Set small, achievable goals every day and celebrate the small wins, says KPE graduate Maeghan James

Maeghan James will be graduating with a PhD from the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) this fall (all images courtesy of Maeghan James)
Maeghan James will be graduating with a PhD from the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) this fall (all images courtesy of Maeghan James)

Maeghan James came to the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE) for her master’s degree, but she caught the research bug and decided to stick around for her PhD, co-supervised by Kelly Arbour-Nicitopoulos, associate professor at KPE, and John Cairney, a professor at the University of Queensland.

maeghan james
Maeghan James lists playing for the U of T women's football team as one of the highlights of her time at the university.

Her PhD studies focused on early childhood motor development and physical activity, and the supporting role of parents. 

“I have always been interested in early childhood development,” says James. “I think it is so fascinating how much development occurs in the first six years of life. 

“The early years set the stage for a child’s life, and motor development plays a key role in overall health and development.”

James started out by developing and testing an intervention for preschoolers and parents targeting motor development, and later shifted to trying to understand the theoretical underpinnings of parent support and how best to engage parents in children’s motor development in the early years.  

She was drawn to U of T specifically because of the fact that it is situated in Toronto – where the population is so diverse and multicultural - something that was very important to her and the research she conducts.

“Fundamental movement skills such as balancing, running, throwing or kicking developed in the early years set the foundation for lifelong physical activity, and physical activity patterns in early childhood track into adulthood,” says James. “The collective findings from my PhD thesis showed that parent support plays an important role in children’s physical activity and fundamental movement skills during early childhood.

“Therefore, targeting parents’ support behaviours for both physical activity and motor skills may be one way to combat the declining rates of physical activity and motor skill competence seen among young children today.”

Her PhD thesis provides the practical and theoretical foundations for future development and testing of parent support interventions for young children.

maeghan james
Member of the KPE ADAPT research lab

James can think of a few highlights from her years at KPE, including attending the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA) conference in 2022 in Hawaii. 

“This was the first conference I attended since the COVID lockdown, which happened to also be my first conference of my PhD – a year before I graduated,” says James. “It was so nice to see everyone in person again, this conference was the motivation I needed to get through the last bit of my PhD.”

Playing for the University of Toronto women’s football team and teaching are two other highlights of James’ time with KPE. 

“Teaching was a huge highlight for me,” she says. “I loved being a teaching assistant and also developing and teaching my own fourth year course in 2021.

“I loved the energy and passion that the KPE undergraduate students always had.”

The get togethers with other members of the ADAPT lab for accessible and inclusive physical activity led by Arbour-Nicitopoulos were the cherry on the cake.

“They made grad school so fun,” says James.

There were challenges, as well, namely the COVID lockdowns. James completed most of her PhD during the pandemic, which meant there were few opportunities for social interaction throughout her studies. She overcame this challenge by staying socially connected to fellow grad students through outdoor walks and meet ups, and online writing days. 

“I was very fortunate to be a part of the ADAPT lab during this time,” says James. “Dr. Arbour-Nicitopoulos was always checking in on us, ensuring we were doing okay mentally and physically and that made me feel really supported. 

“She also made sure to bring us together virtually through Zoom meetings and, when possible, outdoor lab get togethers.”

James says she fell in love with research during her grad studies and plans to stay in academia for the foreseeable future. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario with the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Group led by Dr. Mark Tremblay. 

“I hope to one day become a faculty member at a university and start my own research program,” she says. 

As for words of advice for students setting off on their own PhD journeys, she has this to say:

“Set small, achievable goals every day, and celebrate the small wins. The PhD journey is long and can be quite daunting at times, but take it one day at a time and enjoy the ride.”