Last Updated on October 13, 2021
Interview with Professor Kristof Kipp
Bryan Haggerty of SportsDegreesOnline.org recently spoke with Professor Kristof Kipp of Marquette University. They discuss Marquette's Sports and Exercise Analytics Program, and how that program prepares students for future success in an evolving world. They also discuss Dr. Kipp's journey into biomechanics, his research interests, and factors that students should consider when choosing a master's degree program.
About Professor Kristof Kipp
Professor Kristof Kipp is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at Marquette University. He is the Director of the Sports and Exercise Science Master's Program, and he is a director for Marquette University's Motion Analysis and Biomechanics Laboratory.
Bryan Haggerty: Professor Kipp, you hold a PhDs in Exercise Science with an emphasis in Biomechanics. I did notice that when you started your educational journey you had a degree in Engineering. This is a pretty big shift. Can you please share your academic journey and how you ended up where you are today at Marquette?
Professor Kipp: Yea, sure. You’re correct in saying that my first degree in Engineering. It was actually at a junior college, where I earned an Associate’s Degree in engineering. I thought I wanted to go to university [to study engineering] because my dad was an engineer and my grandfather was an engineer.
Then, when I was in college, I was on the track and field team, so I was always very interested in sports science, training, and exercise science. [At that time] I didn’t even know that [exercise science] existed as a field.
It wasn’t until I transferred to a four-year institution – Boise State – that I had a chance to look through the course booklet – an actual physical booklet at the time – and pick a new major. I looked through it thinking to myself, “Okay, what are the majors I could choose to pursue?”. I noticed that Boise State had an undergraduate degree in biomechanics, which consisted of basically the first two years of an engineering degree where you had classes like statistics and dynamics, mechanics and materials, etc. And then the upper-division classes were things like sports biomechanics, exercise physiology, and motor control and learning. I just thought it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do.
It was at that point that I made the shift into a major in biomechanics in the Department of Kinesiology. Then from there I had the opportunity to volunteer as an undergraduate research helper in a biomechanics research lab. That was my first exposure to research, and then decided to stay on for my Master’s Degree again in kinesiology with a biomechanics emphasis.
From there I decided to pursue a PhD at Oregon State University and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan in kinesiology and Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the medical school trying to get exposure to clinical research. That brought me to the position where I’m in now, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy [at Marquette University], where I teach undergraduate and graduate students.
I teach in the undergraduate Exercise Science program, classes like Scientific Principles of Strength and Conditioning, Introduction to Research in Biomechanics. Most recently I also teach classes within our new Master’s program in Sports and Exercise Analytics.
BH: That’s quite a journey. Looking specifically at exercise science, it’s quite a broad field, and I feel like a lot of people when they consider exercise science as a field of study, they might think, of it as a degree that qualifies someone to be a very qualified personal trainer, or something of that nature. However, there is actually a lot more to it. Can you just help people understand the scope of what exercise science in the academic world?
Professor Kipp: When I talk to undergraduates about our field I typically take a step back, and I look at it more from the perspective of kinesiology – the study of human movement, because that’s basically what all of the faculty in our department do. We study human movement through different lenses or with different research methods and so that’s generally where I start. From there we then have different specializations like biomechanics where we use the laws of mechanics to analyze human movement. [This includes exercise physiology etc].
When I think of exercise science it’s really the scientific foundations for physical activity and exercise, which can be parsed out into biomechanical and physiological foundations, but can also include areas from other colleagues who may focus on the psychology of exercise.
BH: In looking over some of the headlines of the research you’ve published over the last decade, you have written interesting studies related to different movements of athletes in a particular sport. Can you give me an idea about the process of how you choose your research projects?
Professor Kipp: [Often, the projects are] based on my personal experience with strength and power sports. I used to compete in track and field in college and got into weightlifting afterwards. A lot of my research is naturally focused on athletes in those sports. So that’s most of what the publications in my CV focus on, and that’s most of the athletes we’ve recruited for those studies.
