2020 University Scholars

Congratulations to the 2020 University Scholars

Berk Alpay

Major: Computer Science and Mathematics
Project Title: Combinatorial and Statistical Approaches for Robust Prediction of Gene Expression from Genomic Features
Committee: Derek Aguiar, Computer Science and Engineering (Chair); Mukul Bansal, Computer Science and Engineering; and Katherine Hall, Mathematics

Project Summary: Understanding how variation in genotype produces differences in gene expression is critical to explaining the underlying mechanisms of disease, and can be used to discover genetic risk factors. Statistical models have been developed to map genotype to gene expression but are inaccurate for thousands of genes. My project is to relax conventional modeling assumptions in order to capture such effects as epistasis and dominance, and thereby render accurate predictions of expression for a wider range of genes.

Berk Alpay is a Goldwater Scholar and researcher in Dr. Derek Aguiar’s group, intending to pursue a PhD and a career in research. His work is in developing interpretable machine learning models that bring insight to such domains as natural hazards, materials science, and biology.


Julie Brisson

Major: Human Development and Family Sciences and Psychological Sciences
Project Title: The relationship between adverse childhood experiences and allostatic load across the lifespan: A systematic review and meta-analysis
Committee: Blair Johnson, Psychological Sciences (Chair); John Salamone, Psychological Sciences; and Preston Britner, Human Development and Family Sciences

Project Summary: Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have suffered from at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), which puts them at a higher risk of developing chronic health problems. Yet, the ACEs literature lacks a comprehensive understanding of physiological outcomes across the lifespan. Thus, this project will synthesize existing literature in a systematic review and meta-analysis that examines the temporal linkage between ACEs and stress-related biomarkers. The project aims to (a) elucidate mechanistic pathways of how ACEs lead to negative health outcomes and (b) identify which developmental stages are most crucial to target early prevention and intervention for future health problems.

Julie Brisson is a Human Development and Family Sciences and Psychological Sciences major from Ellington, CT. She is the coordinator of Community Outreach’s One-Time Programs, the HDFS Mentor for The Major Experience, and an editorial assistant for Psychological Bulletin. After graduation, Julie hopes to obtain a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology.


Mari Cullerton

Major:  Environmental Sciences and Natural Resources
Project Title: Field-based disturbance ecology, remote sensing, and geospatial analysis: An interdisciplinary approach to the evaluation of the role of secondary mortality agents in forest disturbances
Committee: Robert Fahey, Natural Resources and the Environment (Chair); Zhe Zhu, Natural Resources and the Environment; and Thomas Worthley, Natural Resources and the Environment

Project summary: From 2014-2016, a mass defoliation event caused by the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) influenced thousands of acres of forested landscape in Southern New England. While the defoliation stressed vegetation, other agents contributed to the eventual mortality of the trees. The primary goals of this project will be to investigate (i) the role of secondary mortality agents, specifically Agrilus bilineatus and Armillaria, in an unprecedented mortality event largely focused on native oak species and (ii) how the use of satellite imagery and remote sensing may be used to better understand spatial and temporal patterns of secondary disturbance agents in forested ecosystems.

Mari Cullerton is an Honors Student and Presidential Scholar who is double majoring in Natural Resources, with a concentration in Sustainable Forest Resources, and Environmental Science, with a concentration in Global Change. After graduation, she is planning to attend graduate school with hopes of continuing research related to the environment.


Peter Fenteany

Major: Computer Science and Mathematics
Project Title: Exploring the Riemann Hypothesis through Computer Science and Math
Committee: Keith Conrad, Mathematics (Chair); Álvaro Lozano-Robledo, Mathematics; and Benjamin Fuller, Computer Science and Engineering

Project Summary: Named after Bernhard Riemann, the Riemann Hypothesis (and its generalizations) is one of the most important open problems in mathematics today. The Riemann Hypothesis being true would imply that many interesting algorithms, including deterministic primality testing, are able to run in “efficient” polynomial time. This project will work towards the creation of a self-contained survey on the Riemann Hypothesis and Generalized Riemann Hypothesis. This survey will cleanly explain the background necessary to understand the problem, the work underway on it, and the implications it has on primality testing algorithms and other applications.

