Even with 24,000 alumni around the globe, Guatemala isn’t necessarily the first place you’d expect to find a Baker University graduate. But there was Hillary Yoder, who graduated from the exercise science program in 2015, deplaning into tropic humidity at the end of January, escaping the wintery weather covering the University of Wyoming campus for literal greener pastures.

In addition to her graduate research assistantship in Wyoming’s Department of Kinesiology and Health, Yoder is also involved in a University of Colorado study that centers on the relationship between hydration status and the safety of sugar cane workers.

“Recently, an epidemic of chronic kidney disease of an unknown cause (CKDu) has developed in Central America,” Yoder said. “Most people developing CKDu in Central America are 30- to 50-year-old males who have physically demanding agricultural jobs in hot and humid environments. Part of the study is to determine causes and identify possible interventions to prevent kidney damage.”

By studying the hydration of 500 workers and analyzing biosamples to track changes in health and kidney function during single shifts and throughout the harvest season, Yoder is contributing to a hydration substudy that also tracks the heart rate and core temperature of 100 workers to better determine the metabolic demand of their job, all as part of an intervention based on the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Water, Rest, Shade campaign to prevent heat illnesses in outdoor workers.

Yoder’s work in this scientific study highlights the sometimes overshadowed word in her field of study: exercise science. According to Dr. Chris Todden, director of exercise science at Baker, people sometimes overlook that key second word in the program’s title. He said it’s easy to assume that exercise science is working out all day.

“But that’s not really what it is,” he said. “It’s a science and it’s a study at the cellular level. It’s not just the application like P90X [home exercise regimen]. It has some rigor, maybe more than students anticipate before they take the courses.”

Incoming college freshmen can be particularly prone to this misunderstanding, according to Dr. Erin Holt, assistant professor of exercise science.

“I think they go through this process in their first semester where they think they’ve got it figured out because they’ve run, lifted weights, and trained, and all of a sudden they realize they have to learn the entire human body and how it works,” Holt said. “Then they go through a process of ‘Oh, I can’t do science.’ That’s my favorite line: ‘I can’t do science.’ It’s great watching them go from that to all of a sudden realizing that they like this science because they enjoy understanding how the human body works.”

As the program’s architects, Todden and Holt make sure their students know that their hard work is necessary because, as professional practitioners, they are responsible for a portion of a their patients’ health. To that end, students participate in extensive hands-on learning opportunities. In addition to an intensive clinical during their senior year, students are also required to sit for one of three certifications focused on exercise physiology, special population personal training, or strength and conditioning. Two of those certifications come from the American College of Sports Medicine, which Todden says produces the most research and the best evidence for the field.

Although Baker’s exercise science curriculum has long been aligned with and developed along ACSM best practices, the program in January earned accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (www.caahep.org), making it the first fully accredited program in Kansas and one of just 46 in the nation.

The allied health industry’s significant growth in recent years has coincided with students’ rising interest in related professions, such as cardiac rehabilitation, dietetics, chiropractics, and physical and occupational therapy. Todden and Holt are excited about the potential benefits this level of accreditation will bring its graduates—and their resumes.

Khadijah Lane, ’16, a Clinical Doctor of Occupational Therapy candidate at Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, believes her undergraduate course work and internships prepared her well for graduate-level courses. And Andrew Heim, ’15, hit the ground running when he landed a research position in the Neuromuscular Research Division of the Neurology Department at the University of Kansas Medical Center, where he is part of a team that manages and conducts studies aimed at finding treatments for neuromuscular diseases.

While Baker’s exercise science alumni are thriving in the workforce and graduate programs, current students are poised to reap the benefits of the CAAHEP accreditation and step into the shoes of the recent graduates.

“We get to do extended research and educate the community,” said KasiDee Cox, a junior who served as the executive chair for February’s Heart Health Month initiatives and serves as the treasurer of Exercise Science Student Alliance. “It’s a good addition to our already extensive education.”

Senior Sarah Mullins served as the ESSA treasurer as a junior and also helped lead an outdoor Tabata high-intensity interval training class that drew attendance from the larger campus community.

“We put on several events on campus and for Be a Healthier U. We had YMCA instructors come in from Kansas City and teach a class that I helped lead,” Mullins said.

Mullins has immersed herself in exercise science internships and ESSA’s extracurricular events—valuable experience when it came time to apply to graduate programs for occupational therapy. She was accepted at both Rockhurst University and the University of Kansas School of Medicine and will attend KU.