Bio

An Illustrated – but Unvarnished – Academic Autobiography

 

The reason for sharing my personal story here is to hopefully give some useful perspective to students who aspire to go to graduate school or to follow an academic career. This is a story of repeated failures and perseverance, of bad choices and lessons learned, of believing in oneself when most others did not, of receiving and using opportunities, and of finally reaping the fruits of one's labor. I am also writing this for my children, who do not know the path that their parents have followed or why they find themselves in this awkward space between two cultures. The story should be read while listening to my favorite song, The Life of a Scholar by the 3 Titans, on repeat. :-) 


The Childhood Years

 

I was born in a town (about 20,000 then, close to 40,000 now) called Rethymnon, located on the north coast of the island of Crete, in Greece. Much later, I learned that, in the same month (April 1968) but thousands of miles away, in Texas, Dr Kenneth Cooper was publishing a book (titled "Aerobics") that has been credited with starting the "fitness craze" of the 1970s in the United States (think jogging in the streets and, later, Jane Fonda VHS workout tapes). Along with public interest, there was rapid growth in the scientific study of the relation between exercise and health. One year later (March 1969), the American College of Sports Medicine published the inaugural issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Editor-in-chief Bruno Balke wrote that the launch of the new journal was in response to the "considerable momentum" generated by the "national and international interest in more active living habits" (p. viii). So. one might say that my life started at the same time as the modern movement of exercise science was taking off, more than 15 years after Jerry Morris had planted the initial seed. 

The Rethymnon of the 1960s and 1970s had the air of a small and poor town. I have vivid memories of villagers coming into town riding on their donkeys. And it was very common for cars to stop and wait for a shepherd to usher a flock of sheep across the road. But Rethymnon now is a bustling tourist town. Its population triples and quadruples in the summer months, as people from all over the world descend on its beaches. Rethymnon has a long history, the multiple layers of which are still visible everywhere you look. The Minoans (2700 BC to ~1100 BC), the Venetians (1205 to 1645), and the Ottoman Turks (1646 to 1898) have left their marks in the ruins of ancient cities, cemeteries, citadels, and castles, such as the picturesque "Fortezza" that overlooks the city. While other, larger cities in Crete were known for their size and wealth, Rethymnon was known as a city of "letters," having produced famous writers and poets, as well as leaders in the Greek suffrage movement

Perhaps the strongest link between my hometown and America is through one of the darkest and least known pages in US history, the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Elias Spantidakis, better known by his "Americanized" name Louis Tikas (or "Louis the Greek"), was an immigrant who left his village of Loutra, just outside of Rethymnon (and only a mile from my dad's village of Pigi), in 1910 to become an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America and the leader of an uprising of miners in Colorado (many of whom were poor migrants from Crete) to protest against their inhumane treatment by the mine owners, the Rockefeller family. Tikas was predictably murdered. His statue was erected in Trinidad, Colorado (15 miles from Ludlow) only as recently as 2018. The Ludlow Massacre is now widely recognized as having influenced the development of labor laws in the United States, such as the National Labor Relations Act of 1935


Baby


My mom was a high-school teacher of French (now retired). Grandpa and grandma on my mother's side first had a bakery and later a tavern in the old city of Chania, about an hour's drive west of Rethymnon. The US Navy operates a naval support base at nearby Souda Bay, so my first memory of Americans is of USN sailors who came to my grandpa's tavern to eat, drink lots of beer, and play loud 1970s rock-and-roll music on the jukebox. 

My dad, who passed away in 2017, was a high-school physical education teacher and track-and-field coach. Both of his parents were elementary school teachers. Besides my dad, they gave birth to two daughters. One of them became an elementary school teacher and the other became a high-school teacher. All three of the children then married other teachers. So, from my father's side, I am a third-generation educator. 


Reciting Christmas poem at daycare
Reciting a Christmas poem at daycare. 

My dad was always a book collector and avid reader. So, I grew up in a house filled with thousands of books, including the original edition of Kenneth Cooper's "Aerobics" in English. Only much later in life did I realize that houses don't ordinarily have a library with thousands of books. Following my dad around, I spent much of my childhood in stadiums, attending practice and track-and-field competitions, surrounded by coaches and athletes. 


Early years in Rethymnon
In Rethymnon, Greece, in the 1970s, with the track and field team my dad was coaching. 

I had a fairly average middle-class upbringing (well, at least for the 60s and 70s, when parenting was slightly more, shall we say, stern than it is today). There was no "affluence" per se but there was the family Toyota Corolla and a house and presents under the tree at Christmas. My parents had a fairly active social life, so I remember spending many evenings in the company of other educated people (teachers, physicians, pharmacists), who engaged in lively political debates (Greece was under a US-backed military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974) and other intellectually stimulating conversations. Among our family friends, it was taken for granted that adults would be able to speak eloquently and would be well-versed in history, philosophy, and the arts. There was little or no drinking but smoking cigarettes was the absolute norm. Virtually all of my childhood memories are foggy, immersed in a dense cloud of cigarette smoke. 

Although I did not have any remarkable athletic talents, in middle-school (what Greeks call "high school"), I started becoming involved in several sports, including the shot put, long jump, sprints, volleyball, and, more than anything else, basketball. Basketball became my passion, and I would spend many hours per day reading basketball-related magazines, watching NBA games on TV, practicing, and playing. 


Basketball team
School basketball team in 1985. Notice the outdoors basketball court, the cement floor, and the basketballs made of rubber. Wooden backboards had just been replaced with plastic ones. 

Starting in high school (what Greeks call "lyceum"), athletics are put on the back burner for most Greek adolescents. This is because students wishing to enter a university must take a dreaded national exam at the age of 18. And preparation for that exam starts at 15, with additional private tutoring, frequent all-nighters, and immeasurable amounts of psychological pressure and stress. By law, only state universities are allowed to operate in Greece. This means that tuition is free but also that spots are limited, so competition for entrance, especially for the popular majors, is fierce. 

In high school, I discovered that, although I was of average intelligence and lacked aptitude for chemistry and (to some extent) math, I could make up for my shortcomings by studying longer hours than other students. By doing so, I managed to stay at the top of my class academically throughout middle school and high school. 


Flagbearer
Carrying the Greek flag for a national celebration, an honor bestowed to the student with the highest grade point average.

Around the age of 13 or 14, against my dad's very strong admonitions, I decided that, for college, I was going to study physical education and sport sciences. More specifically, I had somehow become aware of a field called "sport psychology" and it was a moment of epiphany for me. I loved sports and I was developing an interest in psychology by having to deal with the various psychological challenges of adolescence. So I thought it would be great to study something that combines these two fields. Of course, at the time, I did not have a concrete idea what sport psychology was really about nor did I have access to any reading material related to the subject. It was, more or less, just a naive adolescent idea. But it was an idea that came very early in my life and gave me a goal towards which to work. My dad, being a graduate of physical education and sport science (albeit decades earlier), thought that I would be disappointed by the low academic level of the program. I chose to ignore his warnings, convincing myself that he was exaggerating to protect me and that, surely, things must have gotten better since he graduated.

Studying for the university-entrance exam from the age of 15 to 18 was brutal. I would attend school from 8:00 am to about 2:00 pm, then grab a quick lunch (often at a restaurant because there was not enough time to return home) and run to back-to-back private tutoring classes, sometimes until 8:00 or 9:00 pm. After a late dinner, I would stay up studying until past midnight. As the exam approached, I started having various psychosomatic symptoms, from a clenched chest and difficulties breathing to thinning hair and insomnia. 

The national exams were graded by overworked, underpaid, and generally bored teachers. So, conventional wisdom dictated that the key to success was memorization. All of our teachers strongly encouraged memorization: learn the books on which the exams were based by heart. The "best" students were able to memorize entire textbooks and could recite the contents, down to the last comma, if you just told them the title of a particular section. It was very impressive. But... I had my own ideas. Against everyone's sage advice to just do what everyone else did to ensure success, I decided that I would impress the examiners by studying not from the government-supplied, highly abbreviated, textbooks but from a very wide range of authoritative, in-depth, original sources. 


Textbooks
On the left, the government-supplied textbook of history that students were instructed to memorize, cover to cover. On the right, one of the many authoritative sources I used to study history, against everyone's advice.

Needless to say, the advice I had received was correct and I was wrong, very wrong. The results of the exam were disastrous. I failed to enter the university while most other "good students" moved to large cities and started their lives as university students. I was left behind to deal with my feelings of guilt and incompetence, the deep frustration of my family, and the stress of having to retake the entrance exam. The gap year went by, although not without a great deal of distress and many nightmares. The following year, I retook the exam and entered the top program in physical education and sport science in Greece, at the University of Athens. At the time, the admission rate was 5%, or 1 in every 20 applicants.


 

The Athens Years

 

As it turned out, my dad's warnings were valid. Academically, the freshman year was a disappointment. The curriculum was almost entirely focused on sports performance and, as students, we had to achieve certain performance standards in order to "pass" the courses, some of which were unreasonable. But the most disappointing aspect was that the level of the academic classes was indeed low. The classes were poorly taught, by professors who were old, untalented, incompetent, unmotivated, or all of the above. Our professor of Functional Anatomy, an old-school medical doctor, was later caught red-handed taking bribes from students to allow them to pass his classes.


TEFAA
Freshman student of physical education and sport science at the University of Athens in the late 1980s.

But, for me, the main reason I was there was to become involved in sport psychology. So, thankfully, in my sophomore year, I joined the Laboratory of Motor Behavior and Sport Psychology (these two fields were still joined in the 1980s). The laboratory was led by Dr Yannis Zervas, who was American-educated (Ed.D. from Boston University), having studied with some giants of the time, including Dr Len Zaichkowsky and Dr John Cheffers


Zervas, sophomore year
With Dr Zervas in November 1989, in Athens, attending my first Greek national conference of sport psychology.

 

Zervas in Jerusalem
With Dr Zervas in July 1997, in Jerusalem, attending the IX World Congress of Sport Psychology. The Temple Mount is in the background.

 


Initially, my role in the lab was as a computer geek. Just six years after IBM started selling the first PC, my dad had the foresight to invest what was at that time a fairly substantial amount of money (nearly a month's salary) to buy me a Tulip Computers PC clone (with the Intel 8088 processor overclocked to 10 MHz, two ​14-inch floppy disk drives, a 20 MB hard disk, a Hercules graphics card, and the MS-DOS operating system), as well as to send me to a class to learn programming. My early involvement with computers, and my early start with fundamental concepts of computer programming, proved invaluable in my future career. 

In the lab, I got my start in research. Since Greek university libraries had no funding and, therefore, no journals, I purchased my first personal subscription to the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology in 1989. By that time, I had already started amassing a substantial personal library on sport and exercise psychology, research methods, neuroscience, and neuroendocrinology. I was also introduced to SPSS/PC+, the first version of the famous statistical package that was ported to personal computers from its original version for mainframe computers. There were no Microsoft Windows and no "point and click" menus back then, so users had to learn the SPSS syntax and become familiar with the numerous options associated with each procedure. As my programming skills grew, I wrote programs that facilitated the process of entering, validating, scoring, and formatting questionnaire data, as well as a program that formatted bibliographies (perhaps a couple of years after the first version of EndNote entered the market, unbeknownst to me). I learned the basics of psychometrics (i.e., indices of reliability and validity), I learned how to do various types of exploratory factor analysis, and I learned the steps involved in the cross-cultural adaptation of questionnaires. While still an undergraduate student, I learned how to read and write scientific articles in English (while studying at the university, I continued taking English classes in the evenings, and earned the Proficiency in English, which is the highest-level language-competency certificate offered by the University of Cambridge).


