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Why long-distance running is the perfect metaphor for research



As part of her research, Dr Úna Britton assesses the fitness and motor skills of blind and visually impaired children to increase their participation in physical activity.

Dr Úna Britton is an accomplished athlete and has channelled her passion for sport and activity into her research, which looks at the area of child and adolescent physical activity and associated health outcomes.

Britton completed a BSc in sport and exercise sciences at the University of Limerick, then took up an athletics scholarship at Eastern Kentucky University in the US where she completed an MSc in physical education.

She returned to Ireland to complete a PhD in Dublin City University’s School of Health and Human Performance. Since 2019, Britton has worked as a postdoctoral researcher in DCU and at the Science Foundation Ireland Insight Research Centre for Data Analytics.

Tell us about your current research.

I’m currently working across a few different projects, all of which are investigating physical literacy and physical activity in children and adolescents. Physical activity is essential for good health, and physical literacy refers to the underlying skills and competencies we need to enable us to be physically active.

One interesting project I am working on at the minute is with Vision Sports Ireland (the national governing body for promoting sport and physical activity within the blind and visually impaired population).

As part of a bigger research project, I have assessed health-related fitness and motor competence in children who are blind or visually impaired, the reason being that these skills are necessary for individuals to engage in an active lifestyle. Despite acknowledgement of a gap in physical activity and sport participation levels between children who have a disability compared to those who do not, little is actually known about the level of proficiency of blind or visually impaired children in areas that are known to promote physical activity, ie, fitness and motor competence.

I am also working on another national project, Moving Well – Being Well, which has grown from PhD research carried out by Dr Stephen Behan and Dr Cameron Peers, to a national physical literacy promotion project with numerous PhD and postdoctoral researchers working on different arms of the project.

Across all projects, I’m lucky to work with a team of researchers across the SFI Insight Centre for Data Analytics, DCU School of Health and Human Performance, as well as various stakeholders (Vision Sports Ireland, GAA) which increases the capacity of what we can investigate and interpret from our data.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Our research focuses on understanding how to increase physical activity levels across different populations.

Physical activity is essential for health, and those who engage in an adequate level of physical activity reduce their risk of developing numerous different non-communicable diseases.

Image: Úna Britton

However, despite most people acknowledging that they should do physical activity, actually doing it often is not as simple or as easy.

We try to understand what is holding people back from being active (be it physical, psychological or other barriers) and use this information to develop programmes and inform national policy on increasing physical activity.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was probably always interested in research, even going back to secondary school.  I have always enjoyed the freedom that being a researcher gives you to investigate and find answers (hopefully) to different societal problems.

I am also an avid (though not overly successful) runner and I think that the traits needed to be an individual endurance athlete cross over well with those needed for research (patience, endurance and frequently dealing with failure).

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions of being a researcher in childhood physical activity is that because data collection is actually fun, it is not ‘real research’.  Where we collect our data is usually in school sports halls, GAA pitches and sports centres, and it involves gathering information on children’s abilities to do things like kicking, catching, jumping, throwing and running, as well as measuring things like cardiovascular endurance, strength and balance.

Collecting and interpreting this data, devising programmes and informing policy can lead to substantial population-level health benefits by equipping individuals with the physical literacy to engage in lifelong physical activity.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Public engagement with science has increased in recent years, and this is only a good thing.  If we can get the public (for whose benefit the research is being conducted) to engage with and be enthusiastic about our research, then we are doing things right.

However, as brought into stark relief during the Covid-19 pandemic, it increases the onus on those who work in research to be open and honest about the information they present to the public.  The more we, as researchers, can stand up to scrutiny from the public, the better our research will be.

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