Nathan Leonhardt, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto, was recently awarded a Vanier Canada Graduate scholarship. The scholarship is valued at $50,000 per year for three years and is awarded to highly qualified doctoral students who demonstrate academic excellence, research potential, and leadership. Leonhardt is researching the role sex plays in healthy relationships and employs a holistic view in his research.
Leonhardt’s post-secondary academic journey commenced with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Family Life, following which he completed a Master of Science in Marriage, Family, and Human Development, both from Brigham Young University. He is a decorated student with numerous academic awards, honours, and scholarships. Leonhardt graduated magna cum laude from his undergraduate degree and was also selected as valedictorian.
A 2011 missionary trip to Bulgaria with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one factor that inspired Leonhardt’s research interests which he describes as “focusing on the intersection of sexuality and relationships, [specifically] how couples can flourish in a sexual relationship.”
Leonhardt shares an anecdote of working with “one couple in particular where the husband was unfaithful to his wife. Seeing the emotional ramifications first-hand and the pain that it caused for the wife in their marriage” inspired him to continue his research.
Leonhardt’s approach to gauging intimacy differs from the typical survey methods used in which participants rate their satisfaction. He notes that “satisfaction is a useful way to gauge how strong a relationship is, but it’s not complete.” His holistic view of intimacy integrates feelings of “belonging, growth, meaning, and engagement” and he emphasizes the importance of “developing a deep mutual respect and admiration in the sexual relationship.”
“Personal faith performs a unique role in informing the way I see things. I actively search for different perspectives to develop a clearer understanding of my faith and how my faith can inform research. [Faith and research] are not mutually exclusive,” he says.
“In my experience, any inconsistencies I have found between my faith and my experiences in research tend to be reconciled over time. Any seeming irreconciliations come from an incomplete knowledge of one or the other.”
A second trip to Bulgaria in 2014 with One Heart Bulgaria, an organization that works with Bulgarian children, provided an opportunity for Leonhardt to work with child survivors of sexual abuse. Commenting on his experience, Leonhardt states that he “think[s] understanding the contrast between dark and light makes it easier to recognize the light.”
Upon returning from his second trip to Bulgaria, Leonhardt’s main interest was helping people. He considered pursuing a career as a therapist, “but started to feel that the emotional drain wouldn’t be the best thing for [his] future family.” Furthermore, “though [he] recognizes the value in therapy, [he] was also interested in getting on the preventive side of things rather than the reparative side.”
He continued his journey in academia by enrolling in psychology and family studies courses. While pursuing his Master’s degree, he “saw good examples of a balance between family life and helping others.” Leonhardt “became close with several professors [who] seemed like they had great lives and were helping people.”
Through his research, Leonhardt aims to “establish a vision of what a high-quality sexual relationship can be. Once [his lab and himself] have a clear understanding of that ideal, that vision, then hopefully, can intervene and educate people about that in programs.” He hopes that “understanding the ideal can inspire others to pursue it in their relationships.”
For now, he says that he is “grateful for the opportunities [he has] here [at the University of Toronto].” He acknowledges his “incredible advisor, lab, and the great training [he has received] over the years” and plans to further his career in academia by later becoming a professor.