Lab, TEFAA
In the Laboratory of Motor Behavior and Sport Psychology, Department of Physical Education and Sport Science, University of Athens, in the early 1990s. Lafayette's early-model photoelectric rotary pursuit instrument can be seen on the left side of the picture. 

 

First published paper
The first article I wrote, published in 1991 while I was still an undergraduate student, was a 32-page, 7-study (N = 1450) cross-cultural adaptation of Spielberger's State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to the Greek population. 

 


As part of my work in the lab, I also became involved with the Hellenic Society of Sport and Exercise Psychology and assisted in the organization of several national and international conferences. Through those activities, I met most of the major figures in European sport and exercise psychology. A highlight among those early experiences was a 1990 conference coorganized with the European Federation of Sport Psychology on the campus of the International Olympic Academy in ancient Olympia. Besides all the leaders of European sport and exercise psychology, the meeting was attended by Prof. Dorothy Harris of Penn State University, an early pioneer of the field of exercise psychology. Dorothy passed away only a few months later, on January 4, 1991. 


International Olympic Academy
International conference on the ethics of sport psychology, coorganized by the Hellenic Society of Sport and Exercise Psychology and the European Federation of Sport Psychology on the campus of the International Olympic Academy in ancient Olympia in 1990. Many of the leaders of European sport psychology can be seen in this picture. Dorothy Harris is in the center in the red jacket. I am on the far right of the picture.

Also in 1990, I was able to get an Erasmus scholarship from the European Community, and I spent a year studying at the now-defunct School of Human Movement Studies of the University of Liverpool in the UK. During that year, I was able to take several courses that were not available through my department in Greece, including research methods and statistics in psychology, ethology, neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and computer programming. But besides coursework, that year as an exchange student was a unique opportunity to live in a foreign country with a vastly different culture, to experience a well-organized university environment, to visit well-stocked academic libraries, and to interact with students from many countries. It was truly an eye-opening experience, which prepared me for graduate school in many different ways. I returned to Greece with 250 kg of photocopied articles and books. 


Ferry cross the Mersey
"On a ferry cross the Mersey" [river], as in the old song by Gerry and The Pacemakers

 

Bill Baltzopoulos
Playing at an international basketball tournament at the University of Liverpool. Prof. Bill Baltzopoulos (now at Liverpool John Moores University), then a young lecturer of biomechanics, is the other person in a white t-shirt. Bill was my guardian angel. He lent me not only a pillow and a comforter but also money when money my family had sent me through the mail was stolen.

 


Returning to Greece in 1991, I did my senior year with a specialization in what was called "Sport for All," which was the beginning of my introduction to the concept of physical activity as a public health intervention. After this, it became clear to me that I had no real interest in competitive sports and, instead, I was developing a growing passion for exercise and physical activity to enhance the well-being of regular, non-athletic people. One of the topics that captured my attention was the "exercise makes people feel better" finding, which was the subject of many research articles in the 1980s and early 1990s. So, when the time came to plan my first study, I went to the Palmos fitness club back in my home town of Rethymnon and I administered questionnaires to ladies before and after their aerobic exercise classes. Of course, at the time, the farthest that my thinking and my ambition could extend was to simply replicate the findings that were already published in numerous articles in the literature. I wanted to do research for the sake of doing research; I could not quite grasp the importance of originality and I certainly was in no position to subject anything I was reading to a meaningful critical appraisal. I was just happy to collect data, analyze them, make beautiful graphs, and marvel at my great accomplishment. 

Then came a pivotal moment in my life. One day, Dr Zervas told me "You should go to America to study exercise psychobiology." I certainly had a natural propensity toward integrative research, I was fascinated with psychophysiology, and I was doing a lot of reading on the nervous and endocrine systems. But the important thing was that someone I looked up to and had great respect for had shown faith and confidence in me, and told me that, if I wanted to pursue graduate education abroad, I could. This encouragement gave me wings.

The process of making the dream a reality, however, meant having to overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Unbeknownst to me, the Greek Parliament had passed a new law requiring all male citizens to enlist in the Armed Forces for a period of two years immediately upon graduation from the university and before continuing on for graduate studies (in the past, and again today, postponements of the mandatory military service were granted for both undergraduate and graduate studies). When I called the enlistment office to inquire about the paperwork required to apply for a postponement, the officer on the other end of the line said: "Graduate studies? You haven't heard? Those things are gone." My stress levels again went through the roof. I started a campaign of sending fiery letters to political magazines (one was published in a respected magazine called "The Economic Courier") and TV news programs, trying to bring awareness to this issue. I even visited the offices of political parties (from which I was quickly shown the door, as politicians had no interest in discussing about graduate studies and no understanding of the subject). Despite my efforts having absolutely no effect, I proceeded solely on the hope that the law was so absurd that it would be quickly overturned by members of parliament who had children, relatives, or powerful friends who wanted to pursue graduate education. And I was right. By the time I graduated, the law had been rescinded.

But this was not the only obstacle. The process of applying to graduate programs in the United States was very difficult and convoluted, let alone expensive. At the time, there was no world-wide web. Information was very difficult to obtain. Communication was via snail-mail and painfully slow. I visited the Hellenic American Union and the offices of the Fulbright Foundation in Athens many times, looking for guidance. I studied for the GRE and the TOEFL by myself, from study guides I was able to purchase from local bookstores. I also had to come up with a creative way to convince banks to issue a statement that I had thousands of dollars deposited, enough to cover the cost of tuition and my living expenses for a year (which, needless to say, I did not). As I recall, a wealthy uncle was convinced to lend my family the equivalent of many thousands of dollars for just one day. I also had to exhaust my ingenuity to figure out a way to have my department issue a transcript in English (the notion of issuing an official document in a foreign language was completely absurd for Greek universities at the time). Without going into too many details, a university secretary was convinced to intermingle an English translation I had prepared amidst a stack of other papers the department Chair had to sign one morning, so he signed it blindly, without knowing what he was signing.

But, in the end, I was just too naive and did not have proper guidance to help me understand the process. And so, I made a silly mistake. Of course, I should have applied to many graduate programs. But I was fixated on one, at Arizona State University, because the research taking place there, led by Prof. Dan Landers, was perfectly aligned with my interest in psychophysiology. Even though this decision seems silly in hindsight, I applied only to ASU. And I was rejected. I had no understanding of this but, at that time, Arizona State had one of the strongest departments in the field of exercise science in the United States, with many big names of that era (and just as many big egos) all concentrated there. So, admission was extremely competitive.


Rejection letter from Arizona State University
My rejection letter from the graduate program at Arizona State University: "I regret to inform you that we cannot act favorably on your application.... Wish you success in your future endeavors."

I graduated from the University of Athens in 1992. My parents couldn't travel to Athens to attend the graduation ceremony. So the only person who came to congratulate me was Dr Zervas.


Ekkekakis and Zervas in 1992
Dr Yannis Zervas shaking my hand at my graduation from the University of Athens in 1992. 

 

Ekkekakis and Zervas in 2018
With Dr Yannis Zervas, now Professor Emeritus, at a tavern in Athens in 2018, 26 years after the picture on the left.

 


I was determined to reapply for graduate school the following year. In the meantime, I wanted to stay in Athens, to continue to work in the lab during this additional gap year. But my parents, who had supported me financially throughout my five years of undergraduate studies (including the year as an exchange student in Liverpool), justifiably pulled the plug. My dad, who probably saw my plans for graduate school as overly ambitious after my first rejection, said "We cannot continue to fund your expensive hobbies." And so, they gave me an ultimatum: "Either return home to find work and support yourself or you're on your own." Having graduated but not having been admitted to graduate school, I was in an extremely precarious position with the Greek Armed Forces. If I let them know I had graduated, as I was legally obligated to do, I would have to enlist immediately, putting everything on hold for two years. Through a series of intentional delays, either illegal or perilously close to illegality, I was able to buy some time. 

Thankfully, with Dr Zervas' intervention, I was given temporary part-time employment as a "secretary" of the Hellenic Society of Sport and Exercise Psychology, assisting with the organization of conferences and workshops (i.e., doing work I was already doing as a volunteer anyway, but with a modest financial compensation, just enough to get by). 

Sadly, when I reapplied to Arizona State University the following year, I did not even receive a rejection letter; I got no response at all. So, in the spring of 1993, I was considering the "fallback" solution of going for a Master's degree to the UK, even though no graduate assistantships were available there at that time and no professors did research related to my area of interest. But I figured that I was running out of time and out of options. Doing something would definitely be better than doing nothing. 

Parenthetically, the job situation in Greece for graduates of physical education and sport science at that time was, in a word, abysmal. The only career option that could guarantee reliable pay was to work as a Physical Education teacher at a high school or lyceum (there were no positions for PE teachers in elementary schools yet). But hiring was done centrally by the Ministry of Education, for the entire country, based on the order of graduation from the university (meritocracy was, and still is, a dangerous, forbidden, and outlandish concept in Greece). My "serial number" at graduation was approximately 15,500, meaning that over 15,000 graduates were ahead of me, having graduated in previous years but still waiting for their turn to be hired. And the annual rate of hiring Physical Education teachers was about 100 per year. In other words, if the plan "graduate school" did not work out, I was facing the prospect of (give or take) 155 years of unemployment. In reality, what other graduates were doing was to seek any sort of opportunistic employment could put some food on the table, from becoming delivery boys, to bus drivers, to overnight security guards. Those who insisted on finding a job related to sports and fitness were finding out that pay was either offensively low ($2 to $3 per hour) or extremely unreliable (e.g., remaining unpaid for six months). 

Then, came an unexpected and serendipitous moment that changed the course of my life. As I was in the library one morning in late spring of 1993, I met a tall, blond, long-haired man, and we started a conversation. He inquired about me and my goals, and I told him about my repeated failed attempts to be admitted to the graduate program at Arizona State. As it turned out, this man, Dr Konstantinos ("Gus") Karteroliotis, had recently returned from the US, having obtained his Master's (1986) and Ph.D. (1991) from the University of Iowa. Without having political connections, he had applied for an open position in research methodology at the University of Athens and had gotten the job (which is unheard of, considering how Greek universities operate; an appropriate candidate is identified first, usually the protégé of a powerful professor, and a job announcement custom-tailored to that person is issued later). Gus said "I have a friend of mine at Kansas State, let me ask if he has anything." I said "It's too late, I doubt it."

I did not know much about Kansas State University, their program was not on my radar screen, but at that point I would have jumped at any opportunity to start my graduate education in the US. Lo and behold, the response from Kansas State was that a student they had admitted had unexpectedly withdrawn at the last moment, so they needed a replacement immediately, to cover their classes. So, I was given about 15 days to send my paperwork. I did and I was admitted. I was over the moon. 

In the summer of 1993, I also attended my first conference outside of Greece, and had the chance to give my first oral presentation in English. That conference was the 8th World Congress of Sport Psychology in Lisbon, Portugal, organized by the International Society of Sport Psychology. Today, I use the papers I presented at that conference as examples of research driven by my youthful naivete, unburdened by any real in-depth knowledge or understanding of the underlying issues. In essence, it was "monkey see - monkey do" research, blindly reproducing questions and methodological approaches that were in vogue. But, needless to say, at the time I felt like a big-time scientist, presenting my cutting-edge work on the international stage.


