Viola Cohen



IN A SMALL ONTARIO TOWN MID-WAY BETWEEN TORONTO AND WINDSOR, a young Dr. Jennifer Jakobi figure skated, danced and ran track, with aspirations of one day becoming a coach and high school physical education teacher. For the Faculty of Health and Social Development professor, a career as an exercise neuroscientist could not have been further from her radar.

“I was so fortunate to have someone in my life who recognized how I lit up when I was involved in science during my undergrad,” Dr. Jakobi says. “Although I laughed at them and tried to discourage the idea of pursuing it.” It was this mentor’s partner—a school principal—who made all the right arguments, and Dr. Jakobi soon put teaching on hold in favour of a master’s degree in exercise science.

“I followed some sage advice when choosing my master’s degree,” she says. “More so than the field you choose for a master’s, it’s important to make sure you like the person you’re working with; that you can get along with them and be mentored by them. For me, it was Dr. Enzo Cafarelli at York University. A bigger-than-life personality, he got me hooked on human motor science, especially motor unit physiology, and that was the start of my academic journey.”

“Dr. Jakobi has been instrumental in helping me further my research. While encouraging independence in her lab, she is tremendously supportive of her students, and it’s clear she values and actively seeks to facilitate student success and personal growth opportunities.”

Mentorship is something Dr. Jakobi has valued throughout her career—not just as a mentee, but as a mentor—and she doesn’t hesitate to say that her students are the heart of her research. School of Health and Exercise Sciences master’s student Eli Haynes has worked with Dr. Jakobi in her Healthy Exercise and Aging Lab for the past few years. “Dr. Jakobi has been instrumental in helping me further my research,” he says. “While encouraging independence in her lab, she is tremendously supportive of her students, and it’s clear she values and actively seeks to facilitate student success and personal growth opportunities.”

As a way to increase opportunities for girls to experience science, Dr. Jakobi developed the integrative STEM Team Advancing Networks of Diversity (iSTAND) program in 2014. It has since grown to embrace intersectionality and strives to remove labels from learning environments.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” she says. “People are people. We’re engaging with youth, families and teachers to build an inclusive environment.” She applies this approach to her role as the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)-sponsored Chair for Women in Science and Engineering. Dr. Jakobi is one of five national chairs. And for the BC and Yukon Region, the West Coast Women in Engineering, Science and Technology (WWEST) program aims to empower individuals to make organizational change.

“Through iSTAND and WWEST, we’re going to build a vibrant community of diverse individuals to advance science and generate knowledge.”

The motor unit

“Motor units are individual nerves that exit the spinal cord and go to many muscle fibres,“ explains Dr. Jakobi. “They’re the final neural element of controlling movement.” She adds with a smile that she could study it until she retires. “But there’s more to it than contributing to the scientific literature.”

An older adult study participant once posed the question during her PhD, “Why does this matter to me?” After some deep introspection, Dr. Jakobi realized that what she does in the lab ultimately needs to benefit people.

Dr. Jennifer Jakobi talking with a research patient

Dr. Jennifer Jakobi (left) in the lab.

In her NSERC research program, Dr. Jakobi’s team seeks to realize how sex-specific differences influence the adult aging process. “Our hope is that by understanding neuromuscular adaptations between men and women, we can hone in on specific areas of focus when it comes to lessening functional decline for a man or a woman.”

Dr. Jakobi uses the example of an older man and woman who don’t have the strength to stand up from a chair. “Sex-specific physiological differences exist, so to prevent functional decline with increased age we recommend resistance training for the woman starting in her 40s or 50s. For the man, this might be put off until he’s in his 60s for both of them to experience the same net abilities with increased age.”

Campus collaboration

A highlight of Dr. Jakobi’s recent career has been leading the Aging in Place Research Cluster. The cross-campus collaboration brings together a dynamic team of engineers, psychologists, health and behavioural researchers and volunteer study participants to understand what older adults need and want.

“We want to figure out the physiology that will support those needs and wants, and to use that physiology to inform interventions, self-management, and the design and engineering of products. This is where the work is collaborative, but encompasses the older person.”

She adds: “What I love about it is that we’re able to look at things from a societal perspective. We’ve really engaged with older adults in our research planning.” Key initiatives of the cluster help older adults retain functional independence, improve social connections and promote their physical activity.

