2019 University Scholars

Congratulations to the 2019 University Scholars!


Marlene Abouaassi

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Sociology
Project Title: Study of Putative Niche Adapting Operon in Microbes Inhabiting the Gut of Blood Digesting Animals
Committee: J. Peter Gogarten, Molecular and Cell Biology (chair); Joerg Graf, Molecular and Cell Biology; Simon Cheng, Sociology

Project Summary: Genomic islands, also called pathogenicity islands, contain niche adapting genes that are horizontally transferred to aid microorganisms in adapting to their environments and selective pressures. The focus of my work is examining the gene operon found on a genomic island that encodes for enzymes that breakdown sialic acid in sanguivorous animals. The operon facilitates the survival and propagation of bacteria in the presence of erythrocytes. This project will examine how the acquisition of the operon genes found in microbes allow specific bacterial lineages to utilize sialic acid as an alternative source of carbon and nitrogen for growth.

Marlene Abouaassi is a third year honors student pursuing a B.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology and Sociology and a M.S. in Microbiology. She is the president of the undergraduate Molecular and Cell Biology Club and holds officer positions in Partners in Health Engage, 500 Women Scientists, and Middle Eastern Student Association. She is pursuing a career in clinical research and medicine.

Luke Anderson

Major: Anthropology and Nutritional Sciences
Project Title: Cultural Food Habits as a Social Factor of Health Among Iraqi Migrants in New Haven, Connecticut: A Focused Ethnographic Study
Committee: Pamela Erickson, Anthropology (chair); Michael Puglisi, Nutritional Sciences; Kathryn Libal, Human Rights Institute

Project Summary: Health disparities in diet-related diseases such as type II diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease are well documented in refugee and immigrant populations across areas in the Western world where they have been resettled. In order to best address these predispositions, culturally sensitive preventative health interventions have been implemented in an effort to improve health outcomes in these populations. However, when it comes to nutrition interventions, it’s rare that they are strongly culturally grounded. This project will work with local immigrants to relate their perceptions of the nutrition of the food they eat to how this food is grounded in their cultural identity.

Luke Anderson is pursuing degrees in Anthropology and Nutritional Sciences with a minor in Mathematics. He works in the Honors Program as a Guide for Peer Success (GPS), a peer mentor for Honors students under the program’s new requirements, and in the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) as a health-social psychology research assistant. He hopes to join the Peace Corps before graduate school and pursuing a career in activism and public health.

Sarah Arnett

Major: Cognitive Science and Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences
Project Title: Evaluating the Verbal Language Use of People with Aphasia in Non-Clinical Settings: A Feasibility Study Using LENA Technology
Committee: Jennifer Mozeiko, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (chair); Nairan Ramirez-Esparza, Psychological Sciences; Carl Coelho, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences and Cognitive Science

Project Summary: Aphasia is a language disorder that impacts a person’s ability to produce and comprehend language, usually acquired after a stroke. The communication that takes place in the person with aphasia’s home environment is thought to be instrumental to the recovery process. However, there is currently no objective measure of this; previous investigations have relied on rating scales and self-report. This project will pilot the use of the Language Environment Analysis (LENA) program to more objectively assess the verbal language of people with aphasia in their home environments. We predict that the results will hold significant implications for issues such as communication partner training, self-perception of language, and our understanding of the recovery process.

Sarah Arnett is an honors student from Denver, CO majoring in COGS and SLHS. Her experience conducting research in the Aphasia Rehab Lab has greatly influenced her career aspirations; after graduation, she hopes to obtain a Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and to work clinically with people with neurogenic communication disorders.

