PhD graduate inspires others to live active lives

Kerry Vander Ploeg’s research is giving Albertans healthy advice they can act on—starting with her own family.


(Edmonton) The day Kerry Vander Ploeg beat her supervisor in a pedometer challenge is one of his fondest memories.

“We were having an office pedometer challenge, and I had the highest number of steps that week,” says Paul Veugelers, professor in the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. “On the weekend, Kerry and one of her colleagues got together and went for a long walk. After they broke my record, they took a photo of themselves and their pedometers, and on Monday morning it was taped to my door, waiting for me.”

It’s this love of physical activity that has taken Vander Ploeg, who receives her PhD in epidemiology June 6 at the U of A’s spring convocation, from student to graduate. It’s also what brought her to the School of Public Health in 2008 as a master’s student.

“I have always advocated being active and living a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “I had a background in forensics, but when I started looking at graduate programs, I realized that Paul’s research and the school’s focus on prevention directly mirrored my own values. I knew that’s where I wanted to study.”

Vander Ploeg didn’t initially intend to complete a PhD program. But with Veugelers’ encouragement and the help of her colleagues in his Population Health Intervention Research Unit, she realized that a PhD program was the key to reaching her number one goal: to encourage others to live healthy, active lives by providing them with research results they can act on.

“The environment at PHIRU and the school showed me that I could be successful at leading by example,” she says. “Our research group embodies the healthy eating and active living lifestyle that we want to encourage others to adopt. To do that, we provide them with the results of our research.”

Vander Ploeg’s research has focused on comprehensive school health through the REAL Kids Alberta project. This research seeks to assess the impact of Alberta Health’s child health programs and to provide practical advice for Alberta families, schools and communities. Throughout her PhD studies, she has participated in research about the impact of using electronics in children’s bedrooms on child health, the influence of parental attitudes and support on physical activity in their children, and the relationship between school health programs and after-school activity.

For Veugelers, Vander Ploeg has been a big asset to his work.

“Kerry is a fantastic writer. She has contributed to a number of high-profile journal articles and has developed excellent research skills,” he says. “However, her best contribution has been her desire to inspire others to lead active lifestyles. That’s really what drives her.”

Vander Ploeg has not only affected the health of children across Alberta, but also her own family members.

“Because I talk about my research and the work at the school so much, it inspired my father to take better care of himself, and in doing so he lost a lot of excess weight. My fiancé now loves getting outside and being active. My uncle and aunt, Bill and Inge Christie, were also so inspired by my research that they made a monetary donation to the school to help other students with similar research interests in their studies.”

Vander Ploeg’s next goal will be to complete a post-doctoral fellowship with Veugelers, which she hopes will lead to an academic appointment at the school.

“The environment here leads people to success,” she says. “School professors and students are making a real difference in the lives of people, and that’s how I want to spend my career and my life.”