Student & ECR Spotlight – Alex Christensen tells us about the challenges of recruiting adolescents and navigating the UK school system as an international student

Please tell us about your career pathway to date (positions and institutes).

After completing my undergraduate in Health Education in the United States, I moved to the UK to get my Master’s in Public Health. Having thoroughly enjoyed the master’s, it peaked my interest in continuing my studies. I applied for a Public Health England funded PhD at Leeds Beckett University as part of the Whole Systems approach to obesity project, and got the job. I started my PhD in 2016 and didn’t realise what a journey it would take me on. I’m now reaching the end of my PhD (due to submit September 2019) and am applying for research and lecturing positions.


How would you briefly describe your current research to someone who is not familiar with your field of study? What is your main research interest?

My research interest has always been around physical activity, especially among children and adolescents. I was able to find a job that supports my interest and allows me to have greater insight into a growing worldwide issue. My PhD investigates the methods we use to assess the environment’s impact on adolescent’s physical activity behaviour. I work with many different assessment tools, including GPS, accelerometers and ArcGIS (mapping software). This has allowed me to explore and gain a new interest in the environment and other public health issues including obesity. As part of my studies at Leeds Beckett, I also am involved in teaching on various courses within the public health and physical activity fields.


What are the main barriers you encounter/experience when conducting research, or what skills do you lack to conduct high quality research?

One of the main barriers I’ve encountered is participant recruitment and participant compliance. For my PhD, the target age group was adolescents (14-18 year olds), however, in the UK, that age group has many important exams, making it difficult to find a suitable time during the school day to allow the research team to come in and recruit and start data collection. Additionally, my study was quite burdensome and required participants to wear a GPS and accelerometer for several days, which reduced the amount and quality of the data I was after.


I think I have been able to gain several skills through my PhD to conduct research, however I did find it challenging at times to be an international student conducting research in a foreign country. While I had it a bit easier in terms of speaking the same language, it was difficult navigating a different system. For example, the school system in the UK is quite different to the US, so I didn’t always know who was best to contact or what policies were in place.


What could help you as a student to further develop/grow in your current position?

Networking and having time to have conversations with different colleagues outside of my own work place. I’ve always found it beneficial to have discussions with people from different departments and universities as it gives you a different perspective and allows you to see what others researchers are working on. Being able to do this, either as part of a scheduled event or organically, would allow me to grow and develop further as a researcher.


What do you think will be the next most important development in the nutrition and/or physical activity field?

I think methodology development will be crucial within the nutrition and physical activity field; there are still inconsistencies and questions around best practices within the field, especially when assessing environmental influence on behaviours. Further methodological development will help resolve some of these inconsistencies.


You can get in touch with Alex at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @alchristensen12