Student Perspectives: PhD Candidate Olivia Ghosh-Swaby on football and women in sport

Olivia Ghosh-Swaby, PhD Candidate in Neuroscience, is a strong advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion in academia and sport. She has been playing football since 2008 and led the creation of the Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Football Association in 2017. 

How long have you been playing football and what sparked your interest in the sport?

Competitive sports have always been a part of my life, including high-level volleyball, track and field, and flag-football. Of course, flag-football tends to surprise many, but I was lucky enough to be introduced to the game in 2008. My hometown of Mississauga, ON offers flag football as a girls sport under ROPSSAA, so I continued to play throughout high school. Football is a beautiful game because it combines agility, speed, coordination, and strategy.

As a young woman, it was empowering to be on the field and be one of the best in the game. When I went to university, all I wanted was a varsity level experience to compete against the best in Ontario and Canada. 

In your experience, how does playing football intersect with equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI)?

Football feels so behind when it comes to EDI. There are few opportunities for women to play or coach in Canada. And as a person of colour, to play in a game that is predominantly led and coached by white men, it feels as if there is no space for me or others like me in the game.

During my time at Western University, I’ve grown to know there is a need for more high-level sporting opportunities for women during their academic careers. Approximately, 62% of young women leave sport after high school (Canadian Women & Sport, 2020). Football is another chance to provide continued athletic competition and to build a community for women.

However, getting key stakeholders to support women in university football has been a challenge. Women have had to create their own opportunities for competitive-level football in Ontario and I’ve been fortunate enough to lead this movement. The Ontario Women’s Intercollegiate Football Association was founded in 2017 and this year, 10 university teams competed, comprised of 430 athletes and 71 student-athlete coaches. 

We hope to continue to grow until women’s flag-football is officially recognized as a varsity sport across Ontario and Canada.

What does EDI mean to you? 

I continuously advocate for EDI in all aspects of my life. This is fuelled by my lived experiences of being biracial (Afro-Caribbean and South Asian) and of a low income, single parent household. Then, playing a sport like flag-football and pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience where there are few black women, EDI has become a passion.

I’ve been a graduate representative for BrainsCAN’s EDI committee and Schulich Medicine & Dentisty’s anti-racism retreat planning committee and town hall. I am working on two projects to support EDI for graduate and postdoctoral fellows at the School and building a Black Professional and Graduate Students’ Network set to launch in January. I also sit on Football Canada’s Diversity Task Force to involve more women and people of colour in the game.

The best part of being involved in these projects and groups are the allies and leaders I’ve met who have motivated me to continue this work in my future academic career.

What is your research focused on?

As a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience, I’ve aligned my research goals with my interest in exercise, health and improving brain function. Obesity is linked to impaired memory and learning and increases the chance of developing dementias three-fold. I investigate the use of exercise and anti-diabetic drugs to boost the formation of new brain cells in obese mice, which in turn improves memory and mood. My results look promising, with improvements in memory and new brain cells.   

How can we improve brain health through exercise?

Exercise is a beautiful thing and when exercising appropriately, you can tap into pathways of the brain that improve brain cell growth, communication, and plasticity. Exercise can reduce inflammation and release chemicals that improve mood and memory.

Now, with age or reduced movement, exercise can become increasingly difficult which is why I am exploring potential drug therapies to improve brain health in obesity.

What keeps you returning to the football field, despite the challenges?

Along with the lab, football is my home. I have a second family of 50 women who play on Western’s women’s football team and I’ve made some of my closest friends from this group.

Playing the game of football has allowed me to use the speed I built from track and the coordination from volleyball all at once. It keeps me active and my brain sharp, which has heightened my academic career as well. I now carry life skills like leadership, organization, and the need to stay physically active.

The competitive nature of football and travelling across Ontario to play has built a community and passion for the game in a number of women. Even with the hard work of relying on ourselves to provide our own sporting experience and the pandemic slowing our momentum down and halting the 2021 season, the reward of more women in the game and getting out on the field makes it all worth it.