ISSP 1993

 

ISSP 1993

 



The Kansas Years

 

I arrived in the US on Wednesday, August 11, 1993. I had two suitcases and $400, the largest amount of money I had held in my hands up to that point, hidden in my socks. The reason for this is that owning foreign currency was illegal in Greece at that time, and exchanging money to foreign currency, especially US dollars, in order to travel abroad was subject to very tight export controls. But we were able to find some dollars through friends who had a shop for tourists. When I arrived at JFK after a 10.5-hour flight from Athens (plus a 2-hour delay due to a strike of the air-traffic controllers, as was common), I ran to the bathroom to make sure that my treasure was still there. Then I ran to catch my domestic flight and, literally dripping sweat, I was the last one to board the plane to Kansas City. I arrived there late at night. In the era before websites, making hotel reservations from half the way around the globe was not easy. So, after working the phones for a while and realizing that no nearby motels had a vacancy, the airport was deserted. I agreed to let a patiently awaiting taxi driver take me to a "cheap motel" (I forget whether it was a Super 8 or a Motel 6 but one of the two). On the way, he told me he was also a minister and owned a church ("owning" a church was one of the many bizarre, uniquely American concepts I would learn over the next days, weeks, and months). But, interestingly, after finding out that I had just flown in from Greece, he launched into an up-to-date and surprisingly insightful analysis of the geopolitical situation in the Eastern Mediterranean region (I thought all Americans would be this informed about world affairs but, boy, was I wrong). As it turned out, the motel did not have an empty room, but they agreed to give me a "special" room they did not usually rent — at a deep discount. The outside door had holes in it and would not close properly. The bedding also had burn holes from cigarettes. The bathroom fixtures were broken and had extensive mold. But I was simply too exhausted to care. 

The following morning, Thursday, August 12, 1993, I boarded a tiny twin-turboprop Cessna, with six passenger seats and two pilots (no flight attendant and no partition between the pilots and the passengers), and flew the short distance from Kansas City to Manhattan, Kansas, a college town located at the center of the contiguous United States. I have written in more detail about that day here.


Paddy at Kansas State
A young, penniless Master's student in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1993. 

 

Kansas State in 1993
The Student Union building (left) and university cheerleaders with early 1990s hairstyles (right) on postcards from Kansas State University. 

 


After several years of living in the sprawling metropolis of Athens (4.5 million people), the move to a college town in the heart of the American Midwest of the early 1990s was undoubtedly an enormous culture shock. After the herculean effort it took for me to get to graduate school, I arrived hungry and full of enthusiasm. But, truth be told, the two and a half years I spent in Manhattan were, both emotionally and physically, the toughest of my life. Culturally, I arrived with certain ingrained ideas about friendship, camaraderie, and mentor-apprentice relationships. All those were demolished, as I started to discover the ins and outs of a quintessentially individualistic society, profoundly different from the one in which I grew up. I had to start adjusting my notions of right and wrong, and was forced to fall back to an attitude of having zero expectations of the people I was meeting as a basic self-preservation strategy. 

One of the biggest challenges was the workload. In exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend of $680 per month, I was assigned to teach five sections of an all-university required class called "KIN 101: Introduction to Kinesiology." With an average of about 35 students per section, I had a total of approximately 175-180 students per semester. Each student submitted two homework assignments per week, so I had to grade approximately 350-360 homeworks each week. I was told that no graduate student had ever been given as much teaching before. In addition, I was taking three graduate classes towards my master's degree, each of which had assignments, term papers, and multiple exams. I was trying to squeeze in 2-3 hours of sleep at night but there were weeks I had to pull back-to-back all-nighters. Some Friday nights, I would fall asleep and wake up Saturday night, 24 or more hours later. One day, during a break between classes I was teaching, I accidentally fell asleep and missed my class, causing enraged students to visit the main office to complain. Another day, mid-sentence, I switched from English to Greek, and stopped only when I noticed the confused expressions on the students' faces. I remember that, from the sleeplessness, I sometimes had trouble navigating stairs, as my brain had difficulty executing the motor program automatically. I was falling apart. Although a couple of opportunities arose that would have allowed me to be switched to a lighter teaching load (i.e., equivalent to the load carried by other graduate students), for various reasons too unpleasant to discuss, this did not happen. So, I had to take an "incomplete" for one of my classes and, because I could not finish the assignment I owed on time, I found myself on academic probation at the end of my first year.

Many of my undergraduate students were surprisingly outspoken in expressing their hostility toward their international teaching assistant. Some would write comments on the margins of their (eponymous) homeworks. One wrote "USA #1, Europe sucks." In their anonymous end-of-semester course evaluations, they were brutal. "I don't understand why the US has to go to foreign countries to find teachers." "Paddy has no job being a teacher. Send him back." And, of course, there was the omnipresent "I cannot understand his accent" and its numerous variants (my favorite was "he can't speak no English"). I did not know it at the time but accent-related complaints would continue to appear in student evaluations for another 20 years.

Moreover, "diversity and inclusion," mantras that are increasingly emphasized on university campuses nowadays, were unknown concepts back then. There was no effort to show any sensitivity or kindness toward international students. In the presence of other graduate students, one professor confidently proclaimed that, in Greece, families live all together in a single room and children watch their parents having sex. I was asked by a graduate student if I'm gay because, according to him, he was taught in high school that the Ancient Greeks were all gay. For the first time in my life, I even had to think about my race. Although I had always thought of myself as white, I was told in no uncertain terms that my skin is definitely not white, "it's olive." I was also told numerous derogatory things about my abilities and mental capacity, too many and too painful to list here. Most memorably, when I sought input on where to apply for doctoral programs (since Kansas State did not have a doctoral program), I was told (I will never forget these words) "all you have is a PE degree from another country, so I wouldn't keep my hopes so high." I was devastated, as I felt that I was discriminated against despite trying to do my best. Thankfully, there were also professors who sensed my distress, took me under their wing, and offered words of solace and support. I will always remember the kindness that Dr Karla Kubitz and Dr Ed Acevedo showed me during those very difficult moments.

Of the many moments that felt like "rock bottom," one has stuck in my mind for some reason. While I was still in Greece and trying to find money for grad school, I had applied to a private foundation created by an oil tycoon from Crete that, in theory, gave educational grants to students from Crete who wanted to study abroad. I had spent an enormous amount of time preparing my application, only to realize later that the process was rigged; the grants were given only to students from the tycoon's extended circle of family and friends. There was no real selection process. A person on the selection committee told me that they were essentially stooges. No one actually read any applications, they were just given papers to sign. After this, I had no interest in applying for such funding again. But a relative who worked for another private foundation convinced my parents that the process was completely fair and that I had to apply. My parents insisted. So, while in Kansas and dealing with all sorts of other pressures, I also prepared an application for a scholarship from this foundation. When I finished, I had 30 minutes to get to the post office before it closed. And, naturally, when I got outside, I saw that a major snowstorm had started. I had just purchased an $89 Huffy bike from Wal-mart (which was stolen soon thereafter) and Manhattan, Kansas, had no public transportation system. So, I got on the bike, put my head down, and started riding frantically toward the post office in ice, snow, mud, and slush. Needless to say, I slipped and fell a few times, but had to keep going if I wanted to make it on time. I arrived one minute before the posted closing time, only to find an employee locking the door from the inside. I pleaded with him, I begged, perhaps I even cried. I think he could sense the absolute desperation in my pleas, so after a couple of minutes, he opened the door and I was able to send the package (of course, the application was rejected a few months later). When I managed to return home, I looked at myself in the mirror. My face was covered in ice and mud but, because of the cold, I could not feel it. At that point, I understood why the post office employee had unlocked the door and let me in. I also realized that this was rock-bottom. I was all alone in a foreign and hostile land, penniless, desperate, hopeless, chasing pipe dreams by applying for money I was never going to get. Who was I kidding?

Amidst all these challenges, I would be remiss if I did not mention that, while at Kansas State University, I had the opportunity to take some extremely useful courses that laid a strong foundation for my research. I still remember a graduate course in quantitative methods in psychology with Prof. Jerome Frieman and a course in psychological measurement and testing theory with Prof. Ronald Downey (if you have not calculated Cronbach's alpha coefficients by hand, then you don't know what crazy amounts of late-night fun you're missing).

Meanwhile, the troubles stemming from me not having done my mandatory military service in Greece were never-ending. The postponement that allowed me to attend graduate school was approaching its expiration date and could not be renewed. At that time, the Greek government did not allow passport renewals for students in my situation, in order to compel them to return to the country and enlist. So, during a visit to Greece before my passport expired, I went to a government office and submitted an application to have my passport renewed. The lady who took my paperwork looked at me and asked whether I had completed my military service. I said "yes, of course" and, since I looked older than 18, she was satisfied, and accepted my papers without requesting an official certificate from the Armed Forces. I suppose she had the discretion to not ask for this particular document in cases of people who seemed "old enough." I left the office as quickly as possible, so she wouldn't have a chance to think twice and change her mind. I was "home free" and so happy. Except that, as I was exiting the office, my mom (whom I had left waiting in the car with the explicit instruction to stay there and not move) stormed into the office and asked "What do you do to people who make a false statement about their military service?" I remember running to the car, not being able to process what had just happened. I was so close... Needless to say, the lady threatened my mother to not mess with the Armed Forces because the legal ramifications would be severe. Since my "Plan A" (i.e., making a false statement to the government) failed, I moved on to "Plan B," which was also very popular among students in my situation, desperately seeking ways to keep their passport and be able to finish their graduate studies. The plan involved applying for a passport in Athens instead of my hometown, not by visiting a government office directly but going through a travel agency. The travel agency also did not ask me for an official certificate that I had completed my military service, so the only false documentation I had to provide was that I was a resident of Athens, a relatively minor infraction. Thankfully, my "Plan B" worked like a charm, so I got a passport valid for another 5 years. However, having a valid passport did not mean that I would be able to enter Greece again. After the postponement to appear for my military service expired, the Greek government sued me (as was typical for people in my situation), and I was convicted "in absentia" in court for failing to show up for military service when I was supposed to. With the conviction in hand, two armed police officers showed up at my parents' home to arrest me. My parents told them that I was studying in the US and they left. However, from that point on, I was officially an "outlaw" in Greece. This meant that, if I tried to enter the country, I would be arrested at the airport. Or, if I was somehow able to enter the country undetected (e.g., if they did not check my passport at the border against the database of "wanted" fugitives), I could be arrested at any random traffic stop. I applied for a legal option that would have allowed me to get an individual temporary exemption (e.g., as an "outstanding Greek scientist living abroad") but my application was rejected. So, for a period of 5.5 years (during most of my master's and all of my doctoral studies), I could not enter Greece to see my family. A few years later, all these measures (e.g., non-issuance of passports to individuals who had not completed their military service) were withdrawn.

Having learned my lesson after applying to only one master's program, I applied to 10 doctoral programs. But the response was, again, devastating. Some programs rejected me, some never responded, and some informed me that I was not even eligible to apply because, as an international applicant, I first needed to be "certified," a process that would take an additional year. Only one professor called me on the phone to say that he was interested but, unfortunately, no funding was available.

At a conference of the American College of Sports Medicine, Dr Karla Kubitz introduced me to Dr Steven Petruzzello from the University of Illinois. I knew the name "Petruzzello" well because he was the lead author of a major 1991 meta-analysis on the effects of exercise on anxiety, which had greatly impressed me. While Dr Petruzzello also did not have any available spots, he indicated that one of his graduate students was considering switching to a different program, so perhaps something could open up in the near future. Sensing that I knew his research area well and I had a strong desire to work with him, he promised to keep me posted.