Peter Fenteany is a third-year student pursuing degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. He writes and works with The Daily Campus, primarily as the Associate Opinion Editor. He is currently a teaching assistant in the CSE department. After graduation, he hopes to continue his studies in a doctoral program.


Jenifer Gaitan

Major: History
Project Title: Voces: First-Generation Latinx Students Discuss Their Support Networks
Committee: Laura Bunyan, Sociology (Chair); Ingrid Semaan, Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Joel Blatt, History

Project Summary: In the last decade, the number of Latinx students who have enrolled in college has increased by over 80%. Many of these students are first-generation college students, who as a whole make up approximately one-third of all college students. Despite being the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S., Latinx students are understudied. Those who are the first in their families face unique challenges while often balancing familial, work, and academic responsibilities with limited institutional support. Through in-person interviews, this project explores the systems of support first-generation Latinx students utilize through the completion of their undergraduate educations.

Jenifer Gaitan is a third year Honors student majoring in History and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Stamford campus. She is the President of Husky Outreach for Minority Education (HOME). She is a first-generation college student and proud daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants.


James He

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Identifying the Cell Composition and Clonal Diversity of Supratentorial Ependymoma Using Single Cell RNA-Sequencing
Committee: Joseph Loturco, Physiology and Neurobiology (Chair); Charles Giardina, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Joanne Conover, Physiology and Neurobiology

Project Summary: Ependymoma is the third most common type of pediatric brain tumor with very limited treatment options. One subtype, supratentorial ependymoma (ST-EPN), is particularly aggressive and has been found to be driven by an oncogenic fusion mutation. Molecular characterization of this mutation has allowed the LoTurco Lab to develop a new mouse model of ST-EPN, which can be used to study the different mechanisms of tumorigenesis. My project involves a combined computational and experimental approach to define the molecular signatures of ST-EPN cells and to unravel the heterogeneous cell populations present in ST-EPN tumors.

James He is a junior Honors student pursuing a B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology and minoring in Neuroscience and Mathematics. He is involved in the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program, America Reads program, and Premedical Society Newsletter. He hopes to pursue a career as an academic clinician.


Amelia Hurst

Major: Marine Sciences and Anthropology
Project Title: Linking Human Activities to Coastal Water Quality in Southern New England: Past and Present
Committee: Craig Tobias, Marine Sciences (Chair); Jamie Vaudrey, Marine Sciences; Eleanor Ouimet, Anthropology; and William Ouimet, Geosciences and Geography

Project Summary: The theme of this project is to look at the timing and effect of direct and indirect anthropogenic influences on the marine environment in embayments in southern New England over the past decades to century timescale. This project will focus on (i) investigating the effects of human land-use practices from colonial through post-industrial times, (ii) determining baseline conditions and natural climatic variability for the sampled regions, and (iii) analyzing the response of marine ecosystems to specific local management actions aimed to improve water quality. Coastal sediment core analysis will be used to collect data to answer these questions.

Amelia Hurst is an Avery Point student from Greenwich, CT pursuing an honors double major in Marine Sciences and Anthropology. Outside of academics, she is a volunteer EMT and an avid scuba diver.


Samuel Johnson

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: The Design of Magnetically Responsive Charge-Transfer Emission Probes to Enhance Fluorescence Guided Surgery
Committee: Tomoyasu Mani, Chemistry (Chair); Jing Zhao, Chemistry; and Christian Brueckner, Chemistry

Project Summary: Techniques to distinguish between auto-fluorescence, caused by natural biological material, and fluorescence, caused by probes, in fluorescence guided surgery is currently costly and limited. In order to increase the practicality of fluorescence guided surgery, novel probes will be created with a method of activation not currently explored, magnetic field effects. Using a magnetic field as a source of activation grants precise on/off control over fluorescence as well as provides a high level of contrast between cancerous tissue and background tissue. The novel probes created will be situated in a lipid gel, mimicking the location that the probes would be placed in a human body.

