Student & ECR Spotlight – Meet Jiani Ma, a PhD candidate exploring what influences the success of interventions to improve young people’s motor competence

Jiani Ma

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

I completed a joint Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Sciences from Ocean University of China and University of East Anglia, UK. During the course, I developed strong interests in environmental influences on population health and went on to complete an MSc Public and Environmental Health at the University of Birmingham, UK. Following completion, I worked as a research assistant on a school-based obesity prevention project in Guangzhou, China. I was fortunate to have worked on such a large scale programme impacting over 16000 children and their schools and families. It was this valuable and diverse experience that inspired me to research on physical activity intervention for young people. In 2018, I was awarded a cotutelle PhD studentship at Coventry University, UK and Deakin University, Australia.

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

My PhD research focuses on interventions to improve young people’s motor competence as to why interventions do or don’t work. Improving motor competence is critical to build the foundation for children and adolescent’s lifelong engagement in physical activity. However, young people’s motor competence levels are low worldwide and we do not yet see initiatives to address this problem implemented at a large scale. With this in mind, my research aims to determine what influences the success of motor competence interventions and how to translate successful interventions into real-world settings. To do so, my research involves a collaborative and systems-based approach to engage with practitioners and researchers to streamline a process that embeds translational strategies from conception of an intervention.

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

One of the major challenges during my PhD is to navigate through changes. I think many of the fellow PhD students can relate on this, especially now we have all encountered pandemic-related difficulties. To me the most important strategy is communication, with myself and with supervisors. In this process I am encouraged to think the realistic alternatives and questions like “are these challenges an opportunity to do something I hadn’t anticipated but will help me answer my research questions nevertheless?” Putting down these questions and thoughts is also a helpful way to cope with difficult circumstances. 


Regarding information, I found there is a lack of literature from low/middle income countries (LMICs) particularly related to my research. I know very little about what is needed in their research context. Or it may be a lack of channel and opportunity for researchers in LMICs to communicate their research to the rest of the community. Regarding skills, I would like to improve on how I search and store information from literature. Even though we have reference management software, I still find it difficult to retrieve relevant evidence when I need to write arguments on a specific point. If anyone has got brilliant ideas on sorting information please get in touch!

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

Following up to the last question, I believe networking and collaborating with researchers from LMICs could help me broaden my research horizons. I know ISBNPA NESI has some brilliant initiatives to link up researchers. I hope these events can be more accessible in response to the current situation. Specifically, a virtual platform for LMICs researchers to present their work and our exchange will be great! 

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

It is a tough question to answer with objectivity! But I guess it is also the beauty of this question since it can represent perspectives from various disciplines among members. I think the next important development in young people’s activity is to go beyond how much they move towards how well they move. The quality aspect of physical activity (such as movement skills) is equally important but less reflected in current recommendations. As this is being more recognised, it may become more likely to make specific targets and translate useful strategies into curriculum and teacher’s professional development to support sustainable changes.

If you’d like to get in touch with Jiani, you can do so via email at [email protected] or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jiani_M30