Having no options, I was somehow able to extend my assistantship and delay my graduation from Kansas State by an additional semester. Indeed, during this time, a spot opened up at the the University of Illinois. But, before I could be admitted, I was asked to visit the campus (on my own dime, of course), make a presentation of my research, and get to know the people. Maria Kavussanu (now at the University of Birmingham), whom I had briefly met at the University of Athens and who was there at the time studying for her Ph.D. under Prof. Glyn Roberts, was kind enough to let me stay at her apartment to save some money. When I met with the director of the graduate program, Prof. Eddie McAuley, he reached out to shake my hand and said, straight up, "Welcome, we have no money for you." So, I was being told that I could be admitted only if I could be self-funded, since no teaching or research assistantships were available. I called my parents and told them. None of us had any idea of exactly how high the financial cost would be. But, heroically, my parents agreed to help. I am fairly certain that the plan would not have been financially viable, but we just did not know enough to realize it. Luckily, in the end, this was not necessary, as I was admitted with a teaching assistantship. Then, during my first semester, the department discovered that I had computer skills and hired me as a computer technician, on a 12-month appointment, to help maintain the computer network and provide day-to-day computer support to faculty and staff. 


The Illinois Years

 

The University of Illinois had a strong reputation as the epicenter of American sport psychology, as it was the place where most of the towering figures in the field had studied. In addition, the university itself is considered one of the top state schools in the United States. The Department of Psychology, in particular, is exceptionally strong. At that time, it employed several of the past presidents of the Society for Psychophysiological Research. Of all the programs to which I had applied, I ended up, unquestionably, in the best one.

Before I left Kansas, I contacted the Greek Student Association at the University of Illinois, asking for their help in finding an apartment. Of hundreds of people on the mailing list, only Evangelos Christou (now a professor at the University of Florida) responded and was willing to help (he and his wife Demetra, also a professor now, were always a source of kindness and support in the subsequent years). I arrived in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in early January 1996, after driving a rented U-Haul truck through a monster snow storm. I-70 was closed in Missouri, so I took I-80, which was still open (but this meant I had to drive all night through Nebraska and Iowa). Under heavy snowfall, I stopped for diesel and turned off the ignition, only to find out that the truck had a busted ignition and would not restart. The gas-station attendant sold me a screwdriver and showed me how to bridge a couple of bolts under the hood to start the engine. This caused the screwdriver to overheat and start to melt but the trick worked and I was back on the highway. Not wanting to turn off the engine again, I slept for a couple of hours in the truck at a truck stop, with the engine running. When I later tried to unload my clothes, I discovered that they were frozen solid and had to be allowed to thaw before I could unfold them. I quickly realized that, while temperatures in Kansas were sort-of tolerable, temperatures in Illinois, especially when it was windy, were downright dangerous. Hypothermia has this demoralizing effect, where after a while you just lose the will to continue and you start contemplating giving up, sitting by the side of the road, and letting nature take its course. Thankfully, although I got to that point often as I tried to walk home during snowstorms and subzero windchills, I always kept on walking.

As a reminder that those were indeed different times, the ladies at the international graduate student orientation emphasized that Americans value personal hygiene, so we should shower often. As I said, this was a time when it was certainly improper to insult any racial or ethnic minority of Americans but insulting international students was perfectly acceptable and indeed widely practiced by university staff.


Chicago
One of my favorite pictures from the late 1990s. Walking along the coast of Lake Michigan, with the Chicago skyscrapers in the background. I like the picture because it is so symbolic of the loneliness of my life as an immigrant.

At Illinois, several factors came together and I was able to flourish. The first factor was Steve Petruzzello, who not only had found the right balance between allowing independence and providing constructive guidance but was always kind, patient, encouraging, and supportive. In the four and a half years I worked with him, he never lost his cool, never said a mean word, never raised his voice, and never made me doubt that he was in my corner. This attitude helped me heal my wounds and taught me not only that I could put trust in Americans again but also gave me an excellent model for how to behave towards my own graduate students in the future. 

One of the illustrative anecdotes I often recall and recount is the following. While teaching his Exercise and Sport Psychophysiology class (specifically, a lecture about the effects of exercise on sleep), Steve was interrupted by a student who, as I found out later, had behavioral problems and had the tendency to make outrageous and offensive remarks. The student said something along the lines of "I don't think you know what you're talking about." I fully expected that Dr. Petruzzello would become upset and ask this student to leave. Instead, he remained remarkably calm, acknowledged the student's point of view (such as it was) without a hint of condescension, repeated his point in a matter-of-fact tone with no apparent emotional coloration, and continued his lecture. I was left speechless. I clearly remember thinking that I wish I could someday develop this level of self-control as a teacher.


Petruzzello, Ekkekakis
Steve Petruzzello in 2000, handing me the Roger Morse Outstanding Graduate Student Award from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Illinois. 

 

Petruzzello with my kids
Steve Petruzzello with my two children, Georgios (left) in our home in Ames, Iowa (2014), and Marietta (right) outside of Freer Hall in Urbana, Illinois (2018). 

 


A second factor was my lab mate, Eric Hall, now an endowed Professor at Elon University in North Carolina. Like Steve, Eric was a down-to-earth, real person, with a heart of gold. Eric, who also did his master's degree at Illinois and had entered the doctoral program a semester before me, patiently tried to teach me EEG and cardiorespiratory fitness testing. His valiant efforts were mostly unsuccessful, at least early on. One day, he walked into the lab to find Dave Marquez gasping after a max test he had just completed under my supervision — without a noseclip! Over a period of collaboration that started in 1996 and extended for the next 15 years, with Eric and Steve, we published dozens of papers in some of the top journals in exercise science, garnering thousands of citations and arguably contributing to a relaunch of the area of research investigating affective responses to exercise.


Dr Eric Hall
Eric Hall max-testing a participant in the late 1990s, deep in the bowels of Freer Hall, in the Physical Fitness Research Laboratory, one of the most important laboratories in the history of exercise science (founded by Thomas K. Cureton in 1944; see video).

 

Ekkekakis, Hall, Petruzzello in 2014
Reunion: Ekkekakis, Petruzzello, and Hall (left to right) at the 2014 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Orlando, Florida.

 

 


A third major factor was the University of Illinois as an intellectual environment. This is not something that was immediate apparent to me; I suppose when you're immersed in this type of environment, you lose the benefit of proper perspective and you start to take things for granted. It is only later, perhaps much later, that you realize the magnitude and the importance of the opportunity that an educational environment like this represents.

Quite simply, at Illinois, I had the opportunity to study with and learn from some of the best in the world. I took Psychophysiology with Greg Miller. I took an unforgettable class on emotion with the power duo of Jerry Clore and Bob Wyer. I learned how to do structural equation modeling from the late Roderick P. McDonald. I had the chance to attend lectures by Art KramerMarie Banich, Ed Diener, and the late Bill Greenough. Manny Donchin once quizzed me during a psychophysiology seminar presentation I gave about startle responses. Wendy Heller was on my dissertation committee. I also met perhaps the most famous Greek psychologist of all time, Harry Triandis, who had retired from Illinois after a long and illustrious career. And, of course, a who-is-who of academic superstars would visit the campus to deliver seminars, including the unforgettable John Cacioppo, the famous philosopher Daniel Dennett, and celebrity cardiologist and author Dean Ornish. There is a certain intangible benefit to being among these people, almost as if the aura they exude inspires you to think on a higher or deeper level. Or perhaps you start to think (justifiably or not) that, since these people are in the same physical space as you, close enough to touch them, you could also aspire to achieve the kind of research careers they achieved. During the Illinois years, my confidence increased and I did the most reading, and the most writing, I have done in my life. 


Winter in Illinois
Winter in Champaign, Illinois, circa 1997-1998. The cars are buried in the snow. You better have a well-stocked fridge because you're not going to be going anywhere for a while. 

 


 As I was approaching the final year of my doctoral studies, in the fall of 1999, I started applying for jobs. I had a good CV with several publications in good journals, a focused line of research, and I was going to receive my degree, with excellent grades and several awards, from the top program in the country. In addition, I unexpectedly won the 2000 "Outstanding Student Paper Award" by the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA), the top national distinction for graduate students in my field. I thought that my prospects were good and I was fairly optimistic. That year, there were 14 position announcements that identified either "exercise psychology" or "sport and exercise psychology" as the area of interest and, needless to say, I submitted applications for all of them. Alas, once again, the response was devastating. Nothing. 

I think I did one phone interview with a major university, but there was no real follow-up. I was told that they would call me back to arrange for a campus interview "but the Dean is currently traveling, so we'll do it as soon as he comes back." I found out from other applicants months later that they were telling the same lie to all of us, in order to keep us all open as possible options as they were pursuing someone else. Time was passing. It was getting late in the spring of 2000. And I knew that, if I did not receive a job offer, I would have only 30 days after graduation to pack up my things and return to Greece and my long-overdue but still mandatory military service. The stress levels started to rise again and insomnia returned. 

As I was giving up hope, I received an invitation to interview at a regional teaching university in the South. It was an interesting experience. The people there knew that my credentials were not a good fit for what they were looking for (i.e., someone to teach five courses per semester, with little interest in research), so they were trying to figure out why I was even there. In fact, I was asked that question directly during the interview. On the other hand, I was trying my hardest to impress them because I knew that this was my solution of last resort, the only option that would allow me to have a semblance of an academic career. 

Shortly after my return to Champaign-Urbana, Steve Petruzzello received a phone call from Prof. Jerry Thomas (legendary author of the best-selling Research Methods in Physical Activity), whom he knew from the time the two of them had overlapped at Arizona State University in the late 1980s (Steve received his Ph.D. in 1991 and Jerry was the Department Chair, 1988-1992). In 2000, Jerry Thomas was the Department Chair at Iowa State University. The Department was then called Department of Health and Human Performance, and had one of the job openings for which I had applied. Jerry wanted to know what my research was about (although this information was obviously already in my application) and, interestingly, whether I could speak English. Steve assured him that I could speak rather fluently. Shortly thereafter, I received an invitation for an on-campus interview. As I learned later, they had already interviewed four other candidates, and offered the job to each of them, one after the other. But all had declined the offer, opting to go elsewhere. I was number five, the last one on the short list. The main reason they were so skeptical of me was that they used to have another international assistant professor, and the students would constantly complain about not being able to understand him. 

The interview went very well. The Dean, Walter Gmelch, rearranged his schedule to come to my research presentation and stayed for the subsequent reception. Afterwards, Jerry Thomas asked me to follow him into his office and offered me the job on the spot. And with this, I started my professional career as a tenure-track assistant professor at Iowa State University, one of the top research universities in the United States and a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), the "elite club" of the top 65 research universities in North America.


With Jerry Thomas in 2008
With Jerry Thomas, one of the most respected leaders in our field and the person who hired me, giving me the chance to join the ranks of academia. This picture was taken on my 40th birthday, in 2008, when Jerry conspired with my wife to organize a surprise party for me. I consider Jerry one of the most influential mentors I was fortunate to have in my academic career. 


The Iowa Years, Pre-Tenure

 

I remember feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity, as well a huge sense of relief: I had the faculty job I trained for, at a university that offered me everything I needed to be successful. So, I got to work. In the pre-tenure years, a typical day would start at 9:00 am and go to 10:00 pm, when the coffee shops closed. After a late Chinese-takeaway dinner in front of the TV, and maybe a rerun of Law & Order, work would resume at midnight and go to 4:00 am or even later. And this would happen seven days a week. It was as close to a monk-like existence as one can imagine. 


Home office 1
The home offices in Pinon Drive and Aspen Road. The library keeps expanding.

 

Home office 2
The library at Dalton Circle. Thousands of books, organized by subject: neuroscience, stress, philosophy, affective psychology, exercise psychology, exercise physiology, research methods, statistics, etc. 

