue that has implications for the health and mental well-being those targeted.
Supported by her supervisor, Cindy Jardine, Lines will work hand in hand with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation youth to develop and effectively communicate information related to health issues in order to reduce health risk behaviours.
Weight bias threatens health and well-being
In Canada, one in four children lives with overweight or obesity. These children may face weight bias—the tendency to unfairly judge a person because of weight—in many aspects of their lives. In the school setting, weight is the most common reason for bullying.
“There are physical, mental and social health consequences to weight bias,” explained Ferdinands, “including things like high blood pressure, depression, eating disorders, bullying and social exclusion.”
Why focus on children? Ferdinands, a registered dietitian, says that kids as young as three have weight biased attitudes and beliefs. From a preventive perspective, it’s important to start young to address the issue.
Weight bias can show up in many settings. In schools, for example, which are often concerned with students’ performance, weight bias can negatively impact academic achievement. Some teachers may treat students with obesity differently, viewing them as less capable. “This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with kids having lower expectations of themselves,” explained Ferdinands.
Most Alberta schools don’t explicitly address weight bias. However, promoting positive attitudes and acceptance towards various body types and sizes could help foster safe and caring learning environments. This aligns well with a comprehensive school health approach.
Ferdinands will examine weight bias in schools from the standpoint of children and youth. Working with youth in Edmonton, as well as parents and school staff, she aims to get a sense of how weight bias is occurring in order to develop and recommend ways to reduce it.
“Weight bias is a form of discrimination and it should not be socially acceptable as it can seriously impact individuals’ quality of life and health,” said Ferdinands. “I want to help inform health promotion strategies that will have lasting change by getting at root causes of social injustices like weight bias.”
Strengths-based, community-led research aims to reduce health risk behaviours
In Canada, First Nations are fighting devastating health issues, such as chronic diseases, using their traditional healing knowledge. These health problems are most concerning for First Nations youth who face the ongoing effects of a history of colonialism.
Finding solutions based in First Nations culture is of great concern to Lines. However, she doesn’t hold a traditional academic view of the research she is undertaking.
“In an Indigenous approach to research, we do not focus on the research problem,” explained Lines, a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. “Instead, we look at research in terms of strengths of the community and we aim to build on that.”
Many successful Yellowknives Dene education and health programs, particularly during the past few decades have primed youth, including Lines, to take action in health initiatives. Over five years ago, Lines first started working with her supervisor in participatory projects that involved youth in her community in research related to risk communication, an area of public health concerned with how people communicate about the risks associated with health issues such as obesity and disease.
“A lot of hard work from many Yellowknives Dene members working with our youth has led to the point where we are able to carry out a research project such as this that relies so heavily on community involvement.”
With this in mind, it was a natural decision for Lines to involve youth, ensuring their integral role throughout the research process. Using a participatory approach, the First Nations youth will take the lead to create and present messages about health and co-research these outcomes.
“Youth are agents of change in First Nations culture,” explained Lines.
Using a strengths-based approach, and incorporating culture from the ground up, Lines will allow the community to take their knowledge of what has worked in the past to communicate health and reduce risk behaviours. They will identify priorities for action and create an intervention targeted to youth and the community. “Together, we’ll measure the effects of creating the messages on youth and the community, as well as the effects of the messages themselves.”
In addition to guiding the community to find and use effective risk communication strategies to promote and protect health, Lines is looking for another outcome from the research.
“I hope that by the time I’ve completed this research, there will be other Dene youth who can take my place, enrolling in universities, doing research in ways that are culturally appropriate and relevant to the communities, and building upon our strengths.”
The Government of Canada launched the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program to strengthen Canada's ability to attract and retain world-class doctoral students and establish Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. Vanier Scholars demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and/or engineering and health.