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.