 


I was not worried about earning tenure per se. But the way the productivity expectations were portrayed always seemed very intimidating. When I was a doctoral student at Illinois, I overheard a conversation among the assistant professors regarding tenure expectations. They were told that, although there is no fixed number, they should strive for five publications, approximately one per year until they had to submit their portfolio for promotion and tenure. They thought this was a high number, since when you first start, you have to prepare your courses, you have to set up your lab equipment (you're typically given just an empty room), you have to find and train the first wave of graduate students, you have to carry out studies, and you have to get them published. All this in just five years (at a time well before online manuscript submission systems, 30-day turnaround deadlines for peer reviews, and thousands of pay-to-play online journals). Someone said that, at another university with a medical school, the expectation was 15 publications. A collective gasp was heard from everyone as the number was uttered. "That's just crazy."

When I was first hired at Iowa State, during one of the orientations for new faculty, the Provost was pressured to say what the "golden number" was. He said that "although there is no fixed number, two high-quality papers per year" is what was expected. But, after a year with five good publications, the evaluation committee criticized my papers for being "just theoretical," not empirical studies based on data collected at Iowa State. By the time it was time to prepare my application for promotion and tenure, in one of the coaching sessions to show us how to put our portfolio together, an associate Dean, under pressure to reveal the "golden number," said "although there is no fixed number, 25 papers and half-a-million dollars in external grants is what you need to be able to sleep well at night." So, I was not sleeping very well. I started losing my hair again, my insomnia returned, and, when I managed to fall asleep, I would wake myself up from grinding my teeth due to the tension.

I was stressed but, by all indications, I was doing well. In 2003, I won an award for early research from the College and had the great honor of giving the inaugural Biddle Young Scholar Lecture in Exercise Psychology at the FEPSAC conference in Copenhagen ("Theoretical integration in the study of affective responses to acute exercise: The dual-mode model"). Also in 2003, on my first try, I received a small grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). In 2004, I was asked to organize a featured symposium on "The Psychology of Exercise Intensity" at the ACSM meeting in Indianapolis, and to deliver the capstone keynote lecture ("If exercise makes people feel better, then why aren't more people active? Maybe it's not that simple after all"). In 2005, I was elected Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (FACSM). In 2006, I received the Iowa State University Award for Early Achievement in Research, an one-per-year all-university honor. Also in 2006, I published Psychobiology of Physical Activity, a first-of-its-kind volume co-edited with Ed Acevedo. After this good run, I earned tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2006. 


Biddle Young Scholar Lecture in Exercise Psychology
From the inaugural Biddle Young Scholar Lecture in Exercise Psychology during the FEPSAC conference (Copenhagen, 2003).

 

ACSM Featured Symposium
First keynote at an ACSM conference, as part of a featured symposium on "The Psychology of Exercise Intensity" (Indianapolis, 2004). 

 

Iowa State University Award for Early Achievement in Research
The President of Iowa State University, Gregory Geoffroy, handing me the 2006 Iowa State University Award for Early Achievement in Research, an all-university honor. 

 

Psychobiology of Physical Activity
The 2006 volume entitled Psychobiology of Physical Activity (Human Kinetics), co-edited with my old professor, Edmund O. Acevedo

 


A year earlier, while visiting my parents in Greece (during a rare 30-day "grace" period during which "outlaws" who had not completed their military service were allowed to enter the country), an announcement was posted in a local newspaper that the Department of Psychology of the University of Crete, whose campus is located maybe 5-10 minutes from my family home, was seeking to hire an assistant or associate professor in sport and exercise psychology. This was very surprising because positions in sport and exercise psychology are almost never in departments of psychology; they are in departments of sport or exercise science. By coincidence, within 5 minutes of seeing the announcement, the phone rang and it was Dr Konstantinos Karteroliotis, who had all the background information. As is always the case with academic positions at Greek universities, this position was created to hire a specific person. However, from the time the position was "promised" to this other professor until the time the position was actually approved and advertised, several years had passed and she or he was no longer interested. So, the position was, in a sense, legitimately "open." Although I felt it was still a futile endeavor, my parents insisted that I had to apply because they knew this was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to return to my hometown, doing the job for which I had trained.

The process of applying, and then the process of the "election" for the position, would require an entire volume to describe — and most of it would seem too far-fetched, too unbelievable to anyone not used to Greek corruption. To give but one example, I received a call from the departmental secretary, who told me, as if she was saying the most natural thing in the world, that, because reimbursement for travel expenses by the Greek Ministry of Education was so slow (1.5 to 2 years), it was customary for candidates who expected to be the favorites (most likely to be elected), to personally pay the full travel expenses of all the "electors" (i.e., professors in related fields from other Greek universities, who had to travel to Crete to vote). Other people who have lived through such experiences may tell you that things like this happen all the time but you can't fully appreciate how shocking it is until it happens to you. I fired back an e-mail saying that this is illegal and I would never do it. Needless to say, the electors were livid, as this sort of behavior was completely outside the norm. As I found out later, the electors flew to Crete to enact a plan that someone had conceived, to argue that what I study was irrelevant to the position announcement, thereby rendering my application ineligible. But, due to infighting within the department, the plan did not work and I was elected Associate Professor of Psychology with tenure.

In order to be eligible to be hired in the public sector, including for faculty positions at universities, all male Greek citizens must have completed their military service. So, part and parcel of my consent to apply for the position in Greece was the decision to finally enlist in the Armed Forces. By that time, I was considered too old, so I had the option of not serving the full time (reduced to 12 months due to my age); I could do basic training (45 days) and then pay the equivalent of the salary of a professional soldier for the remainder of the time (10.5 months). So, in the summer of 2006, at the ripe old age of 38, I showed up for basic training in the Hellenic Army


Ekkekakis in the Army
Summer of 2006. Private Ekkekakis Panteleimon, 1st platoon, 2nd company, 547th infantry battalion, 5th division, Hellenic Army. Standard issue army rifle, Heckler & Koch G3A3

 

Ekkekakis in the Army
The story seemed so bizarre and intriguing to an Iowa State University news service journalist that he wrote a piece on it. He was convinced that news outlets specializing in stories about academics would find it fascinating. None did.

 


The army was, of course, as surreal an experience as one might expect. I was probably the second oldest person at the camp after the Major in charge and twice as old as the other 700 or so soldiers-in-training. Only a handful of these soldiers had a college education and many were illiterate. On the army base, I interacted with a cross-section of the entire Greek society, top to bottom, including people with whom I would never ordinarily cross paths. Thankfully, officers quickly figured out that I could be of more use in an office than climbing mountains. So, when the other soldiers went to actual training each morning, I would go to an office for a 12-hour shift of entering data in databases, sorting, filing, and writing scripts in Excel to automate certain tasks that they used to do by hand (the officers found it very impressive that Excel could do those things automatically if programmed). But I also did enough physical training (and was given so little food) that I lost 37 lbs in about as many days. Some of the memorable orders I was given (by low-ranking officers in their early 20s) was to collect cigarette buds from the ground for hours at a time, scrub toilets (if you have not seen or smelled the squat toilets at a Greek Army base, you should consider yourself very lucky), and, the day before a visit by some Army bigwig, I was ordered to pick up all the "ugly" stones (the order was very specific: "only the ugly ones") from the side of a mountain and go throw them over a cliff, out of sight. I consider this whole experience as character-building.


Army buddies
With other members of my platoon during basic training in the Greek Army, May-June 2006.

After I was released from the Army, as a "lawful" Greek citizen for the first time after many years of living as an outlaw, I had to return to my job in the US. Although I had been elected to the position at the University of Crete, I could not start working there until the "legitimacy" of the election process and the budget to fund the salary of this position (such as it was) were approved by the Ministry of Education. Like everything else, this was a process that took a very long time, well over a year.

But, before I returned to the US, I fell head-over-heels in love with a relatively attractive academic named Dr Spyridoula Vazou. Spyridoula was born in Heraklion, a city about an hour east of my hometown of Rethymnon, in Crete (parenthetically, also the birthplace of Jennifer Aniston's dad). We both studied with Dr Zervas and worked in the Laboratory of Motor Behavior and Sport Psychology at the University of Athens, albeit with a certain time lag; she arrived a short while after I had left, so we never overlapped. After finishing her Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Athens, she got her Ph.D. in exercise psychology from the University of Birmingham (one of the top departments of exercise science in the UK), studying with Prof. Nikos Ntoumanis and Prof. Joan Duda. I proposed to her in a heartbeat (over the phone, she still tells everyone), we were engaged six months later, and got married the following summer. 


Summer of
"Young" and crazy in love, at an Athens café, in the summer of 2006. 

 

Wedding in 2007
Wedding day. Crete, July 21, 2007. 

 


Spyridoula shuttled back-and-forth between Crete and Iowa several times during the subsequent academic year. If I had any apprehension about moving to back to Greece, Spyridoula's absolute desire to live in Greece, close to family, put all such thoughts to rest. The decision was made. When Iowa State got wind of the impending move, and despite my explicit assurances that I was not doing this as a negotiation ploy, I received two very generous salary raises, back-to-back in close succession. In addition, Jerry Thomas offered Spyridoula a three-year contract as a fully funded research assistant professor, with the option of converting it to a tenure-track position after the three years. We did not even discuss the offer; our decision to leave was final and irrevocable. At that point, Jerry Thomas made a alternative offer that, once again, would be pivotal for the rest of our lives, although we did not know it at the time. He said: "I have seen this before. People leaving the US to return to their homeland are not satisfied by what they find. They often wish they could return." So, he offered to support me in applying for a long-term leave of absence without pay. I thought I had nothing to lose, so I accepted. My office was locked (I only took the most essential books I needed) and we left a car and a few belongings in storage, just in case. We gave away most of what we owned, from electrical appliances and cookware to furniture and home decor. In the summer of 2008, we flew on an one-way ticket to Greece.


 

The Crete Years

 

Initially, life in Greece was pleasant, even idyllic. The weather was always beautiful and conducive to outdoor activities, family and old friends were always nearby, and the house we rented for 750 euros per month (half of my associate-professor salary) was on the beach and offered great views of the Aegean sea. Spyridoula had an annually renewable position with the Department of Primary Education, which did not pay well but she was happy doing what she loved and basked in the adoration of her students. My office was just a few buildings over, at the Department of Psychology, so we could meet and go for lunch at the faculty restaurant, with great panoramic views of the city and the gorgeous, deep blue of the sea. I started feeling that a weight was gradually being lifted off my shoulders. I was calm and maybe even reluctantly optimistic. Perhaps we can make this work. 


Apartment in Crete
The view from our living room in Crete. 

 

Apartment in Crete
Sunset, without a filter, seen from our window in Crete.

 


Not too long thereafter, the first problems started to appear. We started to realize that, after living abroad for many years, our mentality had changed and our patience for certain problematic attitudes and behaviors ingrained into the Greek psyche was wearing thin. As our mentality had moved in one direction, the mentality of the local people in Crete had moved in the opposite direction. As a result of the dramatic increase in individual wealth brought about from the spectacular increase in tourism, pervasive tax evasion, unrestricted consumer loans amounting to hundreds of thousands of euros per household, and deep corruption, people had become arrogant, money-hungry, and profoundly individualistic. Everywhere you looked, you could see the latest luxury automobiles being driven by people who had very modest jobs but still wanted to participate in the race to show off their material possessions. We expected civility and were finding nothing but rudeness. We expected public officials to demonstrate a spirit of service and we were finding nothing but laziness and hostility. 

Moreover, there were gathering signs that Spyridoula, instead of having a realistic hope of a tenure-track position, would probably have even her annually renewable position eliminated due to budget cuts. As she made the rounds, trying to assess whether there was support from other faculty for a tenure-track position in her field, she ran into a granite wall of resistance. She was told things we will never forget. A female full professor told her that it is not "becoming" of a young lady to seem so ambitious as to desire a tenure-track position. She was told that a position in her field (integrating physical activity into the academic classroom) would never open at a department of primary education because "it is not scientific." Meanwhile, a tenure-track position opened in religious studies (which, in Greece, means exclusively Orthodox Christianity, the country's official religion and, of course, the only religion allowed to be taught in public schools). 

