Student Story

Developing a Personal Passion into a Capstone Research Project

Haleigh St.Hilaire ’24

“[Simmons has] the best professors! They’ve been so supportive of my passions and what I want to research.”

Haleigh St.Hilaire ’24 says that her own disability enables her to understand movement limitations in other people. She hopes to use this understanding to help people move and function to the best of their abilities. A recipient of the Barbara Lee Fellowship, St.Hilaire has an internship at the Massachusetts State House, where she explores the intersection of Exercise Science and Public Health.

“Movement affects our whole lives,” says Exercise Science major Haleigh St.Hilaire ’24. “We don’t often think about how many muscles we are using to stand up or pick up a backpack, but there are long term implications if you aren’t taking care of those parts of your body.” Discussions about what muscles are engaged in daily tasks — and the long-term impacts of not using them effectively — are a focus of St.Hilaire’s course of study at Simmons. Initially intending to study Exercise Science and Physical Therapy, her interests have developed over time.

“I’ve done a lot of physical therapy, and I’m really grateful,” says St.Hilaire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy, a condition that impacts movement, posture, and muscle development. “I know what it’s like to not be able to move as easily through the world, to have to think about everything I do and how I do it,” she reflects. “My passion comes from wanting to help other people function in the world, and improving general accessibility. I want to help people move to the best of their abilities. Having a disability [myself], I understand what it’s like.”

Movement is Medicine

Once at Simmons, she fell in love with Exercise Science, specifically. “In class, we often say that movement is medicine. Understanding movement, and access to safe movement, is health care. That means having safe sidewalks, access to gyms, clean parks for kids, and knowing how to move safely.”

St.Hilaire says that the faculty — Assistant Professor Ling Xin, Assistant Professor of Practice and Internship Coordinator Tim Hanway, and Program Director Michael Welch — have been pivotal to her success. “It’s a small program, but that makes us more connected,” she says. “And we have the best professors! They’ve been so supportive of my passions and what I want to research for my Capstone [a project that focuses on a topic within their internship experience and allows for further research].”

Transformative Internships

In addition to engrossing coursework, St.Hilaire’s internships have been vital to her course of study. Currently, she is interning at a boutique fitness center where she shadows and assists personal trainers while they work with clients. “Personal trainers are helpful for so many people, but many don’t have access to them because of the price. It piqued my interest to see what kinds of services are available for free.”

After writing a paper about this internship last semester, St.Hilaire was inspired to apply for the Barbara Lee Fellowship, a paid internship for students interested in gaining professional experience in law, public policy and practice. Fellows learn about Massachusetts political leadership by working as an intern for a female legislator in the Massachusetts State House. St.Hilaire took this opportunity with the aim of applying Exercise Science knowledge to awareness of health equity and access through a Public Health perspective.

“I’m in the State House two days a week, in the office of Representative Carole A. Fiola,” says St.Hilaire. “I get to watch the legislative process. I didn’t think that I would love this, but I do! At first I felt like a deer in the headlights, but my friends in the Political Science program guided me through the process. And [my State House colleagues] let me explore my passions — if anything related to public health is being discussed, they let me go.”

As part of the internship, St.Hilaire took an active interest in reading pending legislation. That is how she found Bill S.350: An act relative to physical and social recess in schools, which was first presented in 2017.

“Massachusetts public schools don’t have any mandated recess requirements,” says St.Hilaire. “This bill is to mandate 20 minutes of recess for students in K–5 schools.” This research on the physical wellness needs of children this age inspired her Capstone research project, “Physical Activity from The Ground Up: Policy Consequences and their Public Health Implications.”

Capstone Research: Recess Equity for Children

“Do active children, who prioritize movement, maintain that exercise adherence as they get older?” St.Hilaire asks. “I’m looking at the health implications of non-active adults. If we’re not prioritizing movement in our children, how can we expect adults to do so?” Her research includes the rates of reported metabolic conditions, such as cardiac conditions, Type 2 Diabetes, and high blood pressure. She wants to discover if more activity in children could help avoid these future health issues. “I’m looking at what other disparities there are. It’s an intersection of exercise science, political science, and public health.”

Equity issues also impact health care and movement. “A lot of low-income urban neighborhoods don’t have green spaces, or safe indoor places to play when the weather is cold,” notes St.Hilaire. “Without indoor facilities, kids lose their recess during the winter. Do kids in lower income neighborhoods have less recess and less access to sports outside of school? Are we setting these kids up to be sedentary?” She notes that, as a college student, she often has a break between classes. “It’s so important to take a break. Why does a sixth grader not deserve as much time to decompress?”

She notes that physical activity doesn’t need to take place outside. During COVID-19, she worked at an outdoor school on a farm. “Kids won’t focus if they have a lot of energy built up. They are not meant to sit still for three hours straight. We would hold a dance party inside if it was raining, or send the kids on a scavenger hunt. Let them get their energy out, then they can focus.”

Presenting Research

St.Hilaire presented her Senior Capstone Project at the 15th Annual Undergraduate Conference on Health and Society at Providence College. Her Capstone examines the relationship between childhood physical activity and long-term exercise adherence, while simultaneously focusing on the impact of legislative policies in Massachusetts such as Bill S.350. Her research aims to analyze social determinants of health while highlighting the importance of physical activity for children and adolescents. The research also seeks to explore how policies (or the lack of policy) impact a child’s level of physical activity.

“I can say with confidence that if I wasn't doing the Barbara Lee Fellowship, this isn’t where my Capstone would have gone. I wouldn’t have known to look for bills. I’m meant to be where I am.”

Saying yes to the opportunities she’s given has been St.Hilaire’s driving force for the past four years. “Simmons has given me the opportunities to be a leader.” She’s been a member of the Exercise Science Liaison E-Board for the past three years and has assisted in Admission events, telling high school students about her major. She is also a Resident Advisor for first year students, and she encourages them to say yes to whatever chances they are given. “I accept any opportunity that crosses my desk,” she says. “It’s a chance to meet people, build my network, and connect with people and new experiences. It’s important for my career and my life.”

Her career goals have shifted over the past four years. While her initial intention was to do the Exercise Science + Physical Therapy (3+3) program, she has been accepted into the Simmons Masters of Public Health program, which she will begin this fall.

“I’m not sure what my career will look like right now, but I love working at the State House. I love sitting in on meetings with my Representative to hear people tell us why we should support what they are doing. I’m applying to jobs there, because I want to learn more. I’ve found a love for advocacy, and now that I know about it I could see myself doing it as a career.”

Remembering the Highlights

While she’s looking forward to the future, she will miss her time at Simmons. “I have so many amazing Simmons memories!” She recalls her two weeks of RA training last summer, where all the RAs met with Residence Life staff to learn their role and prepare their floor for incoming students. “We stayed up until midnight working on our bulletin boards. It was a bonding experience. It felt a bit like summer camp, in the best possible way.” The Soiree this past year was another highlight. “[My friends and I] opened and closed the dance floor. Our feet were killing us, but it was so much fun!”

Publish Date


Alisa M. Libby