One could say that Dr. Chelsey Thul, Ph.D., wears many different hats in the realm of academia—and that’s not just because she’s working with the College of Design on her latest project. Her research meets at the intersection of a variety of fields: sport and exercise psychology, cultural studies, prevention science, public health and child development.
Dr. Thul received her Ph.D and her M.A. from the University of Minnesota, both in kinesiology with a sport and exercise psychology emphasis. After completing her Ph.D., she was also awarded a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship funded through the Interdisciplinary Research Training in Adolescent and Primary Care grant in the Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School. This program prepares its recipients to conduct research that advances practices and policies for a positive impact on health equity and life quality for young people.
“My ultimate passions are community-based participatory research, youth empowerment, and culturally relevant physical activity opportunities to promote health and reduce disparities among youth, particularly adolescents,” said Thul.
When Dr. Thul was a graduate student in the School of Kinesiology, Dr. Nicole LaVoi and Dr. Diane Wiese-Bjornstal served as her co-advisers, and she worked as an assistant in the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport.
“I became so passionate about physical activity and promotion, especially among girls,” said Thul of her time in the Tucker Center.
There, she and Dr. LaVoi worked with East African adolescent girls living in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, studying the social, environmental, cultural and motivational supports and challenges they experienced in pursuing physical activity. The overarching finding was that access to female-only spaces in which girls could be active while maintaining their religious and cultural beliefs was limited.
Then in 2008, Fatimah Hussien, an East African community member, created the Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports (G.I.R.L.S.) program, which focused on involving these East African girls in physical activity. Dr. Thul was a volunteer research consultant to the program at the time and often heard the girls discuss their traditional cultural and religious clothing as a barrier to physical activity.
“It got me thinking … what if the girls could co-create their ideal physical activity garment, a garment that is less restrictive and more comfortable for physical activity but still upholds culture and religion?” said Thul. She talked with Fatimah, the G.I.R.L.S. leadership team and participants, and other community members, and everyone was enthusiastic about the idea.
Now, seven years after her initial research and the creation of G.I.R.L.S, Dr. Thul is co-leading a project with the College of Design, the Tucker Center, Hussein and the G.I.R.L.S. program in which they are designing culturally-relevant fitness attire for African girls. Entitled, “Impact of Culturally Sensitive Apparel Co-Design on the Physical Activity of East African Adolescent Girls,” the research project is funded by the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. She is working with Dr. Elizabeth Bye, Ph.D., Professor and Department Head of the Apparel Design Program, Dr. LaVoi, Hussein, and the G.I.R.L.S. participants, coaches (Jennifer Weber and Muna Mohamed), and community partners.
As Dr. Thul points out though, it is truly the young girls that are executing the project. When the project began back in July 2013, they all attended Gopher sports events to conduct field research on athletic apparel and to see positive female role models. Then, they worked with students in the College of Design to co-design several garments, received feedback from their parents and community and then voted on their favorite one to continue producing. The girls will hold a fashion show later this spring to showcase their creation.
“They are the ultimate creators of the garment and seeing the joy they have in leading the way is priceless,” Thul said. She also points out that is a group effort: elders in the East African community will begin sewing the attire this spring.
The overarching goal is that each participating girl will receive the final outfit, complete with tennis shoes, so that they have more opportunities to lead a healthy lifestyle. Thul and the co-design team hope to see a positive impact on physical activity behaviors and attitudes as a result of the clothing: ideally, the girls will become more engaged in and have a more positive outlook on physical activity.
As a bonus, “according to the girls, [the clothing] is much cuter and hipper than any other culturally appropriate athletic clothing on the market,” adds Dr. Thul.
So, while Dr. Thul’s academic experiences encompass several fields of knowledge, her most recent project weaves them all together in keeping with her main professional goal: “Research that truly makes a difference in the lives of girls and women in physical activity.”
She’s doing just that. And she’s doing it seamlessly.