Things in Psychology were also terrible and I quickly found myself in despair. Although there was an old guard of professors who were unproductive and awaiting their retirement, there was no shortage of youthful energy — or intelligence. However, all this wonderful potential was mostly consumed by behind-the-scenes machinations between two fighting factions. As a new faculty member, both factions were trying to feel me out, and take me on their side. The rumor mill was a constant of daily life. Tensions at faculty meetings were always high and occasionally over the top, with people launching loud verbal attacks at each other or banging their hands on the table. And all this was embedded within a deeply dysfunctional, labyrinthine, and antiquated legal framework that was designed to prevent corruption by micromanaging every process but, instead, encouraged, fed, and perpetuated corruption. It was fascinating to watch faculty members who had returned to Greece after years of working abroad become quickly engulfed in this twisted and unethical way of thinking and acting, to the point that they not only became comfortable with it but eventually fully adopted and actively promoted it. On numerous occasions, I sat through faculty "elections" that had already been decided in the background (I will elect your protégé in Crete if you elect my protégé in Athens). The rationale the electors presented for their decisions was a masterclass in shamelessness. For example, they would argue (on the record) that a person with one publication (e.g., as the 34th name on a little paper reporting the results of some multinational survey) was fully qualified and the absolute best choice whereas competitors with strong publication records were not even discussed, as if they did not exist. Or plans were orchestrated to render certain strong candidates "ineligible," just as they had planned to do with me, to clear the way for the election of someone else with much weaker credentials. 

From an educational standpoint, the curriculum was, with some bright exceptions, mostly a sham. It was explained to me that it was unacceptable to require students to attend class (specifically, the adjective that was used was "undemocratic"), because some students came from poor families and had to work to support their families. Although I suppose this might have been true for some students, the argument was used to justify non-attendance as the norm. So, after the first semester, students would pack up and leave town, to return only for final exams for the remainder of their studies. Students could take and retake an exam as many times they needed until they achieved the "pass mark," which is 50% (5 out of 10, which students call "the democratic 5"). Then, upon graduation, these students can legally practice psychology, without the need of a competence evaluation or a state license.

I tried to behave as a teacher the only way I knew. I would dress appropriately, prepare meticulous slides and other class materials, be approachable but professional in all my interactions with students, always show up to class on time, and put every ounce of energy I had into my lectures. The students quickly nicknamed me "the yuppie," an epithet that was meant as pejorative by conveying my "American" origin, which is inherently riddled with negative connotations in the minds of most Greeks. While I was not the only professor to behave professionally, I was certainly in a small minority. Other professors would show up in shorts and sleeveless shirts, arrive to class 45 minutes late, smoke or answer their cellphones in class, and lecture in a stream-of-consciousness manner, without a specific plan or visual aides. Perhaps unsurprisingly given this general atmosphere, for my class on emotion, out of approximately 200 registered students, I would occasionally go to class, wait in vain for 30 minutes for someone to show up, and then leave. 

At the end of my first faculty meeting, I asked whether the department or the university had an institutional review board, to approve the ethical treatment of research participants. Some faculty members laughed at me. When I asked "but don't you have to write in your papers that study procedures were approved," I was told "we just say they were." When I tried to create a departmental review board, with proper forms and procedures based on universal ethical standards, a senior faculty member exploded during a faculty meeting, "Let me get this straight, you're saying that I would have to submit an application to you? You have got to be kidding." So, the review board was never created. Other reform initiatives I tried to institute were similarly shot down before they ever got off the ground.

The predominant culture on campuses is a mixture of anarchism and extreme leftism, with a strong tendency toward and unambiguous endorsement of violent activism (all in the name of democracy and anti-fascism, of course). The irony of the whole situation would be comical if it weren't so tragic. For example, small groups of students would break into the main office to (literally) steal the ballot box used for the election of the Department Chair because they did not like the person they knew would be elected by the majority (e.g., if they felt that this person was not "left" enough on the political spectrum). On another occasion, a faculty meeting was interrupted by an angry mob of students (?) who told us that, unless we stopped discussing immediately (the subject was something as innocuous as developing a three-year operational plan), they would "resort to violent action." When a threat like this is launched by people whose eyes have all the tell-tale signs of chronic, heavy drug use and whose backpacks appear filled with unknown contents, you have to take the threat very seriously. After all, the entrance of the adjacent building had been torched by a Molotov cocktail.

This ambiance of decay and nihilism is supported by a uniquely Greek law that prohibits any policing on university campuses (by regular police or campus security). In theory, this was meant to protect "freedom of speech" and the "free exchange of ideas," after Greece's dictatorship that ended with a university student uprising in 1974. In reality, and predictably, campuses became safe havens for all sorts of criminals. Faculty offices and university buildings were regularly burglarized. I thought it was surprising this did not happen even more frequently, since burglarizing an unguarded building on a deserted campus at night was probably the easiest crime in the history of crime. Each academic year would start with a new set of laptops and projectors available in the main office for checkout but all would be gone before the end of the fall semester. So, I had to purchase my own laptop and projector to be able to teach my classes. The Department of Psychology used to have a lab building but students (?) seized it, covered it in graffiti, and used it as a drug house. So, the Department of Psychology operated without labs. More specifically, there was a room that was used as a lab but only the members of one of the two fighting factions were given keys. And I was not one of them.

There were several moments, when the emotions overcame me and I broke down in tears. One such moment was when I walked into the main lecture hall one day, ready to teach my freshman Research Methods class, only to find everything (floor, student desks, seats) covered in urine. Evidently, things had been left like this for a long time, perhaps days, so it was hard to breathe, flies were everywhere, and the toxic air made my eyes water. Another time, upon hearing that a communist leader would come to speak on campus, a local neo-Nazi group had come to the lecture hall and spray-painted Nazi symbols everywhere, including on the projection screen I used to show my slides. But the worst moment was one evening, when a group of angry students barged into the classroom I was using, and demanded that we stopped class and left immediately because they were going to "occupy" the entire campus (to protest against this or that or the other thing). Such events were not uncommon. Frequently, mobs would come into the lecture hall to demand that the class be stopped so that students could attend a demonstration in support of one communist cause or another, or to protest against the "unfair" arrest or prosecution of one anarchist hero or another. Usually, the mob would be satisfied as long as you showed that you had no intention of resisting them. But that evening, when I told them to give us a minute to wrap things up and we would be on our way, they quickly became hostile. A student (I later found out she was an 18 year-old Psychology freshman) blew a plume of cigarette smoke in my face, to provoke me. Others quickly gathered around, waiting for me to react so they could beat me up. The student looked straight into my eyes and said, very calmly, "When you invite me into your home, you can tell me what to do. This is my home, so I will tell you what to do." A vision of Spyridoula's face, waiting for me to return home, flashed in my mind. So, I took a deep breath, managed to remain calm, took two steps back, and was able to return home in one piece.   


University of Crete
In front of the entrance of the Department of Psychology, University of Crete. 

 

University of Crete
Another view of campus, University of Crete. I used to show these pictures to my students in the US, to encourage them to appreciate the beauty of their campus and to remind them to pick up their trash. The trick actually worked; I even saw some students picking up other people's trash. 

 

University of Crete
A view inside a classroom at the University of Crete. Students covered the walls in graffiti commemorating Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, the former Soviet Union, and the Greek communist party.

 

University of Crete
Another view from the University of Crete. The graffiti from a local neo-Nazi group reads: "Greece belongs to the Greeks. Foreigners out."

 


Not having any lab space, graduate students, or scientific instruments, my research came to a halt. The only thing I was given was an office with a computer. So, I tried to do the best I could under the circumstances. First, after I was asked to write a chapter on the measurement of affective responses to exercise, I realized that I had a lot more material on this subject, based on the couple of decades I had invested collecting and studying this complicated and confusing literature. I also knew that there was no book on the market that effectively synthesized this information in a relatively succinct manner, culminating in some sort of usable guide. Operating under the belief that I would never have access to an equipped laboratory for the rest of my life, and driven by the desire to help a new generation of researchers entering this conceptually and methodologically challenging field, I made the bold decision to submit a book proposal to a major publisher, Cambridge University Press. To my surprise, an acquisitions editor replied, my book proposal was sent out to reviewers, and their reviews were positive, encouraging, and constructive. So, I signed a book contract to write my first monograph. The book was published several years later, in 2013, but the bulk of the writing was done in Crete. Parenthetically, some years later, I heard someone say "what no one tells you is that you stand to make more money by having a decent garage sale than the money you can ever hope to make publishing an academic book." My experience showed that this was a very accurate assessment of the academic book market. On the other hand, the "thank you" notes from students and young researchers from around the world is the greatest reward a book author can hope for.


 

Thank you notes

 



While I was busy writing my monograph, I received a surprising invitation by Routledge, saying that I had been "recommended" as a possible editor for a volume in the series "Routledge Handbooks" regarding the role of physical activity in mental health. In actuality, "recommended" was a polite way of saying that several other, much more experienced people than me had been offered the job but all had declined. Nevertheless, more than one were kind enough to suggest my name as a possible alternative. By that time, I had published articles related to several aspects of mental health and its relation to physical activity, including anxiety, depression, stress, psychoneuroimmunology, cognitive functionsleep, and well-being. So, I felt that the project was in my wheelhouse. In addition, I always had a deep interest in the subject and I was following the many associated literatures closely. So, operating under the assumption that I would never again have access to a laboratory, I asked Spyridoula for her input and she encouraged me to accept. So, at the same time, I was working on two very interesting book projects. The approach I took was to divide the handbook into 10 sections (depression, anxiety, cognitive function, etc) and invite relatively young researchers (assistant or associate professors, men and women), with whom I had indications that I could collaborate well, to edit each of the sections. For myself, I kept a section on the exercise-induced feel-better effect. I followed this approach for both practical and symbolic reasons. Practically, I knew that this would be an enormous undertaking, so I needed all the help I could get. Symbolically, I wanted to demonstrate to the field of exercise psychology that, unlike the "silo" politics of the past, the new generation of exercise-psychology researchers appreciated each other's talents and could work productively together. I gave the section editors complete autonomy and was careful to avoid any impression that I was trying to micromanage them. Overall, the experiment was successful. Working together over three years, we recruited 92 authors representing 8 countries, and produced a 600-page volume comprising 40 high-quality chapters. The Routledge Handbook of Physical Activity and Mental Health remains the most comprehensive collection of reviews published on the subject of physical activity and mental health.


 


Measurement of affect, mood, and emotion (2013)
Ekkekakis, P. (2013). The measurement of affect, mood, and emotion: A guide for health-behavioral research. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Routledge handbook of physical activity and mental health
Ekkekakis, P. (Ed.) (2013). Routledge handbook of physical activity and mental health. New York: Routledge.

 

 


From a personal standpoint, our time back in Crete was a major turning point. During our first year, we were fortunate enough to become pregnant. And in June of 2009, we became parents for the first time, with the birth of our son Georgios. As is the case with all parents, the arrival of our first child forced a radical, from-the-ground-up reexamination of our lives and our priorities. Looking at the Greek society, we could see the writing on the wall. We could sense the social crisis that was brewing, perhaps more than the financial crisis. We could see that people were becoming increasingly resentful and intolerant of one another. Lawlessness was the new rule. Hatred and hostility toward immigrants was becoming a popular message among a new generation of political hopefuls, who had no qualms about capitalizing on the fears and frustrations of the public in order to increase their political power. Society was sick. Actually, society had been sick for a long time but now the sickness was approaching a crisis point. 


