Physical activity research finds strength in numbers

Case study
Talking about
A network aimed at facilitating innovative research that can help solve today’s complex health challenges

Funders are increasingly keen on researchers from different disciplines collaborating together. Yet Dr Shaunna Burke, from Biomedical Sciences, realised her fellow Leeds experts in movement and physical activity were scattered across the University and usually working independently.

Believing strongly that a range of diverse skills, expertise and methods is necessary to tackle major societal challenges, Shaunna set about building a community of researchers from different disciplines who were all passionate about conducting research on movement and physical activity to improve people’s health and well-being.

With initial seed funding and administrative support from the Horizons Institute, the InterActiveUoL network was born. It now has over 100 members drawn from 10 different schools at the university.

Shaunna explains: “Our members are hugely enthusiastic about the developments of physical activity research and implementation, and how it can act as a ‘medicine’ – not only for disease prevention, but also for managing chronic conditions successfully and contributing to general wellbeing.” 

Shaunna knows what she’s talking about. A former rugby player and Alpine skier, she was also the second-ever Canadian woman to successfully summit Everest back in 2005. But it’s not elite performance that’s her focus now. She explains: “Physical activity can benefit everyone in some way; whether that be from a health, social or economic perspective.”

InterActiveUoL involves a Steering Committee of 16 members drawn from schools and institutes including Geography, Engineering, Arts, Humanities, and Culture and Food Science as well as Medicine, Biomedical Sciences and the Clinical Trials Research Unit. The group meets every three months to discuss the network and its strategic direction. 

Regular research updates

Regular peer-led seminars, also at three-monthly intervals, provide an opportunity for researchers to present their work to colleagues, followed by a discussion with a focus on interdisciplinarity. A quarterly newsletter keeps members informed on what the network is up to, including future events. It is also used to highlight members’ research successes including grant wins and publications. 

The network also highlights suitable funding calls at an early stage, to encourage more applications. A recent pre-call announcement by UKRI on their Interdisciplinary Cross Council Responsive Mode scheme was the subject of a dedicated members’ event to brainstorm project ideas. Follow-up events were then held to refine ideas and finalise collaborations. Dr Burke says: “We want members to think creatively about the interdisciplinary opportunities these calls present, so we can develop high quality proposals with a good chance of success.”

External partnerships

The network also enables a faster response to external requests for collaborations. When the University was contacted by HSL Chairs, a specialist furniture group with a focus on products that support and ‘fit’ each customer’s physique, Dr Burke was asked if she could help. Thanks to the network, she quickly put together a team with the relevant expertise to lead on the project. 

Led by Dr Andrea Utley, the network had the right expertise and skills to carry out the work for HSL, says Shaunna: “If we hadn’t had the network in place, the University would probably have lost that project.”

Another collaboration saw Leeds researchers working with Leeds City Council and Active Leeds to help local employers look at ways of improving physical activity in the workplace. 

The group has also been building followers and external engagement through social media, with help from Karis Welch at the Horizon’s Institute.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

According to Shaunna, the Horizons Institute support has been extremely helpful for establishing and developing the network. “Horizons has given us a foundation from which we’ve been able to thrive. It’s a cliché, but that expression of Isaac Newton’s about ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ really applies here. Without their help and knowledge about university-wide resources and opportunities, and their backing giving us real credibility, the network wouldn’t be as successful as it is today, even with all our members’ enthusiasm and motivation.”

The network has provided members with a community and forum to better understand the picture of relevant research going on at Leeds, and improved the ability to foster collaborations and work on new calls. Shaunna says: “We need to bring together researchers from different disciplines with diverse methods to tap into novel ideas that can have a positive impact on people’s health and wellbeing. There’s a growing awareness in academia that these large interdisciplinary and collaborative groups are what is going to make us as researchers, and the university, successful.”