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Kevin Tipton will never be forgotten

On the 9th of January 2022 Kevin Tipton, a respected and much loved colleague and friend passed away. He was 59. Below is the story of Kevin Tipton as I knew him. It focusses on the period 2005-2011 when I persuaded him to come to Birmingham and we had offices next to each other.

Kevin Tipton in front of the clock tower of the University of Birmingham

Kevin Tipton in front of the old building of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham

I can’t recall exactly where I met Kevin the first time but it was at one of many conferences we attended together. It might have been in the US, in South America, in Australia or anywhere in Europe. Kevin loved these meetings. He loved the scientific debates, but he also loved being with friends, colleagues and students.

In 2004, I visited Kev at UTMB in Galveston Texas together with Gareth Wallis who had just started his PhD with me. At that time I considered Kevin a friend already: a conference friend. He had done some pretty significant work in protein metabolism and was a lunch time running buddy of Bob Wolfe. Kevin had been learning how to use stable isotope tracers to measure protein metabolism from the best. Stu Phillips was in Galveston around the same time as well. During the visit, Kevin proudly showed us around Galveston: the department, his favourite restaurant and bar. We met Kevin’s parents Judy and Leonard as well of whom Kevin always spoke extremely highly and fondly.

UTMB where Kevin worked with Bob Wolfe and others

In front of UTMB in Galveston Texas: Asker Jeukendrup, Gareth Wallis and Kevin Tipton 2004

Kevin at a conference in Austin Texas… TexMex was one of the things he missed when he moved to the UK. He never found a decent burrito….

With one of his best mates and colleagues: Stu Phillips

Kevin had published one study after another and his studies were impactful (in a future blog I will discuss some of his most important studies). Very carefully done, focussed on one simple question and methodologically solid. Still, he would always look at his own data with a critical eye… “we have found this, we explain it this way but there might be other explanations as well.”

In 2005 at the University of Birmingham we just had a new building for the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, I was just promoted to full Professor and with that position I also had two open positions for lecturers. My goal was to build a leading center for exercise metabolism and we did not have anyone with a strong protein background. We had the facilities to do the studies Kevin wanted to do and so I started my mission to bring Kevin to the UK. He was pleased and honoured to be asked and it didn’t take him very long to decide. He left the US and flew to Birmingham. He took the office next to mine and for the next few years Kevin would often have dinner with me and my wife and we would then spend some more time in the office and the lab. Kevin quickly made some friends and embraced the history and the culture of the country he just moved to.

Kevin loved teaching and so did I. We had long discussions about making the content of courses easier to absorb for students and the courses more enjoyable. There was one big difference between Kevin and me. He had (literally) an open door policy, at least initially. Students could always walk in whenever they wanted. Kevin would drop his work and answer their questions, give career advice and share life-lessons. After giving students the advice to improve their work-life balance he then locked up the office when everyone in the department had already gone home.

He also soon realised that this policy was not 100% sustainable because he couldn’t get any work done… After he realized this, his door was open for students at certain times of the day.

Kevin Tipton and Scott Powers at an ACSM conference

In Birmingham the final year BSc students would conduct a research project and present this as a poster on “poster day”. I remember how proud Kevin was of his students when they presented their posters. I also remember how he genuinely showed an interest in everyone’s posters asking them questions about the projects and their findings. Many of these projects were so good that they made it to publications.

Kevin in his element. Sitting down with PhD students with a Mexican dinner during a roadtrip to Colorado (Kevin Currell and Carl Hulston) during which we also visited the USOC.

Carl Hulston, Kevin Currell, Asker Jeukendrup and Kevin Tipton (in the green ring) at the US Olympic Centre in Colorado Springs.

Kevin was a team player with a team sports background: soccer and rugby. So when IBEC came around and there was a soccer tournament for scientists, he was first in line to bring a team together!

The dream team at IBEC in Maastricht, Netherlands. The Biochemistry of Exercise conference had a soccer tournament where different countries played against each other. We had a - multi country - "highly talented” football team with Bob Hickner (USA), Kevin Tipton (USA), Asker Jeukendrup (NED), Gianni Parisi (CAN), Doug Mahoney (CAN) and Stu Phillips CAN) and not in this picture: Katja Peltola (FIN). In the final we had to play Denmark, the pre-tournament favourites…. This game was more far important than the world cup, certainly to Kevin, and when we eventually won the game, the celebrations reflected the importance of the win.

The University of Birmingham

In Birmingham we steadily built a department that was not only strong in carbohydrate and fat metabolism, but now also in protein metabolism. Kevin trained Chris Mann a friend of mine and an MD who worked at the Women’s hospital to take muscle biopsies and this became another accepted technique in the department.

Kevin talking muscle biopsies for various projects at the University of Birmingham.

I love, I hate

Kevin would be happiest when he could do research, spend time with his students, have away days and traveling to conferences.. he was significantly less excited about the increasingly more bureaucratic parts of the academic job. He would come over to my office and rant non-stop about how academia had lost its course…. In his eyes Universities were becoming places that were all about money, they didn’t look after staff or students anymore. Although I was sympathetic to a large degree, for me the easiest way to have a productive and happy Kevin in the office next to me was by protecting him as much as possible from the paperwork.

A twinkle in his eyes

I loved working with Kevin and all I needed to do was keep him from unnecessary meetings and paperwork. I would look after that for him whenever I could. And when he could focus on his research and his students, Kevin was so incredibly good at what he did. His empathy and his passion quickly made him one of the most popular teachers (if not the most popular). When he went to his lectures, he would stop by and say “heh, I am going to lecture, see you soon”. I would then wait for him to come back and often he would come back with this twinkle in his eyes, buzzing from the lecture. He would then sit down in my office and tell me about the lecture and how he got students to engage. He loved it when a lecture worked well.

