Big Red swimmer’s winning attitude leads to medical research

Health, Exercise, and Sport Studies
October 2, 2023

As a member of the 2019 and 2020 National Championship men’s swimming and diving team, HESS major John Stauffer ’21 was a seven-time All-American and the 2019 NCAC champion in the 400 individual medley. Outside the pool, Stauffer built close relationships with his HESS professors.

“By the time I was done,” he says, “I could talk about anything with them, not just classwork. They were key components to shaping my career after Denison.”

Why did you choose to major in HESS?

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to be involved in medicine. Health, exercise and sport studies (HESS) has a diverse curriculum where you can test a few different things out, find out what you like, and then be able to hone in on what is going to help you after you graduate.

What has life been like after graduation?

At the University of Florida, I am the research study coordinator on two different clinical trials being run out of my labs. One is involved with an experimental CBD product that can help with pain perception in athletes and ideally reduce recovery time, while the other is utilizing a new neural stimulation technique which can help modulate pain perception for people suffering with osteoarthritis.

I absolutely love it. I am currently working on publications to hopefully be published by summer 2023 by the American College of Sports Medicine.  I will be presenting my work at the United States Association for the Study of Pain event at Duke University in the coming weeks.

Tell us about your pivot from a clinician focus to a researcher

I started my master’s in sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. A semester in I realized that this program was an athletic trainer/physical therapy stepping stone, which I realized I did not want to do. I realized that I am not a clinician. Instead, I am a scientist, wanting to chase the puzzle solving lifestyle that is associated with clinical research.

I started the hunt for potential Ph.D. programs that would seem like a good fit for me. A connection at the University of Florida showed me around and helped me secure an interview with the Ph.D. director as a prospective student. The director offered me a job and suggested I transfer my master’s there to better my chances for acceptance. But I needed to move in six weeks.

It was a pretty chaotic situation, but I agreed and took a risk that at the time seemed absolutely terrifying. Today, I thank myself everyday — I got accepted into the Ph.D. program. Five spots out of 106 applicants in a grueling nine-month application process. I truly believe that my spontaneous, yet strategic move was the push I needed to secure one of the 5 spots.

When I look back, I realized that my time at Pittsburgh was not a mistake because realizing what you don’t want to do is just as — if not more — valuable than knowing what you do want to do. Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, and take the risk, and jump.

How did your time at Denison prepare you for your job and Ph.D. program?

Denison as a liberal arts university challenges your durability as a student. Unlike other places where you stay confined in the realm of your college, on The Hill you have to do stuff that is not even remotely associated with your major. Post-colonial Black studies, Chinese art history, music — all served as GE-satisfying courses, but also as environments that kept my mind open to different perspectives along with validating my passion and focus for classes that were in the HESS department.

What were your favorite HESS courses?

I think some of my best courses were some of the hardest on paper. Exercise physiology, kinesiology, therapeutic modalities, and the varying nutrition courses; all are heavy hitters and I think essentials for anyone who wants to pursue further education in this space.

I use skills and tricks that I adopted at Denison in my classes and experiences today. I have even utilized the infamous Wolff’s Law and SAID principle that Dr. Winters drilled into my head.

What advice would you give current HESS majors?

Get to know your professors. A small learning environment at a place like Denison can become a lot stronger if you take the time to get to know the HESS professors.

Save your notebooks and textbooks. If you are pursuing education past Denison, have them just in case. After a summer off they were nice to have to brush off the cobwebs of curriculum you’re going to be seeing again in the first few weeks of school.

Don’t take just one type of HESS course simply because you think that’s what you want to do. Time will have you changing what you want to do over and over again.

Denison tested me in ways that I couldn’t really see until I left. I am truly blessed to say that I am a Denisonian and thank everyone there who was a part of the foundation for my budding career. Early mornings, late nights questioning your future and who you are going to be when you leave will come in your head every once in a while. The people at Denison (some of those being HESS professors) can help you put those thoughts at bay, and help you enjoy your time.

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