We like to hear how our graduates are doing after they complete their studies and begin a new adventure or career. Recently we asked Joe Warpeha to tell us about life after Kinesiology and share his wisdom and advice.
Could you describe your career in detail? How long have you held your current position and what do you like best about it?
I was born and raised in the Chicago area and went to college at a small school (Eckerd College) in St. Petersburg, FL. After college, I decided not to pursue a career related to my major (marine geology) and worked several jobs for the next four years as I tried to figure out the next big step. By that time, I was already involved in the sport of powerlifting and several of my jobs involved working in gyms and health clubs, so I came to the conclusion that I should pursue what had interested me since I started serious strength training in high school: Studying the science of exercise and physical activity. I earned my master’s degree in exercise physiology from the College of St. Scholastica (CSS) in Duluth, MN in 2003. Immediately following my master’s degree program, I began the PhD program in kinesiology (exercise physiology track) at U of M in the fall of 2003. Prior to the completion of my dissertation, a teaching job became available at CSS. This was quite attractive to me because I wanted a teaching job and I had a very good experience at CSS with small class sizes and caring faculty members. I was offered the job in 2008 and I finished my dissertation during my first two years at CSS (I officially earned my PhD in 2010). I am currently in my ninth year as a faculty member in the Exercise Physiology Department at CSS. I was awarded tenure in 2014 and I was promoted to the rank of associate professor in 2015.
The majority of my time is spent teaching undergraduate and graduate exercise physiology classes. There is also a considerable amount of time spent advising students, serving on college committees, and staying involved in professional activities related to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Most of my time is spent interacting with students and this is my greatest joy. This includes watching the successes of those same students after they graduate and pursue their professional goals. Our undergraduate classes range in size from 40-50 students and our graduate classes are usually 20-24 students. These class sizes (coupled with the hands-on lab components that accompany many of our courses) allow faculty to really get to know the students, which is something I really cherished when I was a student at the small colleges I attended for my undergraduate and master’s degrees. My department has a total of four faculty members and I could not pick a better group of people to work with and learn from. We all get along extremely well and all share the same desire, first and foremost, to be good teachers. I was very happy when another U of M Kinesiology alum (Lisa Kappes, PhD class of 2015) joined our faculty two years ago. I am truly fortunate to be in the situation I am in.
How do you think your experience at the U of M helped you in your career and personal goals?
Like many PhD students, I had a graduate assistantship that served the dual purposes of gaining valuable experience and assisting with the financing of a degree program. I was a teaching assistant for my entire time in the School of Kinesiology. I took every opportunity to teach as many classes as I could. I started teaching Physical Activity Program (PAP) classes and gradually I moved into teaching lecture-based undergraduate kinesiology classes. After I finished my degree program, I went back and counted how many classes I taught as the primary instructor. Between 2003 and 2008 I taught over 30 classes (7 different courses: 3 PAP, 3 undergraduate, and 1 graduate course) in the School of Kinesiology. One semester, I taught a total of five lecture-based kinesiology classes as the primary instructor (five was unusual but there were extenuating circumstances and I was able to make it work). I knew early on that I wanted to be a teacher and it was my strong suspicion that one must teach a lot to become a good teacher. I think many graduate students avoid teaching (for various reasons) and then have steep learning curves when they find themselves in a classroom after taking a faculty position. By the time I had my first full-time faculty position, I was very comfortable in the classroom and the transition from graduate student to college professor was seamless.
In my time at U of M, I was very lucky to be exposed to such amazing research conducted by brilliant people (both within the School of Kinesiology as well as the different departments across the University). Though my current job involves a lot more teaching than research, I draw upon my U of M research experiences in my classroom regularly. I do not think a week goes by that I do not share some experience I had at U of M with my current students. I was also fortunate to gain much wisdom from the advisors I had in my PhD program. Whenever I had a meeting with one of my PhD committee members (Victor Koscheyev, MD, PhD, ScD; Robert Serfass, PhD; Moira Petit, PhD; and Steven Stovitz, MD), the first thing they would ask me is how things were going in my life and how I was doing. I cannot express how appreciative I was of the interest they took in me and my life outside of UMN. I felt like I mattered to them beyond just the research, publications, grants, etc.
What sparked your decision to go to graduate school?
