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Leanne Elliott’s remarkable Ontario Tech academic journey leads to Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Health Sciences PhD candidate captures prestigious national award to support her studies

Ontario Tech University Health Sciences PhD student Leanne Elliott is a 2021 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient (pictured at Polonsky Commons at Ontario Tech's north Oshawa location).
Ontario Tech University Health Sciences PhD student Leanne Elliott is a 2021 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recipient (pictured at Polonsky Commons at Ontario Tech's north Oshawa location).

For as long as she can remember, Leanne Elliott has had an indelible connection to athletics. Leanne had no idea as a youngster that her legacy of high-level sports activities would ultimately become the foundation of her pursuit of a doctorate in Kinesiology.

The first thing you should know is that the Ontario Tech University PhD student (working under the supervision of Dr. Nick Wattie, Faculty of Health Sciences (FHSc)) recently learned she’s received one of Canada’s most prestigious graduate student academic awards: a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Vanier CGS). Awarded for exemplary academic excellence, research potential and leadership, a Vanier CGS is valued at $150,000 over three years during doctoral studies.

The second thing to know is that Leanne is already a two-time Ontario Tech graduate, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2017 (Bachelor of Health Science, specializing in Kinesiology) and her master’s degree just 20 months later over five semesters (Master of Health Sciences, specializing in Kinesiology), under the supervision of Dr. Meghann Lloyd, FHSc.

Specific research focus: enhanced perceptual motor skills among first responders

Leanne says students in the medical field learn and perform a growing number of procedural tasks, but their work-hour limitations often result in condensed training programs.

“Institutions are also relying more heavily on newer technologies such as virtual reality and patient simulators for training,” says Leanne. “But performance improvements often lack transferability to real-world settings and diminish over time, meaning true motor learning was not achieved.”

Her research is investigating how to measure practice quality and exploring the significant opportunity to maximize the motor-learning potential of these medical training methods.

“Being awarded a Vanier Scholarship is my most prized academic accomplishment to date. I want to use my research work to help evolve the way we train our first responders, to elevate their performance of perceptual motor skills in high-stakes situations, leading to better health care outcomes and safer communities.”

Involvement in youth sports deeply influenced Leanne’s future path

Leanne was just three years old when she first took to the ice in a pair of figure skates in her hometown of Whitby, Ontario. It was a sport she immediately embraced, and one that she pursued through her teenage years.

Competing at figure skating’s highest levels requires a full-time commitment, so she moved to Barrie, Ontario for her high school years, to train at the Mariposa School of Skating, working daily on critical skills like jumps, spins, edges, choreography, off-ice training and more. She billeted with local families during her five years in Barrie, coming home on weekends to Whitby to visit family and friends when she could. Sports were always part of Leanne’s DNA.

“During my elementary years in Whitby, I also played rep soccer as well as lots of school team sports, cross country, and track and field,” says Leanne. “But when I started training at Mariposa, figure skating became my only sport. It was a very demanding schedule and there was no time for anything else.”

Unfortunately, Leanne endured several concussions during training. Persistent post-concussive symptoms ultimately forced her to step away from further competition. Undeterred from her passion, her interests turned to sharing her knowledge as a skating coach.

“I started coaching power-skating sessions for hockey players with Lights Out Skating Academy (LOSA) in Vaughan in 2016. The owner asked me to partner in the business with him, and in 2019 I brought LOSA to the Durham Region. I’m still running LOSA locally, though sessions are looking a bit different these days due to the pandemic, with a focus on private and semi-private lessons. We’re hoping to resume our regular power-skating schedule sometime soon if COVID-19 numbers don’t spike again.”

Connecting with Ontario Tech  

“My history as an athlete is what led me to pursue Kinesiology from the start, and my experience as a coach later on made me want to study skill-acquisition principles,” says Leanne. “I was coaching young athletes and training my team of LOSA coaches and I wanted to know how I could design each session in a way that would optimize learning for my students, whether they were hockey players or coaches.”

Ontario Tech mentors

“I really feel like I hit the jackpot with both of my graduate supervisors, they have been amazing mentors to me. Dr. Meghann Lloyd’s passion for research involving children with disabilities made me want to get involved in research in the first place. She encouraged me to apply for a Student Training Assistantship in Research (STAR) Award in my second year of undergrad. The award provided funding for me to work with her during the summer. This was really my first exposure to the world of research, and the experience made me want to pursue a master’s degree with her.”

The focal point of her PhD research expanded to include first responders and medical professionals, leading to the connection with Dr. Nick Wattie.

“Dr. Wattie is a true expert in skill acquisition. He’s also an expert when it comes to imparting his knowledge on his students - I have learned so much from him in such a short amount of time. Aside from the amazing culture that Dr. Wattie has created in our lab, I think one of his greatest gifts as a supervisor is the unwavering support he provides his students through the roller-coaster experience of grad school. It’s so nice to have someone like that in your corner.”

Her PhD thesis proposal is entitled Optimizing Skill Acquisition in Medical Simulations.

Leanne’s future aspirations

Leanne’s goals are to continue building her power-skating business and her reputation as a skill-acquisition specialist, to positively impact as many first responders, coaches and athletes as she can.

“The health and well-being of Canadians relies on the expert performance of first responders and their ability to perform perceptual motor skills in unpredictable and pressure-filled situations. Given the serious consequences of poor performance in these fields, training environments that optimize motor learning are critical for advancing skilled performance and increasing the likelihood of positive outcomes.”

Undergraduate academic accomplishments
  • STAR Award (Student Training Assistantship in Research – Ontario Tech award)
  • Ronald Bordessa Endowed Scholarship
  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship (declined due to SickKids job acceptance)
  • Summer research assistant to Dr. Brian Feldman (Rheumatology) at The Hospital for Sick Children
  • Graduated with highest distinction
Master’s degree academic accomplishments
  • Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship -Master’s (CGS-M) from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR)
  • Ontario Graduate Scholarship (declined due to CGS-M) acceptance; cannot hold two simultaneously)
  • Dean’s Graduate Scholarships
  • Sarah Frith Memorial Excellence in Health Sciences Graduate Award
  • Zilinsky Graduate Scholarship
  • 3 Minute Thesis Finalist (Ontario Tech)
  • Governor General's Gold Medal (Ontario Tech)
  • Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award (Ontario Tech)
PhD academic accomplishments
  • Ontario Graduate Scholarships (multiple)
  • Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship
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