Samuel Johnson is an Honors student pursuing a MS/BS track in Chemistry. He wishes to pursue a PhD in chemistry at graduate school after graduating from UConn, with hopes of obtaining a career in academia.


Shanelle Jones

Major: Political Science and Human Rights
Project Title: Untold Stories of the African Diaspora: The Lived Experiences of Black Caribbean Immigrants in the U.S.
Committee: Charles Venator-Santiago, Political Science (Chair); Virginia Hettinger, Political Science; and Sara Silverstein, History and Human Rights

Project Summary: The African Diaspora represents vastly complex migratory patterns. This project studies the journeys of West Indians who immigrated to the U.S. for economic reasons during the 1990s. While some researchers emphasize the success of West Indian immigrants, others highlight the issue of downward assimilation. Throughout this project, I will study the prospect of economic incorporation into American society for West Indian immigrants. I aim to conduct a survey of West Indian economic migrants residing in the Greater Hartford Area. In addition, I will conduct 10-15 oral histories to gain a broader perspective on the economic attainment of said immigrants.

Shanelle Jones is a Day of Pride Scholar and Honors student from Hartford, CT double majoring in Political Science and Human Rights. Her coursework, internships, and personal experiences have inspired her interest in studying immigration. Upon graduation, she aspires to attend law school to become an immigration attorney.


Meghan Long

Major: Physiology and Neurobiology
Project Title: Comparative analysis of longevity and stress resiliency benefits of supplementation with high-antioxidative capacity juices in Caenorhabditis elegans
Committee: Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, Kinesiology (Chair); Mark Brand, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture; and Linnaea Ostroff, Physiology and Neurobiology

Project Summary: Aronia melanocarpa is a powerful antioxidant berry with some known health and sports performance benefits. My University Scholar project aims to study the effect of aronia supplementation on longevity and stress resilience using the powerful genetic animal model, C. elegans. My project also involves development of a course on nutraceuticals and eastern medicine for undergraduate and graduate audiences.

Meghan Long is a Rowe Scholar from Middletown, CT majoring in Physiology and Neurobiology with a minor in Psychological Sciences. Aside from her academics, she is the Vice President of United Against Inequities in Disease (UAID). She plans to pursue medical school with the intent of becoming an anesthesiologist. 


Alexander Mika

Major: English
Project Title: An Exploration of Nationalism and Jingoism through Drama
Committee: Ellen Litman, English (Chair); Evelyn Tribble, English; and Frank Costigliola, History

Project Summary: For my University Scholar project, I intend to write a play exploring the issues of ultranationalism and jingoism and how they are detrimental to foreign relations, while simultaneously being caustic to the internal wellbeing of a state. My goal with this play is to discuss how nationalism has no place in such an interconnected world, particularly in the United States, which is a nation of immigrants and ideas, e pluribus unum, and we must respect and celebrate the “pluribus” that constitute it.

Alexander Mika a junior at the University of Connecticut, pursuing a degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. He writes and performs musical stand-up comedy, as well as plays and poetry, and has produced two shows at UConn: Piano Is Not My Forte and Major Issues.


Jayla Millender

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Africana Studies
Project Title: Impact of Angiogenic and Osteogenic Factors in the Presence of Biodegradable Piezoelectric Films In Vitro
Committee: Thanh Nguyen, Mechanical Engineering (Chair); Kenneth Campellone, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Shawn Salvant, Africana Studies and English

Project Summary: Many patients suffering from long bone injuries wait on transplant lists for years before receiving a viable donor sample. Synthetic bone grafts are becoming increasingly popular to combat this problem but are not efficient in encouraging vascularization of the injury site – often leading to graft rejection. My project will focus on utilizing biodegradable piezoelectric films to encourage simultaneous cell growth of endothelial cells and osteoblasts to generate vascularized and viable synthetic bone grafts with decreased probability of patient rejection.