Georgios birth
Georgios in daddy's arms for the first time, minutes after he was born. June 2009. 

 

Georgios at home
At home, staring lovingly into each other's sleepless, tired, bloodshot eyes.  

 


As part of her job, Spyridoula had to visit local schools, to supervise student-teachers. She would then come home and recount horror stories of kids out of control, hateful graffiti, schoolyard brawls, and bored, unmotivated teachers whose only apparent interest was chain-smoking. Moving around town with the baby stroller was a nightmare since drivers never respected sidewalks or pedestrian crossings. When we once complained that a parked car had blocked the entire sidewalk, the passenger gave us the finger. We hated having to leave the house. We felt the need to shield ourselves from the surrounding ugliness, and to limit our contacts with the outside world as much as possible. 

In early 2010, unbeknownst to the public, Greece was on the brink of financial collapse. The bubble burst in April 2010, when the deal with the International Monetary Fund was announced by the prime minister, sending shock waves to financial markets around the globe. By then, we were already 99% certain that Spyridoula's position would be eliminated, which meant she would probably have to resort to a demeaning part-time job as a fitness instructor or something similar. Although I had requested and received an one-year (2009-2010) extension of my leave of absence from Iowa State University (which is granted only in exceptional circumstances), even the extension was nearing its end. So, the new Department Chair, Prof. Philip Martin, started asking about our intentions. We had to make an enormous decision. Stay in Greece despite what was happening or return to the US?

By then, we had fully accepted that the dream of a stress-free life at a picturesque Mediterranean paradise was a giant fallacy. The stress to maximize productivity we felt in the US had simply been replaced by the stress of living in an environment that was not only uninspiring and unsupportive, but often offensive and requiring too many ethical compromises. We also knew that, on our measly salaries, we would have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, never being able to afford buying our own house. But, at the same time, we were both under considerable psychological pressure from our parents to stay. In this impossible dilemma, the catalyst was our child. We definitely wanted to offer him the best opportunities. And after taking a look at the quality of education in Greece, we had our answer. 

Not knowing Spyridoula, her academic credentials, or her abilities, Philip Martin initially offered Spyridoula a part-time lecturer position, thinking that, as a new mother, she would want flexibility. But we made it clear that we were interested in a tenure-track faculty position. This required issuing a position announcement, and the initiation of a formal search. Thankfully, Phil agreed. Spyridoula had a strong doctoral degree, a focused research agenda, and a competitive publication record for an assistant-professor position. So, she was invited for a campus interview. However, five years since she had left England, her English was rusty. We started nightly practice sessions that went on for a month and a half. After this, with her characteristic fighting spirit and determination, she finished the two-day grueling interview process, and was offered the job. She received a reasonable salary, a good startup package, lab space, and a deferred start date to January 2011 (which also meant extending her tenure clock by half a year).


 

The Iowa Years, Post-Tenure

 

In August 2010, I returned to the US alone, to resume my position at Iowa State. To the relief and immense satisfaction of many, I resigned my position at the University of Crete, bringing our two-year Greek experiment to a close. Spyridoula and Georgios followed a couple of months later. Initially, we stayed at an apartment on campus, located in a "village" that is meant for visiting scholars and non-traditional students with families. Our brief house-hunting was successful, and in January 2011, we moved into our house. What would have been an unattainable life dream in Greece happened right away. We created a nicely equipped home gym, a home theater, a play area. And, for the first time, I had a room that could fit all my books. 

But, most importantly, we were happy because we were no longer torn; although we regretted causing sadness to our parents, we knew that we had given life in Greece an honest chance. We knew we fully meant it when we decided to give away nearly everything we owned and move across an ocean. And we knew that we had tried to make it work. But we also knew, clearly and unambiguously, that we would become unhappy there in the long run, especially if we could not provide our son with the opportunities we believe he deserves. Because we are content knowing we tried, we did not agonize by second-guessing our decision to return to the US. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that we made the right decision, without diminishing the pain we know we caused. But, as a small compromise, we at least can afford the luxury of spending three months each year back in Greece. 


Our home
Our home in Ames, Iowa. 

For the next six years, our family lived through the nightmare of the "probationary" period before Spyridoula's tenure. As just one sign of the horrific uncertainty that imbued those years, we had boxes in the basement we never opened after we moved into the house because, consciously or subconsciously, we felt that we may have to pack up and leave again. For years, we worked seven days a week, never taking a break. Our annual pilgrimage to Greece was just an opportunity to leave Georgios with his grandparents, so we could work longer hours. During the academic year, to be able to work long hours on school days, we survived through a combination of daycare and babysitters. On weekends, I would stay with him until lunchtime while Spyridoula worked at her office, then pass him to Spyridoula like a basketball as I left for my shift until 10:00 pm. Needless to say, during these years, there was a constant sense of pressure, there was exhaustion, there was stress, there were tears, there was tension. Tenure is a daunting challenge. 


Summer vacation
Our summer "vacations" during Spyridoula's pre-tenure years. Two laptops, side-by-side, at a beachside café, looking at the lucky people on the beach through the window. Rethymnon, Crete, 2014.

 

Summer vacation
At our favorite Starbucks in Heraklion (Spyridoula's hometown), where a typical "summer vacation" workday is 11:00 am to 11:00 pm. 

 


Thankfully, Spyridoula's pioneering research on integrating physical activity with academic subjects in the classroom led to numerous fruitful collaborations, international recognition, and many publications. As a result, in 2017, six years after she started working at Iowa State and 10 years after we were married, Spyridoula was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. At the same time, I was promoted to the rank of Professor. 


Promotion
From the reception for our "dual" promotion (to Associate Professor for Spyridoula, full Professor for me), with our Department Chair Philip Martin and our Dean Laura Jolly. 

The first time we took Georgios to Kindergarten, Spyridoula was tearful. According to the school district, the building was old and decrepit. In fact, it was torn down the following year and replaced with a brand new one on the same site. But to us, everything seemed wonderful. A school with a library, and a media center, and a gym? And good teachers? And the majority of the kids coming from a household with at least one Ph.D.? It was the affirmation we needed that we were indeed offering him opportunities we did not have.


Taking Georgios to Kindergarten
Taking Georgios to Kindergarten for the first time. Step Number 1 in what we hope will be the long process of offering him the best opportunities in life.


 


During a trip to Lago Maggiore, on the border between Italy and Switzerland, in the summer of 2014, a year before Spyridoula's portfolio for the tenure application was due, we started seriously discussing the idea of a second child. It was not an easy decision given our ages and generally stressful lifestyle. But we decided to try. And, in 2015, we were fortunate to become pregnant again. The projected birth date would more-or-less coincide with the date that the tenure application was due. As it turned out, the birth of our healthy and beautiful daughter Marietta-Nikki came first. So, in June 2016, Spyridoula's days were split between nursing our new baby every couple of hours and, while the baby slept, typing the most important document of her life. People often talk about the challenges faced by women academics, who have to balance two parallel and equally demanding lives. Having observed Spyridoula go through that phase, I still do not know how a human being can find that much strength and stamina. 


We are going in
We are ready, we're going in. Hold our saline.

 

Marietta-Nikki
June 2016, Ms. Marietta-Nikki Ekkekakis has entered the world, 10 little fingers and 10 little toes, eyes shining bright, and a round button nose.

 


Even with two young children, the life of a dual-career academic couple is unlike the life of most "regular" people with 9:00 am to 5:00 pm jobs. In 2018, the incredible Nicholas Christakis from Yale (who is American-born but whose family is from our island of Crete) wrote on Twitter: "I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers." I had to laugh when I read it because I knew that Christakis was self-censoring, not openly revealing how much work building a scientific career with a global reach requires. No one, no matter how naturally brilliant you are, can have the career that Christakis has had, or anything close to it, by working 60 — or slightly more than 60 — hours per week. But Christakis knew he had to self-censor, to hold back, to hide the truth. Because he knew that being honest about what it takes would trigger an enormous backlash. Few things seem to irritate academics as much as the issue of workload. There appears to be a silent consensus that being dishonest or hypocritical about this issue would somehow protect the mental health of graduate students or early-career academics. So, while the old professorial guard has been steadily raising the performance expectations for the unsuspecting youth now entering the fray, they have also been perfecting the fine art of speaking from both sides of their mouths, unabashedly but simultaneously paying lip service to protecting mental health and promoting well-being. Indeed, Christakis' rather reserved statement irked hordes of angry academics who insisted that they reached the top of their profession more-or-less by enjoying a never-ending fabulous vacation. In the vast majority of cases, however, closer inspection reveals an apples-and-oranges problem. The two sides of the argument clearly do not define a successful academic career by the same criteria. The loudest, most fanatical, most self-assured proponents of the view that you can enjoy a spectacularly successful career by kicking back and taking it easy usually tend to define "success" as having a large number of publications or a high dollar amount in grants. Indeed, at many, perhaps most, academic institutions, these two criteria (increasingly the latter more than the former) are precisely the yardsticks used to define academic "success" or "productivity." But for some, a successful academic career means something different. It means convincing a field of study to think about a problem in an insightful new way. It means synthesizing existing knowledge, especially knowledge from different and seemingly disconnected fields, in a way that sheds new light on an old problem. It means going against the grain, pushing against the resistance of entrenched paradigms, to shift a field of study in a new direction. And, in the end, it means leaving your indelible mark in the history of scientific discovery as the person who opened a new window in the scientific exploration of a phenomenon. The bad news is that no one can accomplish these things with 60 hours of work per week. Christakis probably wanted to speak openly and admit that the number may be closer to 90 or 100 hours per week, perhaps even more. But he knew he couldn't. The good news is that, if you are really passionate and thirsty about the process of scientific discovery, then the work does not really feel like work. It feels more like a game or an adventure, like a fascinating book that you don't want to put down even though it's getting late and you're feeling tired. 


Georgios at ACSM
Georgios spread out on the floor of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, while his dad is at the podium delivering a keynote lecture during the 2014 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine

 

Ekkekakises at Starbucks
The studious Ekkekakis family at a Starbucks in San Diego, California, in the summer of 2015. At least two of the family members appear to be frantically working on conference presentations.

 

Summer vacation 1
Summer vacation at our hideaway on the south coast of Crete. Coffee, adult beverage, fresh cherries, gorgeous views of the Libyan Sea. And, of course, reading a meta-analysis for a book chapter that is due shortly. 

 

Summer vacation 2
A thoroughly enjoyable and fruitful collaboration while vacationing in Crete. I would bounce ideas off of her and she would give me her honest opinion. A collaborator for life.

 


As time went on and my work found its way into more journals and books, I started receiving signs that a growing number of people around the globe, more so abroad than in the US, were reading what I was writing. This was a bit of a surprise as I always thought of myself as outside the mainstream, since my work did not pertain to the popular topics and theories of the past few decades within exercise psychology. But, over time, citations to my work grew, as did the number of heartwarming e-mails from students from around the world who felt the need to thank me for my papers, which inspired them or guided them. Then, starting in 2014, I started receiving invitations to speak at conferences, universities, and research centers. This has been a deeply rewarding turn of events, not only because of the feeling that my work is having an impact but also because of the opportunities I've had to interact face-to-face with many people, in many countries, who want to approach the issue of physical activity behavior from a new and different perspective. I always believed that new ideas that don't comply with the reigning paradigm are bound to be marginalized. And that's true, they are. But, then, as Kuhn predicted, if you wait long enough, there is also bound to be a "crisis," namely a persistent failure of data to fully conform to the expectations set forth by the paradigm. And this triggers a wave of dissatisfaction, especially among the younger generation of researchers, those whose budding careers would not be threatened by the possible collapse of the paradigm. So, if you are promoting new ideas, you need to be armed with large reservoirs of patience. Change, as they say, takes time. However, given sufficient time, good ideas will eventually get their chance to be heard and to compete in the big "marketplace of ideas" that is the scientific literature. You may even get a chance to make a difference, or "shift the paradigm" — but only until a new generation of mavericks start poking holes in your ideas.


