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How an engineering student is making sports more inclusive

Purdue University
Always seeking to solve problems, Boudreau proceeded to create a student organisation called Reinventing the Interface of Inclusivity, Sports, and Engineering (RIISE). Source: Leony Boudreau

What drives you to be the best version of yourself? For Purdue University student Leony Boudreau, it’s sports — specifically, basketball. It’s something she aspires for every athlete, whether they’re in wheelchairs or not. 

Back in 2019, Shelby Gruss (former captain of the US Wheelchair basketball team and PhD student at Purdue University) and Boudreau teamed up to organise the Wheel Rise event. This event raised money for the Challenged Athletes Fund and raised awareness for the Paralympic sports and players. It also opened her eyes to how overlooked this community is.

Always seeking to solve problems, Boudreau proceeded to create a student organisation called Reinventing the Interface of Inclusivity, Sports, and Engineering (RIISE). Through this, she aims to promote more interest in adaptive sports and hopes to soon establish an official wheelchair basketball team at her university. 

We caught up with the Quebecker currently majoring in biomedical engineering to learn more about RIISE, passion for sports and her classes:

What made you choose to major in biomedical engineering at Purdue University?

I chose biomedical engineering before coming to college because I wanted to find a way to bridge the human care side of medicine with engineering. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue studying medicine or engineering. So, I thought biomedical engineering was the perfect middle ground. 

Where does your passion for basketball stem from?

I tried many different sports before basketball as my parents encouraged me to do so. Karate, swimming, skiing, and so on. But when I played basketball when I was around 10, I totally fell in love with it.

My first coach in primary school, Charles Coté, gave me confidence to play. I also fell in love with the team spirit. When I was 12, I started to train with uni players and began dreaming of playing at the highest level in the National Collegiate American Association (NCAA). 

Purdue University

Through RIISE, she aims to promote more interest in adaptive sports and hopes to soon establish an official wheelchair basketball team at her university. Source: Leony Boudreau

I was never the fastest or tallest, but I was determined to use my talent to the fullest. My dream finally came true and when time came to research schools, Purdue University was on my list. After a while, I received a call from Sharon Versyp (Head Coach of the Purdue women’s basketball team) to let me know she was giving me an athletic scholarship. 

I chose this uni because I wanted something that was going to challenge me athletically and academically. My experience here has led me to build life-long relationships with amazing people, travel around the world and pursue my full potential. Additionally, I empower people to do the same for themselves. 

Tell us more about RIISE. What made you want to promote equality in sports? What else do you think can be done to bridge the gap in sports on a global scale?

The mission is to raise awareness for adaptive sports. Also, to empower interdisciplinary students to pursue projects at the interface of inclusivity, sports, and engineering. This all started when I met Gruss (a current PhD in Agronomy student).

Within our first conversation, we envisioned the Wheel Rise event. A collaboration between the College of Engineering and Purdue Athletics, the inaugural Wheel Rise event exceeded our expectations. 

We hosted men’s and women’s wheelchair basketball teams from Illinois for an exciting, physical feature game. Purdue student-athletes jumped in chairs during half-time and showed how difficult it was to navigate a wheelchair while trying to gracefully manipulate a basketball. 

Then, our guest athletes brought their medals from the Paralympic Games for an autograph session at the end. I also spontaneously decided to lead a brainstorming session between athletes and professors to get feedback on potential engineering projects in adaptive sports. 

While at home in Canada during summer last year, I reflected on a way to achieve a positive impact on the overlooked community of Paralympic athletes. The first step was to build a strong team of incredible and passionate students. This meant starting a student organisation on campus which was RIISE.

Purdue University

“I chose biomedical engineering before coming to college because I wanted to find a way to bridge the human care side of medicine with engineering,” she says. Source: Leony Boudreau

To bridge the gap in sports worldwide; more attention, awareness and resources should be given to adaptive sports. Starting from the youth and continuing all the way up until uni and the professional level. Sports personally changed my life and provided me with a sense of belonging. 

