Professor reflects on freedom to explore and teach over the course of a 30-year career

    Long-time faculty member Dr. Stewart Petersen retires leaving a mark on occupational safety standards and firefighter testing

    By Nicole Graham on June 30, 2017

    For the past 30 years, Dr. Stewart Petersen has made his mark on the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation as an internationally-recognized expert in the area of exercise physiology, and an influential teacher, leader and mentor.

    Stew got his first taste of both teaching and exercise physiology research as a graduate student at the University of Victoria (UVIC) where he worked as a teaching assistant and helping with fitness testing. However, pursuing a Master’s degree in Physical Education wasn’t always the plan.

    Born and raised in Port Alberni, BC, Stew had his career sights set on becoming a high school physical education teacher and settling down with the love of his life, Lynn, on Vancouver Island. It was during a summer job working in the fitness testing lab that someone asked him if he would be interested in becoming one of the first students in the Master’s program in Physical Education at the University of Victoria. He thought about it, went home to ask Lynn what she thought, and she replied, “why not?”

    “It seemed like a good idea at the time, and that has really been the story of my academic life.”

    At the time, the whole area of fitness as we know it now—personal trainers, gyms devoted to fitness, employee fitness programs and occupational fitness and safety—was just emerging. Stew thought, “Here’s an emerging field, and I’ll get a master’s degree. What a great opportunity.” And thus began his research and academic career.

    After completing his Masters degree, Stew took a job as instructor, lab coordinator and assistant coach for the men’s varsity rugby team at UVIC. During this time, Stew and Lynn started their family and built a house. Lynn was in high demand in her chosen career field and Stew was really enjoying his role at UVIC.

    “It was a good life.”

    However, if he was ever going to become a professor, Stew was going to have to find a PhD program to help get him there. The Vancouver Island product eventually made his way to Edmonton and the University of Alberta as a doctoral student, where he worked under the supervision of Art Quinney in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation.

    As Stew came close to wrapping up his PhD, he knew that he needed to start looking for jobs. The spring of 1987 found Stew at a crossroads. He had two job offers—one from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon and one with his alma mater. While his wife Lynn was determined to get away from Edmonton (the weather was a little much for a born-and-raised west coaster), fortunately for the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, Stew accepted the position at the University of Alberta and, on July 1, 1987, began his career as a professor and researcher.

    His early research was in the area of sport physiology with an interest in velocity-specific resistance training and recovery from high-intensity exercise. From early on, Stew took full advantage of the interdisciplinary aspects of the University of Alberta utilizing specific research tools through the Bio-Medical Engineering Department within the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry to help with this research.

    “The physical resources, coupled with the collaborative spirit in colleagues from other departments sets the University of Alberta apart from many of our competitors. This is one of the main reasons why I chose to accept a position within the faculty.”

    Dr. Petersen overlooks a VO2 Max test in the Work Physiology Lab.

    Stew shifted his research focus from sport physiology to occupational physiology after about 10 years. As both a Masters and PhD student, Stew often worked with occupational groups conducting fitness testing. When he became an assistant professor he took over the firefighter testing for the Edmonton Fire Department, and has continued to oversee this program his entire career. While physical aptitude is important for first responders and military personnel, Stew also wanted to investigate other factors such as protective clothing; load carriage; breathing apparatus; and, heat stress, all of which can impact safe and effective job performance. Over the years, Dr. Petersen has worked with structural and wildland fire fighters, military divers, search and rescue technicians, and police in his research.

    As a researcher, Stew has left his mark on occupational safety standards for first-responders and military members across the country and abroad. His research has informed and evolved the fire fighter testing to what it is today. It is without a doubt many lives have been made much safer over the years thanks to the research conducted by Stew, his colleagues and students. 

    “Stew Petersen’s curiosity and energy combined to provide, in my humble opinion, an international best practice for the measurement of work capacity for firefighter recruit candidates.” —Vern Elliott, Deputy Fire Chief, Strathcona County

    As a professor, Stew has graduated many talented practitioners, researchers and academics from our degree programs. He has also taken an active role on the administrative side of the faculty sitting on various boards and committees over the years including: General Faculties Council Academic Appeals Committee, and Health Sciences Research Ethics Board (Biomedical Panel). Dr. Petersen also served as an associate dean for seven years, stepping away briefly from full-time teaching and research to take on an administrative role with the Faculty. 

    “Stu is a true mentor, he provides opportunities for his graduate students as a researcher, teacher and most importantly as a person. His mentorship prepared me to be a complete academic.” —Randy Dreger, Faculty alumnus

    When Dr. Petersen looks back upon his career, it is the people who stick out in his mind first before his accomplishments. Stew credits much of his success to a number of influential mentors and colleagues he has encountered along the way. Some of these people include:

    • Bruce Howe, the department head at the University of Victoria, gave Stew his first fulltime job at the UVic, thus helping to start Stew’s successful career.
    • Dave Docherty at the University of Victoria was a mentor, coach and good friend. Dave was one of the best teachers he ever met.
    • Keith Bagnall, who worked in Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at UAlberta, taught Stew more about science than anyone else during his PhD.
    • Dick Jones, professor in the pulmonary physiology lab at UAlberta, had a significant impact on Stew. Stew maintains that Dick is one of the smartest people on the planet, and meeting and working with him is one of the best things that ever happened in Stew’s career.
    • Art Quinney, professor and past dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, was Stew’s PhD supervisor and mentor.
    • Howie Wenger, Professor at both UAlberta and UVIC, was Stew’s mentor and inspiration for his views on supporting and appreciating the value of graduate students.

    Stew leaves his position at the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation with fond memories and a feeling of gratitude to have worked somewhere he fully enjoyed for 30 years.

    “I've been extremely blessed and I think this Faculty is a fabulous place to be,” Stew reflects. “I was granted the freedom to explore the academic questions I am interested in. I’ve been able to develop and teach courses in my areas of expertise. One of the greatest joys in my career has been mentoring graduate students, and the support that our Faculty provides to the graduate program helped make that possible.”

    “In 30 years, I have never been told to do anything. I’ve been asked, but never told, and that is rare for any workplace. I believe that simple point underscores the respect that this Faculty holds for its people.”

    Dr. Petersen accepts his professor emeritus plaque from Dr. Kerry Mummery.

    “Stew holds himself and others to high standards. That quality has been passed along to many graduate students he has mentored and it is a quality that I strongly believe sets them apart.” —Michael Scarlet, Faculty alumnus

    While Stew credits many people for the academic success, there is one person that he knows has made it all possible. Lynn, Stew’s loving wife, supported him throughout all his endeavors and made it possible for him to follow a dream that continually unfolded along the way.

    “She’s amazing. She’s the best thing that has EVER happened to me.”

    In recognition of his dedicated service to the Faculty and physiology research, Dr. Stewart Petersen joins 44 other influential Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation members as a professor emeritus.

    The entire Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, both current and past, along with many people the way congratulate Dr. Petersen on a wonderfully successful career.

    “Stew, you leave behind many friends and colleagues whose careers you’ve either helped shape or have influenced in some way, and your positive impact will be felt by many for years to come,” says Kerry Mummery, dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. “We wish you the best to you, Lynn, your daughters and their families as you enjoy in your retirement.”