Jayla Millender is a third year honors, LSAMP, and McNair scholar pursuing a B.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology and a B.A. in Africana Studies. She is the treasurer of Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society and the student supervising assistant at UConn Residential Life. She hopes to matriculate into a combined MD/PhD program upon completion of her undergraduate studies.


Daniel Mitola

Major: English and Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems
Project Title: Biography of Place: A Spring Valley Almanac
Committee: Sean Forbes, English (Chair); Darcie Dennigan, English; and Gerald Berkowitz, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Project Summary: In a person’s life, a relationship with a place can carry as much significance as a relationship with another person. In living at Spring Valley Student Farm, I have found this to be true. My goal is to write a series of lyric essays on the topic of living at Spring Valley over the course of the year, with each essay having a focus on one of the months of the year. Emphasis in this project will be on how the farm has shaped both my own life and the lives of others who have been graced by its presence. I aim to combine creative writing and practical experience with review of other similar literary works in the field, culminating in one cohesive work.

Daniel Mitola is a seventh semester honors student pursuing degrees in Sustainable Plant and Soil Systems (BS) and English (BA). He currently lives at Spring Valley Student Farm and is president of the Beekeeping Club as well as Poetry Editor for UConn’s literary magazine, Long River Review. After graduating, he hopes to pursue a career as a farmer.


Kerry Morgan

Major: Allied Health and Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: The Effects of Altered FGF8 Signaling on Atoh1 Expression in the Developing Cerebellum
Committee: Yuanhao Li, Genetics and Genome Science, School of Medicine (Chair); David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Jeanne McCaffery, Allied Health Sciences

Project Summary: One of the less understood concepts in cerebellar neurogenesis is the molecular signaling occurring, being that researchers are still not clear as to whether cerebellar neurogenesis occurs because of temporal cues or spatial cues. This project aims to determine how development proceeds in embryonic and postnatal mice, whether it be spatial or temporal. By using the Atoh1 lineage of granule cell precursors in the cerebellum and determining their domains of origin, more can be understood about how groups of cells form and travel throughout development. In addition, it is expected that specific FGF signaling in these cells contributes to differentiation and migration of adult granule cells.

Kerry is a Junior Allied Health and Molecular Cell Biology major from Norfolk, MA. She is the Program Director of Campus Big Buddies, President of Pre-Medical Society, Treasurer of Best Buddies, and holds positions as part of Alpha Phi Sorority, and Sigma Theta Alpha Fraternity. Kerry hopes to pursue a career as a physician-scientist with an MD/PhD.


Shreya Murthy

Major: Individualized: Criminology, Human Rights, and Finance
Project Title: Working Toward a Safer Future: Mitigating the Effects of Regulatory Capture in the Aviation Industry
Committee: David Richards, Political Science and Human Rights (Chair); Kimberly Bergendahl, Political Science; and Paul Gilson, Finance

Project Summary: While commercial aviation is widely considered to be one of the safest ways to travel, recent events have prompted serious questions about the regulatory environment that is meant to protect the individual people that fly on planes every day. Regulatory capture occurs when the interests of corporations are put ahead of the safety of passengers and crew. My project aims to understand how this process happens and is mitigated through the examination of six case studies and regulatory data and then propose a new method of mitigating the problem through the introduction of international human rights norms and human security principles.

Shreya Murthy is pursuing bachelor’s degrees in Human Rights, Finance, and Criminology and is a member of both the Honors Program and the Special Program in Law. After graduation she hopes to pursue research and law at the graduate level through a JD/PhD program. Outside of academics, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching football, and photography.


Shankara Narayanan

Major: Political Science and History
Project Title:  The Logic of Rising-Power Strategy: China, Imperial Japan, Imperial Germany, and the United States
Committee: Alexis Dudden, History; Alexander Anievas, Political Science; and Frank Costigliola, History

Project Summary: My project seeks to identify the significance of U.S.-China great-power competition, analyzing the evolution of Chinese policymakers’ definition of core national interests, perception of geopolitical threats to those interests and domestic pressures creating an imperative to expand since 1978. I will compare China’s rising-power trajectory and the methods of its strategy to three historic models: Imperial Germany (1862-1917), Imperial Japan (1868-1910) and the post-Civil War U.S. (1865-1917). This comparative methodology will reveal how key differences in China’s strategic thinking may have influenced its rise since 1978, and how its future strategy may differ from prior rising powers.

