Wheel of Fortune

Grad student Léa Ravensbergen
Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 4:10pm
Carla DeMarco
UTM Geography grad student wins prestigious awards

U of T Mississauga PhD student Léa Ravensbergen walks the walk. Or perhaps more aptly, she rides the ride. An avid cyclist, and all around healthy-transportation and -lifestyle enthusiast, her research on both health and transportation geography garnered her not just one, but two, prestigious awards that the American Association of Geographers (AAG) gives annually to exceptional graduate students.

“I’ve always wanted to be a multidisciplinary researcher, but worried that it’s difficult to be really competent in both,” says Ravensbergen. “So this was a nice validation of my work in each area.”

AAG awarded Ravensbergen the Transportation Geography specialty group’s Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award, and the Healthy and Medical Geography Specialty Groups’s Masters’ Level Jacques May Thesis Prize. The submissions were for the two research areas she covers that are separate fields, but they definitely share overlap.

 “If you think about active travel as a really clear example of how health and transportation are related. When you walk or bike to get to places, your transport is a workout,” says Ravensbergen, who focused on differences in accessibility of children coming from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

She is particularly interested in patterns of neighbourhood health inequalities that either promote or deter healthy behaviours for residents, which Ravensbergen says tends to range according to socioeconomic status. For her study she calculated the activity spaces of the study’s young participants, who ranged in age from 9- to 12-years old, and was able to compare certain behaviours including where they went, what access they had to physical activity resources and the kinds of exercise they did, and what access they had to healthy or unhealthy foods. The participants kept an activity-travel diary and were from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in bordering neighbourhoods in Toronto. She found that children coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds experience higher accessibility to unhealthy fast-food establishments. These children also visit physical activity resources less frequently, have a higher tendency to use facilities that are free of cost, and visited resources of lower quality, than those coming from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

Health has always been of interest for Ravensgergen, who grew up on a farm in the Montérégie region of Québec, and had aims to become a doctor. However a class on the geography of health that she took as an elective while pursuing her undergrad at McGill University changed her career plans.

“To suddenly see how the inequalities and health was really very spatial, it just blew my mind and I knew I wanted to get into health geography,” she says.

At UTM she wrapped up her Master’s degree in Human Geography, Collaborative in Environment and Health in 2015 with U of T Mississauga supervisors in Geography Professors Ron Buliung and Kathi Wilson, and has since commenced her PhD program in Human Geography with Buliung as her supervisor since their research is so well aligned, with Buliung covering transportation geography and activity-travel analysis and modeling, particularly as it relates to youth. (See profile of his latest study.)

Léa Ravensbergen receiving the Transportation Award

Ravensbergen has a range of projects she would like to tackle in the future, continuing to focus on biking as a form of transportation in the city, but also with a look to other factors, such as spatial and social patterns of biking, why people choose to bike, and also examining a gender discrepancy in biking. “In the city, two-thirds of people who bike for utilitarian purposes, as opposed to recreational, are men, and I am interested in studying the reasons for that gap,” she says.

Currently living in downtown Toronto, her bike is her sole means of transportation. She says it just makes sense since owning a car is expensive, parking is limited in the city, and she has found she can get wherever she needs to go just as fast by biking – sometimes even faster. She has even extended her cycling commute to UTM a couple of times to get in a workout, but that has its limits.

“I am never biking on Sherway Gardens again because that was not fun,” she says with a laugh. “And cycling along the lakeshore is lovely, but it’s an extra 8 kilometers and sometimes I don’t have time for an extra 8 kilometers.” So for now, mainly the short bike ride to the UTM shuttle stop at Hart House will suit her for her commute for the duration of her graduate studies until 2019.

Both AAG awards were presented at their annual meeting, which was held in San Francisco in April 2016. Ravensbergen presented one of her papers, and was fêted with three events in her honour, as well as having the opportunity to meet notable scholars in her field.

“I met people that I’ve read and cited, and some I have met them along the way, but they actually knew who I was this time, which was really nice. I had a great time,” she says.