Kinesiology Research

Inside the mind of researcher Megan MacDonald

“I think that the most fascinating part of my research is working with children and their families toward a common goal,” says Assistant Professor Megan MacDonald.


Megan MacDonald is an assistant professor of movement studies in disability in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Before coming to Oregon State, she served as a graduate student research assistant in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan and was a lecturer and director of S.M.I.L.E. (Sensory, Motor, Instructional, Leadership, Experiences) in the School of Recreation Management & Kinesiology at Acadia University in Canada. She also has held positions such as the Youth & Sport Development Officer of the Lesotho National Olympic Committee & Commonwealth Games Association of Canada and the Provincial Athlete Empowerment Coordinator of Special Olympics in Ontario.

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“As an undergraduate student I volunteered for a program call SMILE, which stood for sensory, motor, instructional, leadership, experience. The program matched undergraduate students to work one-on-one with a child with a disability. I would wake up every Saturday morning and be at the gym very early, as early as 6 a.m. sometimes! Participating in that program shaped my undergraduate degree – and I decided to pursue a master’s degree in the same area.”

Megan MacDonald is an assistant professor in Movement Studies in Disability. “I think that the most fascinating part of my research is working with children and their families toward a common goal,” she says.

What does your current research entail?

“Our lab currently has four ongoing studies (one is in the very initial stages). We focus on improving physical activity and motor skills for children with disabilities. Our long-term goal is focused on improving the quality of life for these children. It’s a team effort in our lab. There are two doctoral students, one master’s student and a team of undergraduate students working together on projects. We strongly believe that physical activity has far-reaching effects that extend beyond the known physical benefits. We’re particularly interested in how adapted physical activity programs impact the social world of children with disabilities.

All of our research efforts assess motor skills and look at the relationship of motor skills with other areas of development. One project that we’re working on right now implements a movement-based early intervention for young children with autism. We’re very interested in how motor skills, physical activity and social skills improve when children enroll in our early intervention program.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“It’s hard to pinpoint one specific moment. Physical activity has always been a really important part of my life. I love the quiet moments running or hiking – they have a sense of calm about them. I also love participating in activities with my friends – whether it’s tennis, hiking, skiing or working out together – I have a good time. Physical activity continues to be a really important part of my life, and adapted physical activity is an area that I’ve always enjoyed.”

How will this make a difference?

“I truly believe that adapted physical activity programs and sports are a vehicle for a healthy lifestyle, including developmental benefits, such as social skills.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“I think that the most fascinating part of my research is working with children and their families toward a common goal. In our lab we work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun!”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“I hope that we learn more about the role physical activity plays in healthy development. I also hope that our work adds to the growing body of literature about autism, and maybe our work will map onto the broader autism phenotype.

I also hope that the children involved in our program enjoy the benefits of adapted physical activity and decide to include lifelong physical activity in their lives.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPPHS on this project?

“I’m a part of the Healthy Development in Early Childhood core at the Hallie E. Ford Center. One of the projects that I’m involved in is called Flame Retardants and Home Environment on Children’s School Readiness – on this project I work with PHHS researchers Molly Kile, Shannon Lipscomb and Megan McClelland.”

Why is research important in the field of movement studies in disability/ adapted physical activity?

“I think that research in this field is really important! Right now, we have an obesity epidemic sweeping our nation. Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities haven’t been spared. I think that work in the field of adapted physical activity is critical to addressing current health objectives within the United States.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“Right now we’re waiting to see what we learn from our current research projects, which will help direct our next steps.

However, we’re about to start a collaborative project with College of Veterinary Medicine Associate Professor Wendy Baltzer and Assistant Professor Craig Ruaux and College of Agricultural Sciences Assistant Professor Monique Udell, exploring the effects of an adapted physical activity program for children with cerebral palsy. In this project the children’s family dog will participate in the program, too – I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“That’s a tough one! I love advice! I think the best advice I’ve ever had, and it’s been from more than one person, is just to enjoy life!”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Do something that you really love and don’t be in a rush to get there. It’s not always a straightforward path, take your time, keep moving forward and enjoy it!”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“My favorite activities to do outside of work include anything outside!”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.