Shankara Narayanan is an Honors Political Science and History Major in the Special Program in Law, from Farmington, CT. He is an active member of UConn Mock Trial, and the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of UConn’s Undergraduate Political Review. He hopes to pursue a career in foreign policy and international law upon graduation.


Matthew Pickett

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: Design and Characterization of a Novel Decontamination Process for Organophosphorus Compounds Using a Manganese-Oxide Support
Committee: Steven Suib, Chemistry (Chair); Alfredo Angeles-Boza, Chemistry; and Jessica Rouge, Chemistry

Project Summary: Organophosphates are chemical agents that inhibit the human neuromuscular system. They find use in the application of insecticides and pesticides as well as chemical warfare. The aim of this project is to design and characterize a novel process for the degradation of these chemicals by encapsulating OPAA, a phosphotriesterase enzyme capable of degrading organophosphate chemicals, in the pores of a manganese-oxide support structure. By doing so the enzyme will experience i) greater conversion rates and ii) enhanced thermal stability, thus enabling it to be applied to contaminated sites.

Matthew Pickett is a Chemistry major with a minor in Mathematics from Canton, CT. Outside of academics, he is a photographer for The Daily Campus, a member of the UConn Chemistry Club and the UConn Airsoft Team. He hopes to enroll in graduate school and eventually pursue a career in academia.


Simran Sehgal

Major: Biomedical Engineering
Project Title: The Enterprise of Health: An Evaluation of the Accessibility of Durable Medical Equipment in Low-Income Households
Committee: César Abadía-Barrero, Anthropology and Human Rights (Chair); Sally Reis, Educational Psychology; and Patrick Kumavor, Biomedical Engineering

Project Summary: In our biotechnologically forward society, capitalistic principles have inverted our healthcare delivery philosophy: paradoxically, the highest need of care is met with the lowest access to care due to the inaccessibility of medical resources and high costs of medical devices. The disability community carries a disproportionate burden of disease, notably in health care coverage and services for durable medical equipment. My proposed project seeks to broadly study the gaps in our healthcare system that has increased difficulty of accessing durable medical equipment, specifically analyzing the interconnectivity of health insurance, education, and poverty through the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities.

Simran Sehgal is an honors student from Westford, MA. She is pursuing biomedical engineering with a minor in human rights. She is interested in the intersection between technological advancement and health care delivery. Outside of academics, she is an active member of UConn Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program and a food enthusiast. After graduation, she hopes to attend medical school.


Megan Sturm

Major: Physics
Project Title: Supermassive Black Hole Accretion Rate and Disk Structure
Committee: Jonathan Trump, Physics (Chair); Richard Jones, Physics; and Kyungseon Joo, Physics

Project Summary: Supermassive black holes are fascinating objects residing in the center of every massive galaxy. They can be up to billions of times the mass of our sun and operate under extreme gravity. As nearby material interacts with the black holes, it begins to orbit in what is called the accretion disk. Currently, we find discrepancies in model predictions and observations of the structures of these disks. This project will use the Hubble Space Telescope in an unusually efficient program along with reverberation mapping techniques to explore the disk structure of a variety of supermassive black holes.

Megan Sturm is an honors student majoring in Physics with a minor in Spanish and Chemistry from Waterford, CT. Outside of school, she enjoys her role as the secretary for the Women in Physics club. After graduation, she intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in hopes of working towards environmentally friendly energy sources.