In adaptive sports it starts by showing the youth the varied chances they have. A network of organisations like RIISE is a good way to join forces and contribute to the Paralympic movement. NBC Universal recently announced they will dedicate 1,200 hours of Paralympic coverage for the games in Tokyo this summer so they can raise more awareness. 

Tell us about your research on human injury. What are some of the most interesting things you’ve come across?

The Human Injury Research and Regenerative Technologies Lab at Purdue University is led by Dr. Eric Nauman and is full of revolutionary projects in a variety of subjects. This can range from tumour identification to human injury (especially in sports), computational methods, spine mechanics and orthopedic implant development.

Dr. Nauman is one of the smartest people I know, therefore making it an honour to learn and grow in his lab. I focus mainly on the biomechanics in adaptive sports to develop ways to maximise the functional movement of athletes. This is so they can improve performance and prevent injuries. 

What has been your most memorable class so far at Purdue University?

I had so many great classes in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Purdue University. All led by amazing professors, but if I had to pick one, I would choose my Senior Design Class. Here, we got to develop a prototype and computational model of an active nodal cushion to prevent pressure ulcers for athletes playing sports in wheelchairs. 

I had the opportunity to pursue this project with such an amazing team of students and we presented our project to the Advisory Board of our department. We won the Senior Design Competition which was a great experience. 

Do you have any fond memories with teachers at your uni? How have your lecturers supported you thus far?

I had the chance to learn from many amazing professors. Dr. Nauman, my research advisor, inspires me in so many ways with the projects he leads. I had the chance to take his Human Motion Kinetics class which I found super interesting.

Professor Jan-Anders Mansson was also an incredible mentor throughout my academic career at Purdue University. I’m taking his class called Sports, Technology and Entrepreneurship where we get to meet and interact with leaders around the world who have made an impact in the sports industry.

We are currently working towards developing a business model that we’re presenting in front of a committee by the end of the semester. I really appreciate how much hands-on experience I’m getting. 

What are your academic goals in your course?

My academic goals are to develop skills needed to pursue a career where I will be inspired to work every single day and where I will be able to have an impact on people’s lives. Engineers are trained to be problem-solvers and what I love about biomedical engineering is that we gain knowledge and technical skills in various areas. 

This ranges from computational modelling and 3D printing to biology, anatomy and chemistry. Personally, it was also the support from professors, advisors and staff from the College of Engineering along with the Purdue Athletics department that helped me pursue independent projects. This complemented my academic goals very well. 

What do you plan to do after you graduate?

I will be pursuing my education in graduate school so I can further my knowledge and experience in engineering and management. I was accepted to Cambridge University in the UK for a MPhil in Industrial Systems, Manufacturing and Management and also to pursue my master’s in biomedical engineering at Purdue University. 

 Purdue University

Her advice for international students looking for a career in sports? “Never stop working to become the best version of yourself in your sport and with the people who surround you”. Source: Leony Boudreau

After graduating with my undergrad studies, I will be looking to gain industry experience in a high-impact company in the health and fitness industry. I’m seeking ways to use engineering as a tool to create more inclusive platforms for athletes of all levels in adaptive sports. I also want to help people live a healthier and more active lifestyle.

What advice do you have for international students who want to study abroad and apply for an athletic scholarship?

Never stop being curious. If you have questions, ask them. Follow what you believe in and surround yourself with trustworthy people. Focus on what you can control and the rest will follow. I would encourage anyone who has the desire to study abroad to just go for it. You will learn so much about the world.

Learning from people who come from different backgrounds is also something you’ll appreciate. This way, you’ll also learn more about yourself. I can certainly say that being abroad has shaped who I am today, definitely worth it!

For students who want to apply for an athletic scholarship, never stop working to become the best version of yourself in your sport and with the people who surround you. This will teach you so much more than just sports. It will provide you with the chance to build lifelong relationships with incredible people and also give you the platform to make an impact that goes way beyond sports.