Klara Doci

Major: Physiology and Neurobiology
Project Title: Differential Effects Between Epilepsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder KCNQ2 Pathogenic Variants
Committee: Anastasios Tzingounis, Physiology and Neurobiology (chair); Daniel Mulkey, Physiology and Neurobiology; Randall Walikonis, Physiology and Neurobiology

Project Summary: KCNQ2 channels, potassium channels ubiquitously expressed in the brain, play an important role in controlling neuronal excitability. Their significance is highlighted by the increasing number of KCNQ2 mutations identified in patients with brain disorders such as epilepsy and autism. Most of the identified mutations lead to a loss of KCNQ2 channel function. A hotspot of mutations are within the gating and pore region of KCNQ2 channels. However, the functional effects of these mutations have is unclear. The goal of this project is to (i) determine the effects of KCNQ2 mutations within the gating-pore module and (ii) to identify ways to boost the activity of the dysfunctional channels, possibly rescuing the KCNQ2 channel activity.

Klara Doci is a Physiology and Neurobiology major from Hartford, CT originally from Tirana, Albania. Klara volunteers as an EMT in Wethersfield, CT and she is planning to attend medical school after graduation.

Caitlin Foster

Major: Biological Sciences
Project Title: The Genetic Architecture of Pollinator-Associated Floral Traits in Monkey Flowers
Committee: Yaowu Yuan, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (chair); Pamela Diggle, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Bernard Goffinet, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Project Summary: The goal of this project is to investigate the underlying genetic architecture controlling the characteristic floral trait differences between two species of closely related monkeyflowers, Mimulus parishii and Mimulus cardinalis.  This project focuses on differences in flower color and size of different floral structures, such as pistil length and stamen length. Understanding the genetic causes of these differences can help develop the understanding of speciation and diversification of the more than 300,000 flowering plant species.

Caitlin Foster is an honors student from Glastonbury, CT majoring in Biological Sciences and conducting research in the Yuan Laboratory.  Caitlin is the Event Coordinator for the UConn American Sign Language Club and is a member of the Phi Sigma Pi National Honors Fraternity. After graduation, Caitlin plans to attend medical school.

Chelsea Garcia

Major: Nutritional Sciences
Project Title: The Effects of Bacterial Lipid, Lipid 654, on Neuroinflammation
Committee: Christopher N. Blesso, Nutritional Sciences (chair); Alison B. Kohan, Nutritional Sciences; Ji-Young Lee, Nutritional Sciences

Project Summary: The gut microbiota may regulate the neuroimmune response through the production of inflammatory molecules. Serine dipeptide lipids produced from oral and gut bacteria have been associated with inflammation in periodontal disease and atherosclerosis, however there is little research on their effects on neuroinflammation. The goal of this project is to determine effects of Lipid 654, a type of serine dipeptide lipid, on neuroinflammation in a diet-induced mouse model of chronic inflammation. This project is expected to provide evidence on the causality of this class of lipid in neuroinflammation.

Chelsea Garcia is a third year McNair Scholar majoring in Nutritional Sciences with a concentration in biochemistry and a Spanish minor from Alpine, New Jersey. She spent her first summer learning to conduct research as a McNair fellow and Bridging the Gap fellow at UConn. The following year, she spent the spring semester studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is a peer mentor for a STEM research First Year Experience course and The Major Experience (TME) mentor for Nutritional Sciences. After graduation, she intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Molecular Nutrition.

Ariane Garrett

Major: Biomedical Engineering and Spanish
Project Title: Development of a Novel Cerebral Spinal Fluid Shunt to Measure Flow
Committee: Kazunori Hoshino, Biomedical Engineering (chair); Sabato Santaniello, Biomedical Engineering; Gustavo Nanclares, Literatures, Cultures, and Languages

Project Summary: Hydrocephalus is the build up of fluid in the ventricles of the brain, resulting in pain, brain damage, and death if left untreated. The current standard of treatment for hydrocephalus is a cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) shunt that is implanted into the brain. However, these shunts are prone to breakage and there is currently no means of easily evaluating flow through the shunt. My project will focus on testing a novel CSF shunt capable of measuring flow in vivo. In addition, I will continue the development of the device, including making the device fully biocompatible and preparing for animal testing.