Jason Vailionis

Major: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Project Title: Genomics of a Symbiont Replacement Event in North American Dog-Day Cicada
Committee: Chris Simon, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (Chair); Paul Lewis, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Jonathan Klassen, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Rachel O’Neill, Molecular and Cell Biology

Project summary: Many insects form symbiotic relationships with microorganisms allowing them to survive on specialized, nutrient poor diets. After millions of years, these symbionts can evolve to lose essential functions forcing the host insect to compensate by acquiring a new symbiont. In cicadas, one ancestral bacterial symbiont is undergoing seemingly maladaptive evolution and being replaced by a new symbiont in the wild. The new symbiont is evolved from a fungal pathogen which cicadas have domesticated many times in parallel. I am studying the transition of this pathogen to a mutualistic symbiont using genomic sequencing of cicada-associated fungi all over North America.

Jason Vailionis is an Honors student majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He is interested in host-microbe interactions, especially in invertebrates. He hopes to pursue a career in symbiosis research working with obscure animals. Outside of school, he enjoys rollerblading, coding, and playing with his cats.


Anand Vaish

Major: Biomechanical Engineering
Project Title: Biomechanical Analysis of Cardiac Morphogenesis Using a Zebrafish Model
Committee: Kazunori Hoshino, Biomedical Engineering (Chair); David Daggett, Molecular and Cell Biology; and David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology

Project Summary: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S, with 1 out of 4 deaths being attributed to some cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, congenital heart disease is one of the most common birth defects in the world. This project aims to learn more about human embryonic heart development using a zebrafish cardiac model. As embryonic development is mostly conserved within vertebrates, zebrafish embryos can be used to determine how the biomechanical properties of the embryo heart change throughout its formation and development. By better understanding the process of cardiac morphogenesis, improved diagnostic tools and therapies can be developed.

Anand Vaish is an honors student from Shelton, CT. He is majoring in Biomedical Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. Outside of lab, he volunteers as an EMT and is the Vice-President of the Sigma Theta Alpha Pre-Health Fraternity. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career in medicine.


Harry Zehner

Major: Political Science
Project Title: Institutionalizing Environmentally Friendly Behavior by Designing a Proxy Carbon Price for the University of Connecticut
Committee: Oksan Bayulgen, Political Science (Chair); Carol Atkinson-Palumbo, Geography; and Kathleen Segerson, Economics

Project Summary: When UConn burns fossil fuels and contributes to climate change, we produce an externality known as the social cost of carbon. However, this social cost is not accounted for in UConn’s decision making process. In order to institutionalize the social cost of carbon and force UConn to make more environmentally friendly energy decisions, I will research and design and internal carbon proxy price. The proxy price will add another layer — social efficiency — to UConn’s capital investment decision-making process.

Harry Zehner is a junior majoring in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Economics and Policy. On campus, he works at the Office of Sustainability and as an editor at The Daily Campus. He plans to work in environmental justice organizing and city planning after college.


Lily Zhong

Major: Physiology and Neurobiology
Project Title: Defining a Tachykininergic Projection to the Lateral Hypothalamic Area and Its Role in Stress and Anxiety
Committee: Alexander Jackson, Physiology and Neurobiology (Chair); Anastasios Tzingounis, Physiology and Neurobiology; and Geoffrey Tanner, Physiology and Neurobiology

Project Summary: My project investigates a novel neural circuit in the mouse brain consisting of a tachykininergic projection to the lateral hypothalamus (LHA) that has been implicated in regulating stress- and anxiety-related behaviors. My work seeks to further characterize this projection and examine its neurochemical profile and cellular functionality related to stress and anxiety through viral tracing, molecular cytogenetics, and live calcium imaging. By analyzing these complex tachykininergic projections to MCH neurons in the LHA, I hope to elucidate neuronal mechanisms that may contribute to the etiology of stress and anxiety, which could potentially contribute to future therapeutic strategies for human anxiety disorders.

Lily Zhong is an Honors student from East Lyme, CT majoring in Physiology and Neurobiology and minoring in English. Outside of lab, she loves to knit with Knit for NICU, participate in book clubs, play cello in chamber ensembles, and explore new food. She hopes to pursue a career in medicine.