“One thing I really appreciate about UBC Okanagan’s smaller campus,” Dr. Jakobi says, “is how many close friends and colleagues I’ve developed. If I need the expertise of someone from a particular faculty, I don’t have to go to a website, I can just pick up the phone and call someone I already know in that faculty.”

UBC Okanagan’s close-knit community also offers the type of teaching environment that Dr. Jakobi relishes. “The smaller environments allow for a real connection with the next generation of scientists and leaders,” she says. “It’s the connection of science impacting life and life impacting science. When students make connections in the lab that are genuine from a place of learning, that’s what I love about teaching.”

She adds: “People are here because they want to make a positive change. They want to keep an institution at the heart of the people, with the people and for the people. UBC Okanagan has a small-town attitude but on a grand scale of international influence through its teaching and research.”

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WHEN CIRCUMSTANCES ADVANCE AND CONVERGE BY CHANCE in such a way that an outcome is favourable, we like to call it serendipity. When UBC Okanagan student Dr. Rhyann McKay came across a way to combine her passions for psychology, political science and health, she called it HMKN 421 (Human Kinetics: Advanced Theories of Health Behaviour Change).

Dr. Heather Gainforth’s course was the first class that tangibly spoke to me,” says Dr. McKay. “It linked my interests in psychology, designing policy and helping people do the things that support their health. Ultimately, it was the health promotion aspect of human kinetics that piqued my interest, and Dr. Gainforth ended up becoming my PhD supervisor.”

The world was Dr. McKay’s oyster coming out of high school, with opportunities at the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta ripe for the picking. However, during a visit with a friend attending UBC Okanagan, Dr. McKay decided where she wanted to pursue her post-secondary education. Although people attend UBCO for a variety of reasons, like being a world-renowned research university, Dr. McKay simply fell in love with the campus.

“It’s just so beautiful,” she says. “The close-knit and collaborative community and intimate learning environments provide opportunities for deep connections with professors and other researchers. As a student your voice is never drowned out like it might be in a class of 500 peers. The close proximity to Big White for snowboarding and Myra Canyon for mountain biking was also very appealing. Looking back, I know I made the right decision.”

She adds that the Centre for Health Behaviour Change, where she spent much of her time, is a special place. “It’s the home of phenomenal researchers and phenomenal women in research like Dr. Gainforth, Dr. Kathleen Martin Ginis and Dr. Mary Jung. I had the opportunity to learn from each of them and they continue to be very important to me.

“My PhD program aimed to develop and examine a behavioural counselling intervention for family support providers of people with spinal cord injury,” says Dr. McKay. A key component of her research was pinpointing behaviours that were impacted when family members or partners were put in a support-providing role. “We looked for enablers to those behaviours we want more of, and for barriers to those behaviours. Then we could address and support those factors through behaviour change techniques.”

Some of those techniques include goal setting, action planning and problem solving, which aim to address hurdles like managing time and competing priorities. The end product of Dr. McKay’s program was a behavioural counselling intervention that addressed self-care behaviour. “This could be anything that people do for themselves and no one else, from the most basic, like bathing and socializing, to getting out and exercising.”

Dr. McKay is a firm believer that research should start with the question: How can I help? During her study, she interviewed many families and partners of people with spinal cord injury who identified the need for additional tools and sources of support. “That was when I knew I was on the right track,” she says.

“Through an integrated knowledge translation approach, we equitably and meaningfully partner with people who will use the research in the end,” explains Dr. McKay, who conducted her study in partnership with Spinal Cord Injury BC, Spinal Cord Injury Alberta and Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. “These are pivotal organizations that support persons with spinal cord injury and their families, and were very instrumental during my research.” She adds: “The mentorship I received from members of these organizations was critical beyond academia.”

Dr. McKay has been recognized with UBC Okanagan’s Student Researcher of the Year award for her leading-edge research in partnership with provincial spinal cord injury organizations across Canada to co-develop behaviour change interventions.

“When I was deciding what to do after my undergrad, a mentor told me how important it was to find my joy,” Dr. McKay says. “They suggested I follow my passion and do what makes me truly happy. My heart is in conducting research that can be directly used by the people it impacts. It’s fun and exciting and I’ve found joy and meaning in the work.”

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