Some of our other research projects here at Marquette emerged through collaborations we have with our athletics department, like the strength and conditioning and sports medicine staff. We have a close working relationship with them and sometimes projects just come out of “water cooler” conversations where we hang out in the same space, and they’re talking about issues that they have or talking about specific athletes or sports, and the problems or conditions that they’re dealing with, and then it’s like, “Oh we have this equipment in our lab. We’d actually be able to answer some those questions for you.” It’s a beautiful relationship.
BH: That’s very interesting. So are these sorts of projects – the collaborations with the Marquette athletics, strength and conditioning, sports medicine departments – the type of research that undergraduate students might be involved with, or is this mostly graduate and PhD students who would help with this kind of research project?
Professor Kipp: I’d say both. I can’t manage all of the projects on my own, so I have graduate students lead those projects, but then at some point depending on the needs we have undergraduates that help with the projects. And certainly, any of our undergraduates that have approached me and expressed interest in helping with research, we provide them with an opportunity to be a part of those projects.
BH: What are some of the more important factors for prospective students to consider as they are trying to choose which master’s in exercise science program is the best fit for them?
Professor Kipp:At the master’s level and graduate level more broadly probably one of the most important factors is [that] the program should align with your interests. To be a little bit more specific, is the program more coursework oriented, focused more on the practical applications, or is it more research oriented? Students should examine how the credits are balanced in each of those areas. So this is more from the side of academic fit.
But I also feel that [personal fit] is very important, too. If you want to work in a certain field or in a certain lab at a university, you have to make sure that you get along with the faculty there, and that you can see yourself interacting with them on a daily basis. More and more, this is what I have been telling my graduate students as they [are considering] PhD programs. There has to be a balance. You have to be interested in the lab and find the research interesting, but you still want to make sure that you groove with the people that you’ll be working with.
BH: Your Sports and Exercise Analytics program at Marquette’s is one of the few programs that’s focused at the intersection of exercise science and data analytics. Can you explain what sets this program apart from your average exercise science program, and why you think this program prepares students for success after graduation?
PK: Initially, when we conceived of this program, it was probably one of the only programs around that focused on exercise and sports analytics or that intersection of data science and exercise science. There were other programs where you might be able to take a class in sports analytics, but nothing where that was the specific focus – so our program was unique at the time. Now there are a handful more programs around, but it’s still not that many.
I think that our program also provides a good balance between coursework and practical applications. It goes back to the connection that we have with our athletics department I mentioned earlier, where students have the opportunity to interact with practitioners and get an experience with how technologies are applied in the field, [and how we approach different situations], and what sort of analytical techniques are best used to answer those applied questions?
Also, all of our students – as part of the curriculum – have to take classes on ethics and data science. Ethics in data science is something that, the further that we get into this field, we are only just beginning to become aware of some of the ethical implications of things like big data, data that we collect on athletes, data ownership, and other similar kinds of issues. So, I think that that’s an important part [of our program, too].
BH: Professor Kipp, you are also a director of Marquette’s Motion Analysis and Biomechanics Laboratory. Can you explain what this facility is?
Professor Kipp: We have access to a motion capture system, a Vicon Motion Capture System, a number of inground and portable force plates, portable EMG system, a biodex dynamometer for measuring muscle strength, a number of wearable sensors, and then several workstations for students to process data. It’s a nice space, and our lab actually has windows that look outside, whereas most biomechanics labs tend to be in dark basements, old lacrosse courts, or old dance studios.
BH: How frequently across a program like this Sports and Exercise Analytics program would students find themselves doing research in the lab, for example?
Professor Kipp: One of the core classes that we offer within the curriculum is Advanced Biomechanical Applications for Sports Performance and Sports Medicine. As part of that, students complete an inquiry-based research project where they come up with a research question, figure out what the conditions they want to study, who would be the participants, and then they get to choose from the different types of equipment that we have in the lab to help them answer their question. So, they learn how to use all of the equipment, process the data, and interpret the data. As part of the focus on data and analytics we encourage them to “struggle” with the data. I think you need to struggle with [the data] a little bit in order to have a good learning experience.
BH: How important is mathematics for someone who is considering this Master’s in Sports and Exercise Analytics program? If someone is not strong at math does this mean that this program is not a great career choice for them?