Ariane Garrett is an honors student from Pleasant Valley, NY. She is pursuing a dual degree in Biomedical Engineering and Spanish, and has been working in the Hoshino Laboratory since the spring of her freshman year. Outside of the lab, Ariane is passionate about expanding access to technology and works toward this goal as a member of Engineers Without Borders.

Analyse Giordano

Major: Allied Health Sciences
Project Title: Increasing the Longevity of Fully Implantable Continuous Glucose Monitors Using Biocompatible Ceramic Nanoparticles and Nanotexturing
Committee: Steven L. Suib, Institute of Material Sciences and Chemistry (chair); Jessica Rouge, Chemistry; Valerie B. Duffy, Allied Health Sciences

Project Summary: Diabetes Mellitus is one of the top ten deadliest diseases in the nation, affecting the body’s ability to release insulin and regulate blood glucose (BG) levels. BG levels can become difficult to manually monitor and regulate without continuous data. While continuous glucose monitors (CGMS) are a widely available solution to this issue, these monitors are only FDA approved in the body for one year due to biofouling. My project will explore the effects of nanotexturing on bioceramics in order to increase the longevity of these devices in the body.  Through nanotexturing techniques, CGM casings will mimic the texture of human bone and will be less susceptible to biofouling caused by macrophage fibrous encapsulation.

Analyse Giordano is an Allied Health Sciences major from Westchester, NY. Analyse is passionate about promoting community health and leads the Bridge to Guanin alternative break. After graduation, she plans to receive a Master’s Degree in Health Promotion Sciences in order to pursue non-profit work before attending medical school.

CarsonLee Harper

Major: English and History
Project Title: Reimagining Medieval Scandinavia Through Historical Fiction
Committee: Ellen Litman, English (chair); Frederick Biggs, English; Sherri Olson, History

Project Summary: Vikings have been a fascinating subject for both fictional works and historical research for many years, their raiding escapades and rich mythology find its way into our books, movies, and TV shows time and time again. I aim to write a historical fiction novel that not only captures what we have found so captivating about these Medieval Scandinavian inhabitants in the past but also explores the world of women and children that is underrepresented much of the time. It is my hope to combine immersive story-telling with factual historical evidence in my book as I explore themes of gender, sacrifice, justice, and religion as they relate to both average and extraordinary examples of the Scandinavian people. 

CarsonLee Harper is an honors double major in History and English with a minor in Medieval Studies and a concentration in Creative Writing. Through her courses, she has developed an interest in Norse mythology and Medieval Scandinavia. After graduation she hopes to continue her education with the intention of becoming a professor. 

Kara Heilemann

Major: Pathobiology and Nutritional Sciences
Project Title: Novel Antimicrobial Peptide Site-Specific Activation by Proteolytic Cleavage
Committee: Alfredo Angeles-Boza, Chemistry (chair); Paulo Verardi, Pathobiology; Yanchao Luo, Nutritional Sciences

Project Summary: The increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria has become a worldwide concern as many conventional antibiotics have been rendered ineffective; therefore, the development of novel antibiotic therapies is a necessity. One class of molecules known as antimicrobial peptides (AMPs) has potential as novel therapeutics due to their broad-spectrum activity; however, their use has been limited due to toxicity to eukaryotic cells. My project aims to reduce AMP toxicity by designing a pro-drug AMP with increased selectivity through pathogen-specific proteolytic activation. In order to do test this, the project will target Staphylococcus aureus, a significant and increasingly resistant pathogen.

Kara Heilemann is from Brooklyn, CT and is pursuing degrees in Pathobiology and Nutritional Sciences. She is President of Alpha Zeta, the CAHNR professional society, and enjoys hiking with her dogs, gardening, and cooking. She plans to continue investigating infectious disease to reduce further resistance development and diminish outbreak potential.