I have always loved learning. I knew graduate school was the path to learning more about that which interested me so much. Prior to starting the master’s degree program at CSS, I was not sure what exactly I wanted to do for a career. I had it narrowed down to teacher, researcher, or strength and conditioning coach. In addition to learning for the sake of learning and genuine intellectual curiosity, I knew that graduate school opened more doors in terms of job opportunities.
What were some of your greatest challenges as a graduate student? Best experiences?
I think the greatest challenge for me in a PhD program was the transition from that of a typical student who spends most of their time taking (and studying for) classes in a largely structured, supervised, and predetermined schedule/sequence (all students do this from grade school through college over many years) to an emerging independent scholar who is expected to teach classes and carry out research with little or no supervision. As students progress from undergraduate to graduate school, it is easy to be lured into a false sense of thinking you know more than you do. In my case, I was fortunate to have advisors who knew how to gently remind me that I had much to learn and that my role was still that of the student and not the teacher. I now spend more time thinking about how much I do NOT know and that mindset keeps me striving to continually improve not only my skills as a teacher but also my understanding of the physiology of exercise, sport, and physical activity. The greatest minds I have ever encountered (in school and outside of it) were not afraid to say “I don’t know” when they did not have an answer. It can be a hard step to take when the perception is that you are the expert on a topic.
The best experiences were the unbelievable research opportunities I was afforded via the faculty members in the School of Kinesiology. The experiences I had ranged from the vascular biology research of Donald Dengel to the bone and mineral research of Moira Petit (which also gave me the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in a research lab in Manchester, England) to the space physiology and thermoregulation research of Victor Koscheyev, which ultimately led to my PhD dissertation working on a study funded by NASA. These research experiences were supplemented by valuable time in the classroom learning from the decades of experience that faculty members like Arthur Leon and Robert Serfass had. And to cap it all off, I got to share these experiences with a great group of fellow graduate students, some of whom became lifelong friends.
What advice would you give incoming graduate students?
Be humble and check your ego regularly. Take the time to thank the support staff who make the School of Kinesiology run. They are the unsung heroes who do much of the heavy lifting behind the scenes in the School of Kinesiology. I owe much to Carol Nielsen, Marta Fahrenz, and Deb Haessly. I tried to regularly let them know how much I appreciated them. As a graduate student at an R1 research institution, it is easy to get caught up in the race to secure more grant money, publish more research, and lay the groundwork for getting that prestigious post-doctoral fellowship after graduation. Every graduate student (and faculty member) should regularly take a few minutes to let the support staff know how important they are and how much their efforts are appreciated.
Any details about your life outside of work you’d like to share?
Outside of work and my family, the vast majority of my time is spent with my involvement in USA Powerlifting. After a major injury in 2005, I decided to become less focused on competing and got involved in the organizational side of things in more administrative roles. It started small but quickly grew. In 2009, I was elected USA Powerlifting Minnesota state chairman (a role I still hold today). The year before I took over, there were 58 members in the state. In 2016, we had 534 members. I have learned much about managing a rapidly growing state organization in my time as state chairman. In 2012, I was elected to the 10-person board of directors of USA Powerlifting (over 15,000 members across all 50 states in 2016). My role as a board member (a position I still hold today) of a significantly expanding national organization has been an incredible experience and has allowed me to see what goes into running a national organization including the day-to-day operations, challenges that arise, and the creation and management of relationships with larger international organizations. I serve on two national committees (I chair one of them) and I am one of 17 senior international referees in the U.S. My international referee status allowed me to travel to Russia with Team USA to the World Championships in 2013 where I adjudicated several sessions of competition and numerous world records. I run an annual powerlifting meet in Duluth and assist with all other meets in the state (13 on the schedule for 2017). It is extremely rewarding to look back on the hundreds of relationships (nationally and internationally) that I now have with people that were created as a direct result of my involvement with USA Powerlifting. The sport of powerlifting cuts across all groups (demographic and otherwise) and has exposed me to diversity in a way I could never have imagined.
Despite everything mentioned above, my proudest and most important role is that of husband and father. In 2010, I married Rachel Eggenberger. Rachel earned her B.S. in kinesiology at U of M and then went on to earn her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at U of M. It was in Cooke Hall that we first met. The rest, as they say, is history. We live in the small town of Esko (about 15 miles outside of Duluth in the “country”) with our 15-month old son Frank and our two dogs Daisy and Lily.