Professor’s past alludes to recent questionable behavior
An OU professor who received $75,000 for resigning because of questionable research practices may have had a pattern of unsafe behavior.
OU Health and Exercise Science professor Chad Kerksick began a study on creatine nitrate exercise supplements and its effects in February 2011 for the company ThermoLife. In June 2011, the OU Institutional Review Board began investigating the study after graduate students filed complaints.
The university and Kerksick reached a settlement agreement in September, stating he would receive $75,000 for resigning after a yearlong leave of absence.
In the complaints filed, students said he coerced them into having him practice muscle and fat biopsies on them, and some of them had painful bruising. Kerksick told the review board he had done 305 of these biopsies in the past five years with no reported complications.
However, an OU business professor involved in a different study in December 2010 said his thigh biopsy left him hurting for weeks.
“They said I would be jogging right out of the place and could go lift weights afterwards,” professor Jeff Schmidt said. “I could barely walk to the car afterwards.”
A muscle biopsy involves sticking a needle into the tissue to remove a small piece to examine. This study looked at the effects of aging on muscle and the amount of different muscle types in participants.
After the biopsy, Schmidt said he couldn’t walk without pain for two weeks, let alone work out. The site was swollen for months, and the scar started healing after a year.
In the study protocol, Kerksick said risks involved are only “minor pain and bruising at the site of needle insertion.” All participants should have received a sheet detailing how to take care of the wound afterwards.
Throughout this process, Schmidt said he felt like he was never given proper information to make an informed decision to participate in the study. Schmidt currently teaches a class on marketing research, and he teaches about informed consent to his students. Kerksick, whom Schmidt described as very charming and confident, never mentioned any downsides to the biopsy, even when asked.
“When he was doing the incision, there were probably six to seven doctoral students watching,” Schmidt said. “I thought it was weird that if they were doing like 50 of these things that it shouldn’t be that exciting to see.”
On top of that, Schmidt never received his results, the entire reason he signed up for the study.
University officials will not comment on the Kerksick investigation or the settlement, which was part of the agreement.
Employee complaints are not uncommon in a system with 11,000 faculty and staff members, university spokesman Michael Nash said. About 95 percent of these cases never reach a court.
However, only about 11 to 20 of these claims a year result in financial settlements, Nash said. Of those 11 to 20 cases, the median settlement is $11,500. Kerksick received more than six times that figure, an amount that is about one and a half times his annual salary of $53,024.
“Primary considerations certainly involve a cost-benefit analysis,” Nash said in an email. “Potential costs to the Board of Regents include financial exposure in the way of legal liability, litigation expenses (which can be more costly than settlement), and time, effort, stress and strain on faculty, staff, departments and academic units when it’s necessary to prepare and undergo litigation.”
Kerksick’s study thus far has cost more than $2,000 in equipment and in lab results for his study participants, including himself, which is against research rules, according to receipts requested by The Daily.
Kerksick’s latest study was sponsored by ThermoLife, a company managed by a convicted felon.
It is not uncommon for these exercise supplement industries to use a university to try to legitimize their products, said Dave Ellis, president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dieticians Association. This is a nonprofit organization that looks to protect athletes.
“This is a shining example of what we are up against with supplement companies,” Ellis said. “They can change the whole record of credibility through people like Kerksick.”
His organization attempts to be the first point of contact for athletes instead of the companies and scientists with false data, he said.
Often, these studies happen by researchers either creating false data or manipulating the way data is analyzed so that it seems more or less important than it really is, Ellis said.
The OU review board approves all research through a heavy application process in which researchers outline their studies, how they will conduct it and any potential harms or benefits.
For outside companies, they also attempt to look into the people sponsoring it to make sure they are able to pay and have a clean record, vice president of research Kelvin Droegemeier said.
“This includes screening for international security purposes, verification that the organization is not on the debarred or suspended list and ensuring the organization is current on payments if the university has entered into business with this organization previously,” Droegemeier said in a statement.
As a result of the settlement, Kerksick can still list OU as an employer, according to the document.
Kerksick cannot work at an institution governed by the OU Board of Regents, but he could still find a job doing research again, a former graduate student Patrick Dib said.
AT A GLANCE: Kerksick timeline of events
• January 2006: Kerksick hired as assistant professor of Health and Exercise Science
• December 2010: Creatine nitrate study approved by IRB
• February 2011: Creatine nitrate study began
• April 2011: Allegations filed against Kerksick for creatine nitrate study
• June 30, 2011: All studies by Kerksick terminated by the IRB
• Aug. 31, 2011: Kerkisck signs resignation agreement with university
Source: Documents acquired by The Daily, Patrick Dib