Saurabh Kumar

Major: Physiology and Neurobiology
Project Title: Developmental Changes to Brain Stem Cell Niche in Fetal-Onset Hydrocephalus
Committee: Joanne Conover, Physiology and Neurobiology (chair); Thomas Peters, Computer Science and Engineering; David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology

Project Summary: Fetal-onset hydrocephalus is a common human birth defect characterized by abnormal expansion of the brain’s ventricles. Expanded ventricles likely alter functions of the brain’s stem cell niche which lies subjacent to the lateral ventricles. Using a multidisciplinary approach – analyzing archival brain tissue histology via immunofluorescence staining and ventricle volumetric changes via MRI segmentation – this project aims to characterize cellular reorganization patterns of the neural stem cell niche in response to hydrocephalic ventricle surface area and curvature changes. Using statistical/computational modeling, this project will then analyze the utility of non-invasive ventricular anatomy measurements as a predictor of stem cell niche—to assist hydrocephalus diagnosis.

Saurabh Kumar is a Physiology & Neurobiology major and Statistics minor from North Andover, MA. He is a researcher in the Conover Lab aspiring to become an MD/PhD physician-researcher. Outside of the lab, Saurabh is an avid clarinetist in the UConn Symphonic Band and Co-President of the UConn Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program (KDSAP).

Emmalyn Lecky

Major: Psychological Sciences and Biological Sciences
Project Title: Evaluating the Neuroprotective Effects of Pharmacologic Hypothermia on Blast-Induced Traumatic Brain Injury: An Animal Model
Committee: Ephraim Trakhtenberg, Neuroscience, UConn Health (chair); Joanne Conover, Physiology and Neurobiology; Ian Stevenson, Psychological Sciences

Project Summary: Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a serious and widespread problem, as more than 10 million new cases of TBI occur each year. TBI can result in lifelong impairment since axons in the central nervous system fail to regenerate following an injury. One treatment that protects axons following TBI is hypothermia. However, current hypothermic treatments need improvement as they require a complex administration process and result in a slow onset of temperature. This project aims to investigate a novel pharmacologic hypothermic agent as a treatment to protect axons following blast-induced TBI in mice, through behavioral and histological analysis.

Emmalyn Lecky is an Honors Student and Presidential Scholar from Middletown, CT double majoring in Psychological Sciences and Biological Sciences and minoring in Mathematics and Neuroscience. Outside of academics, she is the vice president of UConn NOW, a volunteer tutor at Windham High School, and a mentor in the WiSTEM Mentoring Program. After graduation, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Neuroscience.

Daniel McCloskey

Major: Anthropology
Project Title: Brothers as Men: Masculinity, Homosociality, and Men’s Violence among Fraternity Men
Committee: Jocelyn Linnekin, Anthropology (chair); Daisy Reyes, Sociology; Françoise Dussart, Anthropology

Project Summary: A significant aspect of gender study, specifically when dealing with men, is the idea that there is no single masculinity and that there are many different constructions of masculinity.  This project will engage fraternity men about their constructions of masculinity and how it affects their behavior.  These observations and insights will be used to critique and test both Connell’s Hegemonic Masculinity Theory and Anderson’s Inclusive Masculinities Theory.  These constructions will, also, be connected with both ideas of homosociality and views of sexual violence.  This project will utilize qualitative techniques like Cultural Domain Analysis as well as both semi-structured and structured interviews.

Daniel McCloskey is pursuing an Honors BA in Anthropology.  In his free time, he is a member of both Horse Lincoln Improv and Dramatic PAWS.  Outside of school he is an avid hiker and loves the outdoors.  After graduation he would like to continue his education in a post-graduate setting.

