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A Tool Box for Day-to-Day Success

September 18, 2017

It’s pretty common to hear from young people that they have an idea of what they will study in college before they go. But it’s likely that they might change their major at least once after they get there. That was the case with Michael Bruneau, Jr., PhD, a relatively new assistant teaching professor in the Department of Health Sciences.

In 2005, Bruneau started his studies at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) as a history major with the hope of teaching psychology in high school—it was suggested that he would be more employable with a history degree with some specialization in psychology. He ended up changing his major three times before he found something that really piqued his interest. He played football in high school and a little in college and had an interest in personal training and exercise,Michael Bruneau, Jr., PhD specifically as it related to clinical populations. After some searching, he found exercise science through his mentor and now good friend Sean Walsh, PhD, professor of physical education and human performance. “Something clicked for me around 2007. I said ‘that’s what I’m supposed to be doing’,” Bruneau shared. While working on his undergraduate degree, he decided to become a certified personal trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine and was able to get a job with a large chain health club. The need for personal trainers at this club was low, so he worked more on the operational side and by the age of 19, Bruneau became the assistant general manager. Working 80 to 100 hours a week while going to school wasn’t sustainable, but what he was doing in class translated well into the club and, ultimately, what led him to exercise science.

He graduated in 2010 and connected with Linda Pescatello, PhD, professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut (UCONN). “I did my internship with Dr. Pescatello as I was transitioning out from CCSU and got offered a graduate assistantship in her lab, which is from where I graduated in 2013. I found it to be a valuable experience because I got to work on a lot of NIH R01 research trials with her,” he said. When he entered Springfield College to begin his doctoral work in 2013, Bruneau was confident in the experience he accumulated in research. Where he felt he needed additional education was in physiological mechanisms. “I knew exercise was important to treat chronic disease, but I was having a hard time verbalizing and connecting how that happened—how exercise causes the biology to change positively,” Bruneau articulated. By the time he finished his work at Springfield in 2016, all the gaps, for him, had been filled. He was ready to begin his first teaching position at Drexel University.

When it comes to the health sciences, it’s important to have people look beyond the program as pre-physician assistant or pre-physical therapy though that seems to be the intent of a large number of CNHP students. A health sciences degree is a broad-based science degree that gives students many options when they graduate. “It’s not necessarily a generalist degree because you can get a job, maybe as a research coordinator or clinical associate, or work on a grant right out of college,” Bruneau explained. “There are many avenues which students can take and co-op can help them figure out what they like and don’t like.” He also commented that if a co-op reveals a job that is not what you expected, you won’t be behind. “It’s just a shift in their focus. It’s why I think health sciences is like a science liberal arts degree,” he said. And it’s why co-op is so important. Co-op provides a valuable experience for all Drexel students and it’s one of the things that attracted Bruneau. Reflecting on his own experience before coming to Drexel, his students asked, time and again, how they could stand out more on graduate school applications. “You need to have academics to back it up, but if all you’ve got are grades and you don’t bring anything else to the table, I would say that’s not the type of person I would want,” he cautioned as someone with former hiring experience. Being competitive means having meaningful engagement and relevant work experience. And that work experience, for Drexel Co-op students, is a pre-requisite for graduation. “To be able to take learned content into the workforce after six months then flip back to the classroom, I think, shows the quality of student and their grit,” Bruneau remarked. He said that students mature and learn a lot about responsibilities beyond themselves during this time.

A claim Bruneau made about student success was that becoming involved with a profession’s organization early on is a key factor. It was through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) that he found Stella Lucia Volpe, PhD. Now the chair of CNHP’s nutrition sciences department, she had been working at University of Massachusetts Amherst and part of the New England regional chapter of ACSM where he served as the processing coordinator under the tutelage of Dino Costanzo, MS and executive director of the NEACSM chapter. “It's really important to realize that if you are, let’s say, a physician assistant aspiree, you should join your professional organization, American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA), at least, if not on the national level, on the regional level, and try to become more engaged in learning how you can become informed and optimally fulfilled in the profession,” Bruneau remarked. It’s helped him immeasurably throughout this journey and his passion for exercise and his relationship with Volpe has helped open up a few doors.

