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David Westwood, professor

A day in the life

David Westwood, professor

David_Westwood_profile1

There’s a relevance to what we’re doing in Kinesiology, that has to do with helping people have good quality of life. We’re taking science out of the petri dish and putting it in the real world.

Beyond a career in Phys. Ed

When Mississauga, Ont., native David Westwood started his undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo, he decided on kinesiology because he thought it would be a good stepping stone to a career in medicine—in particular, biomechanics and physiology. Now he spends time convincing his students that a degree and career in kinesiology are worthwhile goals in themselves.

“I like to challenge people’s assumptions of kinesiology and show them there’s more to it than they think,” he says. “We’re no longer just about Phys. Ed.”

It was while doing his undergrad that Dr. Westwood decided to abandon his aspirations of becoming a medical doctor. He was working in Ontario’s Algonquin Park as a summer camp counsellor for kids with learning disabilities when he discovered a new path.

“It was a bit of serendipity,” he says. “The job was part of a co-op term for my undergrad degree, and working with the kids really got me interested in psychology. Working at the camp made me realize there are other things than medicine. That’s just one part of the equation.”

He went on to do a master’s degree in psychology, and followed that with a PhD in neuroscience.

“There’s a nice overlap in neuroscience between kinesiology and psychology,” he says. “It’s discovering that link between the brain and movement. There’s this mystery about it. A lot of science is about getting the right measurements, but in neuroscience you don’t know what you’re looking for. Humans are very counterintuitive—we don’t act like we’d assume we should.”

The link between perception and action

Dr. Westwood started teaching at Dal in 2002 and focuses his research and teaching on motor control, movement disorders, vision, and cognitive neuroscience of action and perception.

“It’s fascinating stuff because we don’t know how the brain came to be the way it is,” he says. “We’re constantly finding new ways to survive and adapt—there’s a reason we developed computers.”

He says many students enter the Kinesiology program because they think it will simply be university-level Phys. Ed. But once they’re in, they realize how broad it is and how much science it involves.

“One of my favourite courses, Motor Control and Learning, sounds like it would be a fluffy one about coaching,” he says. “But it’s about neurons and real-world applications. It’s hardcore scientific stuff!”

That’s not to say he isn’t interested in sports and physical activity—far from it. He’s been known to play ultimate Frisbee and even do a little swing dancing. His main pastime these days is playing squash, which he didn’t start playing until after he arrived at Dal.

But his real joy on the job comes when he works one-on-one with his students on research projects—something he says is unique to Dal compared to other undergraduate programs across the country.

“I like to challenge their abilities to grasp challenging material and convince them not to shy away from the hard stuff,” he says. “I love nothing better than having students come to me for help.”