Susan Naseri

Major: Political Science and Human Rights
Project Title: From War to Civilian Life: Evaluation of Integration Policies for Urban Refugees in Amman, Jordan
Committee: Kathryn Libal, Human Right Institute (chair); Jennifer Sterling-Folker, Political Science; Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, English and Asian and Asian American Studies

Project Summary: Through a human rights lens, my proposed project seeks to examine the lived experiences of the refugees living in Amman, Jordan, with a focus on how they have integrated into society without encampment. By studying abroad in Jordan in Fall 2019 and conducting qualitative interviews, this qualitative research seeks to broadly understand how the policies in Jordan are contributing to the integration of its urban refugees, and what the particular challenges and limits to freedom are, as well as which rights are further and better realized.

Susan Naseri, from Queens, New York, is a member of the Honors program and the Special Program in Law. She aspires to earn her J.D. in International Human Rights Law and create her own NGO to assist asylum seekers and refugees integrate into society. In her free time, Susan enjoys reading and traveling.

Grace Nichols

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Understanding Tinnitus at the Electrophysiological Level
Committee: Douglas Oliver, Neuroscience, UConn Health (chair); Monty Escabi, Electrical and Computer Engineering; Charles Giardina, Molecular and Cell Biology

Project Summary: Tinnitus is a neurological condition that involves the perception of a ringing or buzzing sound that is not actually there. Tinnitus affects many veterans and individuals above sixty years of age, and patients report that the condition causes discomfort, impairs concentration, and negatively affects quality of life. There is currently no cure for the disease and no test exists that can prove that an individual suffers from tinnitus. This project will examine different causes of tinnitus and the neurological changes that are associated with the condition. This information could contribute to the understanding of how tinnitus functions, as well as the future development of a standard test.

Grace is an Honors student and STEM Scholar from Wethersfield, CT. In addition to minoring in Mathematics, she is actively involved in the HuskyTHON Morale Team, Kappa Alpha Theta, and Kids and UConn Bridging Education. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career as a physician.

Alexander Oddo

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: The Design of Bio-derived Solar Technology: Coupling Protein Hydrogels to Light Harvesting Upconversion Systems
Committee: Challa V. Kumar, Chemistry (chair); Tomoyasu Mani, Chemistry; Gaël Ung, Chemistry

Project Summary: Commercial solar cells have trouble converting lower-energy (red) photons into electrical energy. The ultimate goal of this project is to synthesize, optimize, and analyze a protein hydrogel capable of sustaining efficient triplet-triplet annihilation-based “upconversion,” a photophysical phenomenon that functions to convert otherwise neglected red photons into higher-energy (blue) photons for solar cell intake. Upconversion may seem like magic, but on a quantum level, it becomes possible through the manipulation of energy transfer events between organic dyes, made effective by molecular interactions present in bovine serum albumin protein matrixes crosslinked throughout with lipid molecules using carbodiimide “click” chemistry.

Alex is pursuing a BS/MS track in chemistry, and will continue to graduate school for his PhD in chemistry. Afterwards, he would like to become a professor of chemistry to inspire students with awesome science. His three favorite things in life are: chemistry, mint chocolate chip ice cream, and anime.

Kathleen Renna

Major: Diagnostic Genetic Sciences
Project Title: Evaluation of Integrin Gene Classifications and Developmental Age Differences in Gene Activity toward Understanding the Process of Axon Regeneration
Committee: Ephraim Trakhtenberg, Neuroscience, UConn Health (chair); Judy Brown, Allied Health Sciences; Kenneth Campellone, Molecular and Cell Biology

Project Summary: The lack of ability for central nervous system (CNS) cells to regenerate once damaged proves problematic to patients who present with neurodegenerative diseases and CNS injuries. Mouse retinal ganglion cells, a cell type in the eye whose axons form the optic nerve, serve as an easily accessible model for regeneration studies. Integrins are molecules that potentially assist RGC axons in extension due to their role as transmembrane receptors. This project intends to determine if the lack of regenerative capacity of damaged neurons stems from a change in integrin gene expression. The findings from this research will allow us to improve current treatment options for CNS stroke and injury.