Professor Kipp: I think this is a pretty important, and at the same time interesting, question because I think the answer that we give most of the time is focused too much on maybe the extent of a person’s math experience e.g., “Students don’t need calculus experience, but they should know algebra. They should have a basic understanding.” And I think this is probably doing us a disservice to some extent.
A related side story, my wife and I just had a meet and greet with our daughter’s middle school math teacher, who says that she believes that everyone is a math person in that everybody has some intuition or curiosity about problems that involve numbers or data. So I think if we are talking about students who are interested in sports and exercise analytics – either high school students or undergraduates looking for a master’s program – as long as they’re curious and have an interest in these sorts of problems, [that is the most important factor].
In this field, we deal with [questions like] trying to predict the March Madness bracket, or which athlete a team should draft in the second or third round of the draft, or how we can best estimate a player’s energy expenditure during a match. If they find those questions interesting, and they have the curiosity and the interest to pursue those types of questions from a career perspective, I think they should definitely look into a program that focuses on sports and exercise analytics.
BH: Right. There is a lot of important research that’s being done in the fields of biomechanics and exercise science is related to injury prevention. Can you talk a bit about where there are employment opportunities for students who choose to specialize in this area? Can you just talk about what sorts of career opportunities you expect to emerge in the next decade?
Professor Kipp: I think there’s probably two common models, and they vary a little bit based on where you’re located around the globe. There’s been an increase in jobs at the professional sports level and within professional sports organizations who are looking for people with specific sports analytics qualifications. In the US, we don’t have as many professional or industry academia partnerships, but if you go to places like Australia, it is more common to have partnerships between academia and industry or organizations. There are also biomechanics labs that are associated with orthopedic practices where they’re offering fee-for-service testing, injury screenings, and biomechanical or post-op assessments. We’ve had quite a few of our students not go into academia and go into those positions, which are pretty exciting. They get paid well and some of them get to travel a lot as well.
BH: Specific to those students’ opportunities that you just mentioned, [at] those sorts of positions at the orthopedic office, or at these places where they’re able to do that research, are graduates of a Master’s in Exercise Science program qualified for those roles? Or do they need to do some post-graduate work before they can take a position like that?
Professor Kipp: Most of the students in my lab get good exposure to the biomechanics side and applied sports medicine side, because I co-direct the lab with one of our athletic training faculty. [I would say that] the students come out well-prepared. All of these students pursued the project option within our program where they did hands-on biomechanics research. So, they used biomechanical technologies, but also interacted with our strength and conditioning staff. Therefore, they had a good mix of theoretical background and were forced to interact with actual professionals as they went through the [thought process of] “What technology do I use to answer that question, how do I communicate these things to them, how do I present data to a strength and conditioning coach when they are very busy professionals?” I think those experiences over the course of the two-year program while they were here, that’s been one of the most valuable pieces [that integrated experience].
BH: How would you expect this field of sports and exercise analytics to be changing in the next five or ten years?
Professor Kipp: Again, really great question, and I wish I had a magic 8 ball because things are changing so fast, especially on the technology and the data side. I think automation or automating certain processes will probably become more important, more ubiquitous. So, I think that speaks to being able to understand these processes well.
The amount of data that we collect and generate will also just continue to increase, so I think an understanding of data science methods, how to analyze, or visualize, or appropriately collect data will become more and more valuable. Wearable devices will probably become even more ubiquitous as well. We’ve just seen a proliferation of wearables, such as power meters for running, and all other sorts that provide you with very, very detailed information about how your body is doing or functioning at the moment. So I think knowing how those wearables work and what kind of data they provide – so we can make assessments as to the validity and the reliability of that data – is equally important. That’s kind of what we try to focus on in our classes.
BH: My final question for you, Professor Kipp, is, do you have any good books, podcasts, or other resources that you encourage students to follow to stay up on the latest in the field of exercise science?
Professor Kipp: A newer podcast that I’ve been recommending to either colleagues or students lately is called One Track Mind: The Future of Sport which is hosted by Sam Robertson at Victoria University in Australia, which I think was probably one of the first universities worldwide that had a Sports Analytics degree. Professor Robertson is very active in the field as well, has published great research, and has a really great perspective on the field of exercise and sports science, and analytics. Each podcast is a conversation between him and two different people on different topics, and they’ve all been great so far.