The Virtus Academy Scientific Committee (VASCOM) is part of the Virtus Academy, a global hub for research and education to drive the development of elite sport for athletes with intellectual impairment. With the newly installed VASCOM, Virtus will enhance its research and scientific arm, setting the research agenda and the priorities to serve the growth of Virtus as an organization. The main aim is to grow the scientific knowledge available and ensure that activities and sport practice are delivered in an evidence-based way.
VASCOM reinforces the importance of continued interaction with Virtus member organisations and stakeholders in the Virtus family in order to assure all relevant parties are informed. This will be a crucial element to being successful in the next four years.
Additional topics that will be discussed in VASCOM include research proposals on relevant fields of research for Virtus, and strategies on how to attract funding (e.g., performance enhancement, inclusion and diversity, competition opportunities during and after COVID-19, athlete health and mental health, and classification and eligibility).
Chairwoman of the VASCOM
Dr. Debbie Van Biesen works as postdoctoral research at KU Leuven (Belgium). Since January 2021 she divides her time across KU Leuven and Virtus. She was appointed as the Virtus Academy manager, leveraging on international, and evidenced-based knowledge of elite athletes with intellectual disability and autism. She has published more than 25 peer-reviewed scientific articles in top journals in her field. She specialised in the domains of ‘Adapted Physical Activity’ and ‘Disability Sport’. The focus of her research was on the role of cognition on sports performance, among elite Paralympic athletes with intellectual disabilities (ID).
Head of Eligibility and Board Member
Dr. Jan Burns is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, UK. Professor Burns has worked as a clinical psychologist with people with intellectual disabilities in the NHS and has carried out research in this area throughout her career. Prof Burns has previously been the programme Director for the Salomons Institute Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and has contributed to the development of the profession in the UK. In the later part of her career, she has focussed specifically on the impact of sport for people with intellectual disabilities. She is Head of Eligibility and Board Member for VIRTUS and also a Board member of the Special Olympics UK. Prof Burns worked with an international team of researchers and the International Paralympic Committee to re-include athletes with intellectual disabilities in the Paralympics for London 2012. In 2015, she was awarded a Member of the British Empire (MBE) medal for her work with people with intellectual disabilities.
Dr Suzie Lemmey is a Senior Clinical Psychologist with Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust working with people with intellectual impairments (II). For her Doctorate research she worked with Virtus to help create an evidence base for expanding eligibility groups to include athletes with II who also have associated additional impairments. She has continued with research for Virtus and has contributed to making this II2 group a reality. Suzie is on the Virtus Eligibility Committee and Panel. She also volunteers as an II Classifier with World Para Swimming.
Autism and Physical Activity Expert
Dr. Sean Healy is an Associate Professor of Community Health the Community Health Academic Group (CHAG) at the School of Nursing, Psychotherapy and Community Health (https://www.dcu.ie/snpch/community-health) in Dublin City University, Ireland. This group comprises of academics and practitioners who have a diverse range of skills, knowledge, and interests and have been extremely successful in progressing interesting and useful academic programmes and many community-based research studies. The work of the group is underpinned by an ecological health perspective, participative approaches, and ethical principles of justice and inclusion. The group aims to study, protect, and improve health within a range of community/social contexts and geographical locations. As part of this group, Dr. Healy is a researcher of adapted physical activity with expertise in examining and intervening upon the patterns and determinants of physical activity and sedentary behavior that protect against the development of cardiometabolic disease and related co-morbidities in individuals with ID and ASD. Dr. Healy’s population-based survey studies, qualitative research with youth with ID and ASD, and experience in the development and evaluation of scalable health promotion interventions to increase physical activity among individuals with ID and ASD, provides expertise that aligns closely with Virtus and the Virtus Academy.
Dr. Rob Townsend is a senior Lecturer in Sport Coaching and Pedagogy at the Huataki Waiora School of Health at the University of Waikato. He completed his PhD at Loughborough University researching coaching in disability sport. Robert is currently researching coaching across the disability sport pathway from community through to elite and Paralympic sport. In particular, he is interested in working closely with disability sport organisations, such as Virtus, to support Para coach development and inclusion. He has extensive experience of coaching in disability sport. He has consulted for Paralympics New Zealand and the European Paralympic Committee on para coach education. Most recently, I was invited to join the International Council for Coaching Excellence Para Coaching working group with other leading academics to develop a strategy for Para sport coaching across the European Union.
Down Syndrome and Physical Fitness Expert
Dr Boer is an NRF-rated researcher associated with Department of Human Movement Science at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Wellington, South Africa. Dr Boer’s research focus area in the field of Adapted Physical Activity is focussed on the functional fitness of individuals with Down syndrome. Dr Boer completed his Masters and Doctoral studies and has published numerous scientific publications in the field. His book titled ‘Functional fitness of adults with Down syndrome’ is in the final stages of publication. He has presented at various VISTA and ICSEMIS conferences.