Kathleen Renna is an Honors student from Troy, NY majoring in Diagnostic Genetic Sciences with a minor in Molecular and Cell Biology. Outside of her coursework, Kathleen serves as a College Ambassador for CAHNR and was recently selected as a BOLD Scholar. Following graduation, she intends to pursue a dual MD/MPH with the intention of becoming a pediatric clinical geneticist.

Srishti Sadhir

Major: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Anthropology
Project Title: An Archaeological Study of Human Hunting Adaptations to Climate Change at Wadi Madamagh, Jordan
Committee: Natalie Munro Anthropology (chair); Richard Sosis, Anthropology; Susan Z. Herrick, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Project Summary: Zooarchaeology is the investigation of faunal remains (bones and teeth) from archaeological contexts. Utilizing human behavioral ecology (HBE) as a theoretical framework and climate proxy data from the Levant region, this project will examine human adaptation to climate change at the archaeological site of Wadi Madamagh in Jordan during the Last Glacial Maximum. The faunal assemblage spans the Late Upper Paleolithic to Early Epipaleolithic periods (25,000-18,000 years ago) and may be associated with significant changes in foraging efficiency. The analysis will evaluate human hunting intensity as a measure of population mobility and carcass processing strategies. The results will be compared with contemporaneous and succeeding sites in the Near East.

Srishti Sadhir is an Honors student and Babbidge Scholar from Londonderry, NH. She is completing a double major in EEB and Anthropology. Apart from her involvement in the Zooarchaeology Lab, she is the Anthropology Mentor for The Major Experience, a member of the Native American Cultural Society, and a member of the UConn Women’s Ultimate Frisbee Team. Upon graduation, Srishti plans to pursue a PhD in Biological Anthropology.

Ekaterina Skaritanov

Major: Physiology and Neurobiology
Project Title: The Role of the Transcription Factor Pointed in Drosophila Ovulation
Committee: Jianjun Sun, Physiology and Neurobiology (chair); Barbara Mellone, Molecular and Cell Biology; Akiko Nishiyama, Physiology and Neurobiology

Project Summary: While the importance of matrix metalloproteinase (MMP) activity for ovulation has been established in both Drosophila and mammals, many of its regulatory mechanisms and enzymatic activity have not been determined. Through my University Scholar Project, I will investigate the role of the ETS transcription factor Pointed in ovulation and regulation of MMP activity. In addition, I will examine the regulation of Pnt itself and which of its isoforms function in this process. Using Drosophila reproductive system as a model, I will use a wide range of established methods to further the understanding of such ovulatory mechanisms.

Ekaterina is an Honors student majoring in Physiology and Neurobiology from Needham, Massachusetts. When not in lab, she enjoys her role as the secretary of the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program and participating in Honors Across State Borders. After graduation, she hopes to apply her passion and scientific curiosity to a career in medicine.

Daniel Yu

Major: Exercise Science
Project Title: Mechanisms of Statin Effects on Muscle and Neuronal Proteostasis
Committee: Elaine C. Lee, Kinesiology (chair); Beth Taylor, Kinesiology; Theodore Rasmussen, Pharmaceutical Science;  Paul O. Thompson, Medical Sciences

Project Summary: Cardiovascular diseases are among the leading cause of death in the United States. Statins, a cholesterol lowering drug, are used by over 43 million Americans to treat cardiovascular diseases. Statins target the mevalonate pathway to regulate cholesterol, but indirectly also regulate lipoprotein signaling. The indirect effects on lipoproteins may increase susceptibility to protein tissue and muscle damage. This project will use Caenorhabditis elegans to test whether statin treatment will cause muscle and neuronal damage during aging and stress, and discover statin molecular mechanisms by using RNAi to knockdown components of the mevalonate signaling pathway.

Daniel Yu is an Exercise Science major from Atlantic Highlands, NJ. He is a pre-medical student with aspirations of becoming a sports physician. Outside of school, he volunteers at the Mansfield Fire Department as an EMT, plays on the UConn Club Spikeball Team, and thinks about adopting an Australian shepherd.