Michael Puglisi has come full circle. Having received his PhD in nutritional sciences from UConn in 2008, he worked in research labs in Nashville, Tennessee, and on public health initiatives in Brooklyn, New York, and North Carolina. Now he is returning to UConn as an assistant extension professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and coordinating the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) for the state of Connecticut.
Where did you get your degrees?
I received my BS degree in dietetics from the University of Delaware, my MS in nutrition in sports and chronic disease from Virginia Tech and my PhD at UConn in nutritional sciences. It’s good to be back at UConn!
What did you do before you came to UConn?
I went through the whole spectrum of the field of nutrition. After graduating from UConn, I went to Vanderbilt University and completed a post-doc in inflammation and the effects on insulin sensitivity and how different dietary fatty acids affect that. So, I went from human research to animal and cell research.
Then I started getting involved in volunteering and activism in regards to public health. I wanted to make an immediate impact so I left lab science and moved to Brooklyn, where I became a site manager for the WIC program there. I also did nutritional counseling. I spent three years there.
After that, I moved to North Carolina and began working for Onslow County as a WIC director. There are about a 100 counties in the state and we were the eighth largest, by participation rates, so it was a big program but very different from the urban environment of New York City. Through that I got more administrative and public health experience but I started to miss academia.
I was speaking to Dr. [Maria Luz] Fernandez, who was my advisor when I worked with on my doctorate, and she mentioned the opening and I felt it was a perfect way to combine my interests and do applied research that would have a direct influence.
What will your work here at UConn focus on?
I’ll be coordinating the EFNEP program, so I’ll start by getting familiar with the way the program is currently administered and try to provide support and adjustments. Coming from the WIC program, which is very policy-based, EFNEP has more flexibility in fine-tuning aspects of it to the population. EFNEP tries to reach the people most in need, low income families, and help improve their nutrition. It’s a paraprofessional format and that helps educators better relate to participants in the program. EFNEP is based on practicality, so it’s teaching people how to cook, how to shop, how to buy foods on a budget in order to help reduce obesity and foster an environment where families eat together. The hands-on practical application is important but I want to work in more online components, reaching people where they get information and where they want information, and a lot of that is through technology. There are some obstacles but as long as there are reinforcements to ensure participation and accountability, it can help people track their habits. Given the ability to collaborate at UConn, it would be nice to look into the possibility of adding those digital components alongside the application of all the knowledge and research going on into the curriculum of the program.
Name one aspect of your work that you really like.
It’s not only what I enjoy the most but it’s what’s most difficult: reaching the people that need help the most. That’s what drove me to the WIC program and now EFNEP. People need help making choices and changes and in their circumstances wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to get that information and knowledge. I don’t remember getting any nutritional education until I started specifically taking those classes. This is something where even basic information can be new and life-changing to people. With the structure of this program, I want to make it easier to enact changes and help people start to take those steps, even if they are small ones. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get directly to the people who already have a lot of cards stacked against them.
Is there anything else we should know about you?
I got into nutrition because I was a runner. I ran in high school and college. I wanted to compete and now, on a personal level, I find I’m racing against LDL cholesterol and blood sugar instead of against others.
I’m a big fan of tea. I also love 90’s hip hop and cats. My interests are random but I think maybe if I wasn’t doing all this then I’d be running a tea shop somewhere with hip hop playing and cats walking around everywhere!