The Human Performance Lab group at the University of Birmingham in 2006

Practice what you preach

Kevin preached physical activity and he certainly practiced it! In the first few years at Birmingham Kevin regularly was found lifting weights in the department, swimming or he joined our lunch time running group. We would run 10k most lunch times and although Kevin probably preferred to run half that distance a little faster, he joined sometimes and chatted. Until Kevin got an Achilles tendon injury on these runs, we chatted about politics, about history and about how he was going to be there for his students.

Kevin also thoroughly enjoyed the weekends away to Wales where we hiked, biked and spent a lot of time laughing and having fun. One of these trips in particular I remember. It was a mountain bike weekend with a few BRAT members (this is the Birmingham running and triathlon club). Brent Ruby was over from Montana in the US and we shared a cottage in Wales. Kevin got out on the mountain bike and although he probably felt more comfortable kicking a ball, he thoroughly enjoyed the time on the bike and being outside, together with a group of friends.

The rare sight of Kevin on a mountain bike.

Triathlon club and Iron woman

In Birmingham, Kevin became an integral part of the triathlon club, although he mostly supported. He got to know one of my friends (Zamie) and they started living together not very far from where I lived. I was very happy for Kevin, even though I was now not seeing him as much outside of work! Zamie was a respectable Ironman triathlete in the club and Kevin was very supportive. In 2006 we all competed at Ironman Frankfurt and Kevin was there to support (see pictures below). Zamie and Kevin decided to get a dog… Reiver. When they eventually split up, Reiver stayed with Kevin and the two of them spent many hours walking together.

Kevin and Zamie at Ironman Frankfurt.

When Kevin was injured and needed to use crutches, he refused to be transported by car and he took pride in long distance crutching and going everywhere by foot… This photo was taken at an awards dinner of the club where Zamie received the trophy of the long distance triathlete of the year.

Kevin’s dancing was not worse (or better) with crutches…

PhD students and research

Kevin’s first PhD student was Olly Witard, now an authority in this field himself, at King’s College London. Kevin would move heaven and earth for Olly and in return Olly occasionally had to house-sit and look after Kevin’s dog Reiver.

Sarah Jackman was the next PhD student, then Leigh Breen … all individuals that have continued in academia and have made a name for themselves. Sarah went to the University of Exeter and Leigh is an Associate Professor at the University of Birmingham. But it wasn’t just the PhD students he inspired. Many undergraduate students were inspired to find jobs in sports nutrition.

Kevin's research had a real impact on the sports nutrition guidelines we have today. He was an author of many consensus papers and sports nutrition guidelines including those by the IOC, IAAF, FIFA, FINA and several more. He served on the UK Sport Nutritional Supplements Advisory Board. So apart from the fact that he published many important scientific papers, these papers also had considerable practical impact and Kevin was invited all over the world to discuss the science as well as the practical implications of his findings. Below are a couple of examples from meetings that I know he particularly enjoyed.

ACSM 2014: PINES meeting with Lawrence Spriet, Ben Desbrow, Kevin Tipton, Andy Jones, Dave Martin, Jennie Pierce, Asker Jeukendrup, Petra Lundstrom, Ron Maughan and Luis Aragon.

An international get together of friends and colleagues at ECSS in Barcelona. This was a GSSI organised dinner.

The typical Kevin pose… plus the dress code for everything! The rugby shirt was everywhere: lecturing, taking muscle biopsies, formal dinners, not so formal dinners, parties…. The only exceptions were really important meetings and black tie dinners. Oh and runs…… where the shirt came off!

Leaving Birmingham

In 2011, I left the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences in Birmingham (keeping an honorary professorship), and Kevin was offered a position in Stirling Scotland to lead the Physiology, Exercise and Nutrition Research Group. He was an inspirational leader for that group that flourished under his leadership. He continued to supervise talented PhD students including Chris McGlory, Sophie Wardle, and Lindsay Macnaughton. Our research group in Birmingham fell apart. Anton Wagenmakers and several others left shortly after as well. Olly Witard moved to Stirling as well.

Although Kevin had now left for Scotland and I spent a lot of time in the USA, we still managed to meet up several times a year at meetings and conferences.

This was at a meeting near Salt Lake City where we spent time chasing each other on snow mobiles and got a chance to go down an Olympic Bob Sleigh track. Something most of us would regret later.

2014: Park City – Olympic Bob sleigh track… Before the run: Asker Jeukendrup, Kevin Tipton, and Andy Jones.

2014: Park City – In the final stretch of the Bob sleigh run.... looking for it too end.

Hiking the hills

Over the years Kevin had been managing his weight by running. When he became injured the running became crutching and later this became hiking. He would spend hours and hours in the Ochill hills in Scotland with Reiver. When Reiver passed away, this was devastating for Kevin and it became harder to do the walks. A new dog wasn’t really an option. Reiver was irreplaceable.

Kevin finished his academic career with a brief tenure at Durham University. He started a new research group but never got a chance to get things off the ground, partly because of COVID.

Tipper we will miss you

Now Kevin has left us, he will be sorely missed by family, by friends, students and colleagues around the world. He was a very special person and a very special friend to me. If I had only one word to describe Kevin I would use the word generous, if I could use more words I would also add caring, unselfish, honest, critical (in a very good way), well-rounded, funny, fun and social. He lived his life to the full, and achieved more than many academics would achieve in 5 life times. He travelled the world and was liked and respected everywhere he went. He will be remembered not only for being an outstanding scientist but also, and even more so, for being an exceptional person. Rest in peace Tipper!


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