Brazil
In Brazil, at the First International Symposium on Affective Responses to Exercise, organized at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) in 2017.

 

Potsdam Summer School
In Germany, at the First International Graduate Summer School entitled "Conceptual, theoretical and methodological advances in exercise motivation research: Automaticity and affect," organized at the University of Potsdam in 2019. 

 


Up until relatively recently, when it became apparent that the academy has formally entered a new era, I had the enormous luxury of enjoying being an academic. As the old cliché goes, I was getting paid to do what I loved. I love reading, I love thinking (and thinking, and thinking), and I love writing. I love taking a subject and tracing its history for as far back in time as I can go, two decades or two centuries. I love questioning what may be considered established knowledge or established methods. Ι love teaching, I love interacting with my students, and nothing thrills me more than sending them off to the next phase of their lives, whether that's medical school or assistant-professor jobs. But the harsh truth is that, in recent years, universities have started redefining the academic profession in radical ways. The administration does not really care whether you have made progress toward gaining a deeper understanding of the problem at the core of your research program. They don't really care about the impact your work may be having on a global scale. It is much simpler and quicker for evaluation committees to ask how much money you have "captured" or how much income you have "generated." So, truth be told, our job is not what it was even one academic generation ago. And, therefore, one must decide by which rules one wishes to play this game, what standards to set for oneself. For now, I consider myself a holdout. After numerous failed attempts to obtain financial support for my research from internal and external sources, I have made the decision that I could make better use of my time by self-funding my research endeavors, paying for supplies, small instruments, and minor repairs out of my own pocket. Because my research mainly involves laboratory-based within-subjects experiments, our sample sizes are typically small and our costs are relatively low. On the other hand, the time we save by not pursuing futile applications to places like the National Institutes of Health allows us the freedom to remain focused on the line of research we love, put our ideas to the test quickly, innovate, and maintain our high scientific standards, without having to compromise to appease reviewers who may not have the expertise or the experience to understand what we want to do and why. Of course, this "renegade" approach comes at a different type of price, which is why I certainly do not recommend it for early-career investigators. Because this approach prioritizes the advancement of science over diverting taxpayer dollars to the university, the university (any university, not just mine) has nothing but contempt for it. 

This deliberately chosen but admittedly unorthodox approach has had an interesting effect. I call it the phenomenon of the two distinct career trajectories. On the one hand, because I have remained research-active, publishing papers that are having an impact on my field, I have enjoyed recognition and appreciation by my peers, and especially by graduate students from around the world, more than I could have ever predicted given my humble beginnings and early struggles. I have traveled the world, teaching students from Canada to Brazil, from Denmark to Greece, and from Taiwan to Japan. On the other hand, within my university, my evaluations consistently place me just above the minimum that is expected based on the terms of my contract. Accordingly, all my applications for internal funding or nominations for awards are rejected. Although, initially, this pattern filled me with righteous indignation, followed by frustration or disappointment, it is a predictable and understandable phenomenon once you take into account what the criterion is: it's not about the science per se, it's about the monetization of science. The two are not the same, nor does the former necessarily entail the latter. In fact, it is often the case that, if the science advances beyond "mainstream" or the conventional concepts and methods, before everyone has the chance to catch up, that science — almost invariably — is condemned to being conducted without being appreciated and without grant support.

I often compare my situation to other scientists, who have made different career decisions, choosing instead to pursue what the universities want, namely money. These scientists spend all of their time writing grant applications, aiming to submit as many as possible each year. This is a rational approach given that it is common knowledge that the reliability of grant reviews is zero, to say nothing of the corruption. These scientists are divided in two categories. One category includes those who, despite submitting numerous applications, have no success. This scenario creates people who experience nothing but failure, since not only are they constantly rejected for funding but they also put their research lines on hold and thus drop their productivity to zero. Then, there is the much smaller category of those who experience the occasional, rare success. These scientists are widely celebrated on university campuses, become local celebrities, and are offered ample resources and political clout. They also appear to be happy and certainly project an air of confidence and intellectual superiority. But the price they pay is that, because they had to become opportunists in their pursuit of a grant (going wherever the wind blows), they do not maintain a consistent, focused line of research. So, they may have money and enjoy all the riches that their universities throw at their feet but often make little progress in shedding light on any particular scientific problem. This year, they may work on one question but, five years later, they have to switch to something different that happens to be considered "hip" within NIH circles. I have to say that I do not envy them and, most importantly, I just could not do what they do.

Although scientists with consistent, uninterrupted federal funding as Principal Investigators (PIs) throughout their careers used to be common, this pattern has become a rarity. These days, to be able to procure funding from the National Institutes of Health typically entails switching areas of research or going off on tangents. This kills the systematicity that was supposed to be at the core of the scientific method, proceeding methodically from one step to the next logical step in pursuit of answers. Although many researchers in the field of exercise science have funding, few of them have systematic lines of investigation and are making real, substantive progress towards solving a specific problem. So, looking at the big picture, I am satisfied that I am allowed to do science on my own terms, enjoying the rewards that my approach entails but also learning to accept the often hurtful consequences.

Sydney
In Sydney, Australia.

 

Recife
In Recife, Brazil.

 

Paris
In Paris, France.

 

Tokyo
In Tokyo, Japan.

 

Taipei
In Taipei, Taiwan.

 

Harvard
Attending a workshop on transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) at the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, at Harvard University Medical School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

 

Not only have I been able to travel the world, which someone with my background probably had no right to do, but I also have been fortunate enough to meet several (though certainly not all) scientists who inspired me as an undergraduate and graduate student. Looking back, it is hard to believe that my career led me to a point at which I had conversations over e-mail with Jim Russell and Bob Thayer before he passed. Through their writings, those two men taught me almost everything I know about the conceptualization and measurement of affect. Jim was kind enough to write the Foreword to my monograph. He wrote: "The book you hold in your hands is a powerful plea for a qualitative shift in the way research is conducted. It is a wise, thoughtful, and much needed guidebook for the transition from a pre-scientific to a scientific paradigm. If researchers read this book, they will be convinced, they will change their behavior, and their research will advance. I'm often asked to recommend a measure for emotion or mood, and I never have a simple answer. Now I do: Read Ekkekakis." Bob wrote: "This definitive book on measurement of affect, mood, and emotion is necessary reading for all scientists seeking to employ self-report assessments of these central concepts."

I cannot fathom that I had the chance to have a conversation with the late John Cacioppo about the circumplex model (he mostly told me I was wrong, but still). I cannot process the fact that Jim Blumenthal calls me a friend. It makes no sense that Lisa Feldman Barrett told me (in front of my grad students no less) that she's a "fan" of my work. It is beyond crazy that that Michel Cabanac, who wrote about the "Physiological Role of Pleasure" in Science when I was a toddler, now sends me messages to check how I'm doing and calls me "old man." I still cannot believe that Brad Hatfield, the person who wrote two of the most influential papers I read during my undergraduate studies (this one and this one) now knows me and, occasionally, even talks to me. I am in awe that my life's path has brought me to this point. It feels more like a fairy tale than reality. 


With Stuart Biddle
With Stuart Biddle, who has been a constant source of inspiration and support from the beginning of my career.

 

With Jim Blumenthal
With Jim Blumenthal, whose work on the effects of exercise on various aspects of mental health built the foundation of exercise psychology. 

 

With Michel Cabanac
With Michel Cabanac, an idol of mine, whose influence on my thinking about affective responses to exercise is immeasurable. The picture is from a week-long, invitation-only, workshop on the subject of "Pleasure," which took place in Lanzarote, Canary Islands (off the northwest coast of Africa), in October 2007.

 

With Lisa Feldman Barrett
With the brilliant and incredibly multi-talented Lisa Feldman Barrett, who is leading affective psychology in the 21st century.

 

Hatfield
With Brad Hatfield, whose pioneering papers on exercise and sport psychophysiology in the 1980s showed me what I wanted to be when I grew up.

 

I Min Lee
With the superhuman I-Min Lee, a towering figure in physical activity epidemiology and one of the most kindhearted people I have ever met.

 

Bob Eklund
With Bob Eklund, who came to my presentation at the Wingate Institute in Israel in 1997 and never gave up on guiding me and giving me his sage advice since. The picture was taken after my opening keynote lecture at the conference of the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC) in Bern, Switzerland, in 2015.

 

With Chuck Carver
With the unforgettable Chuck Carver, whose prolific writings greatly influenced my thinking on personality and emotion. 

 

With Michael Otto
With Michael Otto, who saw importance and innovation in my work, and has shown tremendous generosity in offering me opportunities. 

 

FEPSAC 2019
In the company of leaders in European sport and exercise psychology, who have delivered keynote lectures during the conferences of the European Federation of Sport Psychology (FEPSAC). At the 50-year celebration of the organization in Münster, Germany, in 2019.

 


In 2019, two powerful moments forced me to take stock of how far I've come in my career from the day I landed on US soil, 26 years earlier. The first was an invitation to speak at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences) in Washington, DC. The invitation was to speak on the psychological mechanisms underlying exercise adherence for a two-day workshop entitled "Incorporating the Experimental Medicine Approach in the Development of Primary Prevention Trials for Alzheimer's Disease," which was commissioned by the National Institute of Aging. The feeling of entering the Keck Center and speaking to a gathering of some of the nation's leading experts on Alzheimer's Disease was indescribable. 


NASEM
At the entrance of the Keck Center of the National Academies on October 10, 2019. 

 

NASEM 2
The synopsis slide from the workshop entitled "Incorporating the Experimental Medicine Approach in the Development of Primary Prevention Trials for Alzheimer's Disease." The representatives of the National Institute of Aging were convinced that affect is a key (albeit overlooked) mediator of exercise adherence.

 

 


The other, perhaps even more powerful moment came on September 14, 2019 in Bellevue, Washington. After a nomination and election process, I was invited to join the National Academy of Kinesiology as an Active Fellow. This is the highest professional honor in the field of Kinesiology. I received the number #585. Reading the list of the 584 fellows that came before me over the 90-year history of the Academy is dizzying and deeply humbling for a kid that migrated to the United States with $400 and two suitcases. As Jenny Etnier congratulated me, she said: "I know your dad is watching and he's proud of you."

 


NAK, September 2019
Induction into the National Academy of Kinesiology, the highest professional honor of my career. From left to right: Prof. Howard Zelaznik, Prof. Bradley Cardinal (President of the National Academy of Kinesiology), yours truly, Prof. Steven Petruzzello, Prof. Jennifer Etnier, Prof. Edmund Acevedo, and Prof. Alan Smith. Additional sponsor not pictured here: Prof. Jeffrey Martin

 

NAK
The medal of the National Academy of Kinesiology, with my name and the number #585 on the back.

 


Of course, without any doubt, the most important, and most challenging, project of my life has been my family. The difficult truth is that daddy returns home at 10:15 pm every night, seven days a week, and even later during the summer months. And, therefore, being an adequate father and partner is difficult. It stretches the meaning of the phrase "quality time." The time we do have together is indeed "quality time" but the question is how much quality is needed to offset the lack of quantity. One thing is for sure: our home is filled with love all the time and with laughter most of the time. Spyridoula and I are raising two beautiful, happy, and healthy kids, with good hearts and a sense of humor. We are hopeful that our parenting will bear fruit and we'll be fortunate to see them grow up to be happy adults who are kind and respectful of others. That would be the true definition of success in life.


Family