After Lauren Pulliam graduated from Winston Salem State University in 2013 with a degree in exercise physiology, she opened a gym called No Limits Training Center in Pfafftown, North Carolina. As the head trainer and strength coach, she develops personalized workout programs for her clients, drawing heavily from the principles she learned from WSSU associate professor Michael McKenzie.
“He’s an amazing instructor,” Pulliam said. “I can’t brag about him enough. He helped me to understand the physiology of the body a lot better, and I’m able to pay it forward. When my athletes ask me, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I’m able to explain in detail, ‘Here’s what you’re doing, and here’s why.’ I’m more confident when I teach.”
The University of North Carolina Board of Governors awarded McKenzie the 2015 Excellence in Teaching award for WSSU. Since 1993, the board has offered annual excellence in teaching awards, which come with a $12,500 stipend and a bronze medallion, to one professor at each of the 17 UNC institutions. The board intends the awards to encourage, support and reward good teaching, which members see as the primary responsibility of North Carolina’s public universities and the NC School of Science and Math, the country’s first public, residential high school for gifted students.
Raised outside of Niagara Falls, New York, McKenzie moved to Raleigh for high school. Growing up, he played sports — basketball, baseball and football — and in college at Appalachian State University, he worked as the student athletic trainer for the field hockey and track teams.
He received his bachelor’s degree in athletic training from App State in 1999, a master’s degree in exercise physiology from the University of Florida in 2002 and a Ph.D. in exercise physiology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2006.
In 2007, he joined the WSSU faculty, where he now teaches exercise physiology, training and performance, field experience and sports supplements. He enjoys working at the school because the college experience means so much to so many students.
“Being at a school where we have so many first-generation students, there’s a deep sense of appreciation when students make it,” McKenzie said. “For a lot of students, graduating from college is not just a life-changing event for them, but for their entire family. They really have the opportunity to lead the way.”
Investing in Students
McKenzie believes in building rapport and trust with each and every student. At the beginning of each course, he meets with each student individually to discuss their goals, and throughout the year, he circulates through campus, stopping by student hangouts and club meetings to say hello.
“At the end of the day, it’s about building relationships,” McKenzie said. “Students tend to do better if they don’t want to disappoint their instructor. I want to have a level of trust with students, where they think, ‘This class is really hard, but I appreciate you’re invested in me, and I want to return the favor to you.’”
Josh Edwards, who graduated from the exercise physiology program in 2013, describes McKenzie as personable, laid back and full of laughter and said he appreciated the professor’s efforts to draw him in and get to know him.
“That was really beneficial to my education — not just listening to some stranger for two hours a day telling me something I might need to know, but listening to someone who would go the extra mile. He didn’t cherry pick students; he would give everybody help.”
Dr. Carolynn Berry, associate provost for assessment, research and curriculum and a professor of exercise science, describes McKenzie as an “all-around nice guy who exemplifies what we expect from our best faculty in terms of teaching, scholarship and service.”
“He gets the equity-minded philosophy upon which our mission is built,” Berry said. “He has high expectations for students and goes out of his way to make sure that they are supported both in and out of the classroom so they are successful. He really believes in the work we do with and for our students and goes above and beyond what is required to help them succeed.”
Pulliam, too, said the most impressive aspect of McKenzie’s approach is his level of caring.
“His door is always open,” she said. “You can come to him with any questions, and he will explain it to you until you understand it. You can tell he cares about his students.”
The associate dean of student research since August, McKenzie involves students in his research as much as possible. He focuses his research on the effects of oxidative stress, or the stress the body undergoes during exercise, and on high-intensity training, or short, intense bursts of exercise.
Over the years, he has published more than 20 articles in journals such as Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise and the Journal of Applied Physiology and presented more than 35 lectures and symposiums at professional meetings.
Because undergraduate students are essential to carrying out his studies, they have the opportunity to learn deeply.
“We work through every step of the research process,” McKenzie said. “It’s not like having students come in and be a research assistant; you could train anybody to do that. It’s really bringing them in and explaining, ‘Here is an IRB [Institutional Review Board proposal for the use of human subjects]; here’s how we write an IRB; here’s how we’re going to test this question; here’s why we have to do it this way. Here’s how we collect data; here’s how we code data; here’s how we run an experiment.’ It’s really a mentoring thing rather than just being research advisors.”
During her time at WSSU, Pulliam participated in one of McKenzie’s research projects, which compared the effects of a high-intensity workout like CrossFit with a 30-minute run, and presented the findings at the American College of Sports Medicine conference.
“When I read about VO2 max, I didn’t really understand it,” Pulliam said. “But once I was able to do the study and really see what happens in the body when you reach that peak, I really learned how our bodies respond to different exercises.”
McKenzie also encourages student research by chairing the committee that organizes Scholarship Day, during which students showcase the research in which they’re engaged. While the exercise physiology department originated the event, it has since spread to encompass the entire university. Last year, nearly 150 students presented.
“It’s one of those things, students clearly will do this if you give them the opportunity to step up,” McKenzie said. “Everyone benefits.”
In all of his teaching and mentoring, McKenzie says he tries to focus on principles and process over content.
“It’s tough to train students with knowledge, because it will be outdated 10 years from when they graduate,” he said. “I’m more interested in trying to make them problem solve and think and practice their writing, because those are skills that will stay with them.
“We need to make sure we’re not preparing students with content, but how to be thinkers and doers and leaders.”
Written by Christina Cooke, freelance writer
Photos by Garret Garms, Winston-Salem State University
Published December 7, 2015