Robert W. Kenefick
Excellence in Teaching
Associate Professor of Kinesiology
School of Health and Human Services
Practice what you teach
Robert Kenefick smiles knowingly when he is asked to describe the typical student in exercise science.
"Oh, we have excellent students," he says with a nod to a small group of students in the adjacent lab. "They go on to do everything—academia, medicine, rehabilitation, fitness, research—throughout the U.S. and all over the world, Europe, Australia, New Zealand. But, at least half, maybe more, aren't even familiar with the field when they enter UNH."
The undergraduates whose curiosity leads them to the exercise science lab, amid the treadmills and the electrocardiogram machines, are the students with whom Kenefick says he really likes working.
"I think I was that kind of student."
Exercise scientists work in high-tech environments, measuring, analyzing, and documenting. Every variable is manipulated with the ultimate goal of answering questions about physical performance and health. Today, this is Kenefick's world. But it wasn't always so.
"I was an obese child," says the now fit runner and rock climber who only began exercising as a teen, when he started playing soccer and started to run. "Then I went to college, got more serious, and started doing triathlons. I wound up on the swim team and then began working and training with triathletes and swimmers who were in the field and who encouraged me to take classes in exercise science."
A few years later, Kenefick had a B.S. in exercise science and a B.A. in theater, a combination that has proved useful in teaching. He found a home in the lab of mentors Joan Finn and Robert Axtell at Southern Connecticut State University, where he stayed on to earn a master's degree in exercise science. Eventually, he would go on for his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut where his dissertation examined fluid regulation and hydration during exercise in the heat.
Today, he still studies hydration and environment, among other things, through his involvement in several studies at UNH where he and various groups of students gather data on hydration during exercise as it relates to cold temperatures.
He acknowledges that studying hydration in the cold sounds counterintuitive. "The cold has an effect on our perception of thirst," he explains. "We think we aren't thirsty, so we drink less." The resulting dehydration is often cited as a cause in mountaineering failures. Kenefick has also collaborated with military scientists, given the applicability of this work to soldiers in the field.
Kenefick's research interests inform his teaching, and vice versa. "It really helps when I provide examples. Not only do we conduct research in the lab which informs teaching, but we can use research to provide hands-on experiences to students, bringing the physiological concepts to life." The ability to engage students and create an active exchange of ideas is what Kenefick enjoys most about his work.
Kenefick also believes his personal commitment to exercise is important to his teaching. "It's hard to imagine teaching about the benefits of exercise, encouraging people to do it, and not do it yourself. To be credible, especially with students, it's important to practice what you teach."
For Kenefick, this commitment involves daily running, riding his mountain bike whenever he can, and regular climbs in the White Mountains. Photographs in his office document his climbing both near and far—Denali, the Tetons, Yosemite, and Rainier.
Teaching and research, as well as the opportunity to build the lab and exercise science program to prominence, drew Kenefick to New Hampshire. The outdoor opportunities provide personal, even practical application for his work.
Kenefick admits it is important for teaching and research to inform one another. The trick is balancing both. "Every time you do one study, another question comes up and you become excited about finding the answer. On the other hand, fostering students' passion for learning is a constant challenge that is highly rewarding. Both are time consuming and require a significant degree of focus. You have to value and enjoy both."