Julie and Bryan Brunelle
When they graduated from Alma in 2000, Julie Tolles Brunelle and Bryan Brunelle had no idea that their paths would take them so far so quickly. Known to some as “BryanandJulie” while at Alma, the inseparable couple married in Dunning Memorial Chapel shortly after graduation. A mere five years later, they enjoy tremendous professional success — Julie as a research technician at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Baltimore, and Bryan as a second-year graduate student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the University of Maryland.
The Brunelles’ paths could have been quite different. As seniors at Alma, they were undecided about attending graduate school and tentatively planned to stay in Michigan after graduation. Then Julie was accepted to The Johns Hopkins University Graduate School in Baltimore. The two-year program “sounded like a great opportunity to get research experience and to find out if I wanted a Ph.D.,” says Julie, who after visiting the University eagerly accepted the offer.
Bryan followed Julie to the east coast, where he became a personal trainer at a renowned health club in Maryland. There, Bryan “really enjoyed the one-on-one relationship with clients,” but realized that he wanted to know more about the mechanics behind the exercise. Reflecting on his courses in physiology and anatomy helped Bryan realize that he “wanted to do more than personal training.” The guidance of his professors and mentors Dr. John Davis and Dr. Karen Ball was also instrumental. Looking back now, Bryan affirms that “the decision to become a physical therapist was definitely God-led.”
Julie Brunelle at work in the research lab.
While Bryan followed his calling to physical therapy school, Julie was on the path to scientific discovery at Johns Hopkins. While there, she began working for a scientist doing research for HHMI, the nation’s largest private supporter of biomedical research and science education. After proving herself in a support scientist position, Julie became a research technician for HHMI — a position usually held by researchers far her senior. Since then, she has more than proven her scientific prowess. A ground-breaking study Julie and another graduate student conducted on ribosome and peptide bond formations was published in the May 2004 edition of Cell, a leading journal in the biomedical field. Julie isn’t one to rest on her laurels, however. The results of her work on an individual research project will soon appear in the journal RNA. Despite her accomplishments, the Alma graduate downplays her success and the prestige of her position, preferring instead to discuss her passion. “I just love doing the science,” she says.
While Julie plays in the big leagues of biomedical research, Bryan faces other challenges in the grind of physical therapy school. During the first two years of the University of Maryland’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, graduate students gain the technical knowledge for their trade in the classroom. The final year of the program consists of a series of clinical internships that allow students to apply their knowledge in an instructional setting. Finishing the second year of the graduate program, Bryan remarks that thus far “it’s certainly been tough, but very worthwhile.”
Graduation may be several months away, but with his degree Bryan hopes to pursue his interests in pediatric physical therapy, manual physical therapy or massage. A very hands-on person, Bryan says, “I like the idea of helping people with my hands; it’s so fulfilling, so fun to see patients get better.” He feels particularly drawn to children — the reason for his interest in pediatric physical therapy. In an upcoming 12-week clinical internship, Bryan will work in a school with a team of parents, teachers, a counselor, and an occupational therapist to help children with conditions like cerebral palsy or spina bifida have as much function as possible while learning. In this capacity, Bryan sees himself as an advocate for children with limited physical capabilities. As a pediatric physical therapist, “You’re being their voice in the schools, getting them the treatment they need, and ensuring the environment they need to function and learn,” he says.
Bryan dissects a specimen in one of his graduate labs
Bryan feels that his experiences at Alma prepared him directly for his career path. Coming from one of the few small liberal arts colleges with a full cadaver dissection laboratory, Bryan was well ahead of his fellow physical therapy classmates from the outset. He felt that Alma’s physiology and anatomy courses prepared him particularly well for the rigors of graduate school. Bryan also enjoys the continued support of Alma faculty, who ask him how to better gear courses toward preparing future graduate students for what lies ahead.
Like Bryan, Julie values the research opportunities she had as a biochemistry major at Alma, saying that her undergraduate independent research project prepared her directly for her career. In fact, Julie insists that the lab work involved in her courses and research “inspired me to do what I’m doing now.” The encouragement of her former professors also means a lot to Julie as she makes her own mark on the realm of science.
In addition to the knowledge and technical skills gained at Alma, the Brunelles believe that their participation in extracurricular activities as undergraduates helped them get where they are today. As president of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, Julie “learned to be a good communicator, to build people up, and to learn from every experience,” whereas Bryan feels that living on campus helped him learn “to build relationships and communicate well” — abilities vital to the one-on-one doctor-patient contact he will experience as a physical therapist.
Brian and Julie’s professional and personal endeavors are shaped by inspiration. Both are instilled with a desire to serve, evidenced by their involvement in many community service activities, including Habitat for Humanity, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Helping Up Mission, a Christian-based shelter helping to educate men in Baltimore. Julie especially enjoys volunteering for the Community Science Day program, a project designed to expose inner-city children to science. The Brunelles are also very involved with their church, where they lead a Bible study for young couples and help with young adult ministry. In addition, Bryan sings with the church’s contemporary praise band, while Julie has been involved with the children’s ministry as a Sunday school teacher and organizer of special events. The couple’s involvement in their church and community has been “incredibly rewarding.” While many neglect to serve, Julie says her family helped her understand the value of volunteerism. “My parents’ example of giving their time to help others is what inspires me,” she says.
In addition to parental influence, Julie and Bryan acknowledge the contributions professors have made to their development. As an undergraduate, Julie feels blessed to have had professors who “helped me combine my passions and my gifts” — a sentiment echoed by Bryan. While they’ve come a long way in their short five years since Alma, the pair remain humble, saying, “We’ve always had big hopes and dreams, but we didn’t necessarily know this would be our path.” Though the Brunelles downplay their success, they have clearly begun to make their mark on the world.