The research Bruneau has been involved with, while it covers an expanse of populations, has a common tie—the effects of exercise. He considers himself an interventionalist, more specifically, a clinical exercise physiologist. “I've worked with people with substance use disorders (SUDs) and people with HIV. I've worked with people with hypertension and now and chronic kidney disease. So using this intervention, for a lot of different populations, allows me to pivot pretty nicely,” he said. In 2007, the ACSM and the American Medical Association (AMA) came out with a new initiative. Exercise is Medicine calls for physicians to advocate the use of exercise and lifestyle measures as first-line, non-pharmacological therapies to treat chronic disease before medication becomes necessary. “I consider myself very much subscribed to that Exercise is Medicine approach because I really think—yeah, exercise might not control your body weight, but it might control your blood pressure, right?” When it comes to exercise, there are a variety of opinions, many of them all or nothing. Bruneau is interested in research that could identify what the minimum effective dose is to get most of the benefit—much like the Pareto 80/20 principle. “What's the 20% effort that I can put in to get 80% of the benefit, right? I think people are very binary. They say, ‘Well, I know that the recommendations are 150 to 300 minutes a week, so that's what I've got to do.’ When they don’t meet that expectation, they quit the program within six months,” he noted. Bruneau went on to say that physical activity guidelines previously established, for 2018, will be updated to be more focused on evidenced based exercise prescriptions for different populations.

Now that he and Volpe find themselves at the same college at the same university, Bruneau has been able to join her on some of her projects. “I serve primarily as a committee member on many of her master’s and doctoral students’ theses and dissertations. She had gotten a large grant from Independence Blue Cross a few years back for the Healthy Futures Study. I’ve worked on that. We are taking some time to look at some of the data she's gathered from a study here in Philadelphia,” Bruneau explained. (Called the athlete’s study, Volpe recruits and performs some block food frequency questionnaire type-data along with VO2 Max fitness based testing in different tiers of athletes.) And now that it’s official, he’s been offered a courtesy appointment in Volpe’s department because of all the projects on which they’re collaborating.

You’re not alone in wondering how Bruneau manages all these ventures (and some that aren’t even mentioned here). He follows some general principles he feels helps him with balance, something he lacked in graduate school. “I noticed I was happier when I started implementing things other people did routinely. I've recently read Tim Ferriss' Tools for Titans and have sort of picked some of the things he writes about out that I think really help set me up for my day.” His go-tos are daily physical exercise, understanding expectations, planning his day out, mindfulness/meditation practice, reading a book for pleasure (hey, even if it’s one page a day, the goal is moving forward) and daily writing. These are also recommendations he gives his students when asked. He’ll add to that that it’s good practice to work backwards on things, like papers, so you don’t get to the day before something’s due and just then wondering what you should write about. And lastly, and he wanted this clearly recorded, “I cannot stress enough how important it is to strategically find good mentors who will put you in a position to be successful. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for some of my mentors along the way,” Bruneau avowed. “And I could tell you key people along the way, to this day, I still keep in touch with. They're not superiors anymore, they've become my personal friends.”

When Bruneau thinks about the future, he first recalls his immediate past. His first year at Drexel flew by faster than he expected and he’s equally amazed at what he’s been able to accomplish in less than twelve months. “I never thought I would have a courtesy appointment or be involved with so many theses and dissertations. I’m very fortunate to even have been asked.” He wants to continue moving his research lines forward which would include applying for grants through possibly the NIH or American Heart Association. “I really also want to continue to develop the exercise science concentration into a minor to offer more classes for our students to engage in and I want to continue being a quality educator,” Bruneau explained.


Things I like or would recommend:

Book: Anything by Seth Godin or Tim Ferriss

TV: I’m a big fan of Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm

Podcast: Reply All and the Tim Ferriss Experiment


By Roberta Sheronas Perry