2021 University Scholars

Congratulations to the 2021 University Scholars!

Amy Backal

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: The Effect of Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) on the Tongue
Committee: David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology (chair); Aoife Heaslip, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Rachel O’Neill, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) is a rare genetic disorder in which skeletal muscle and associated connective tissue progressively turn to bone through the process of heterotopic ossification (HO). The tongue is a skeletal muscle that contains a population of cells of origin for bone growth, and yet it seems to be spared from HO. There is little research looking into factors that could be affecting the osteogenic ability of the tongue. My project will consider the environment of the tongue and the subpopulations of cells that reside there as possible inhibiting factors for bone growth. The goal is to stimulate further research on preventative factors for HO which will be helpful for developing new therapeutics.

Amy Backal is an honors student majoring in Molecular and Cellular Biology with a minor in Chemistry and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Outside of lab Amy cooks, hikes and spends lots of time with her pupper. She has had a passion for medicine as long as she can remember and aspires to go to Medical School after graduation.

William Brydon

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: Electrifying Chemistry: Taking ACT-ion in Sustainable Synthesis
Committee: Nicholas Leadbeater, Chemistry (chair); Rachel O’Neill, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Mark Peczuh, Chemistry.

Project Summary: Creating more sustainable and efficient methods to make molecules is currently a hot topic in chemistry. The objective of my University Scholar project is to use electricity in conjunction with a catalyst to drive chemical reactions forward. Specifically, I will be using electricity to perform a series of oxidation reactions to make value-added chemicals. Work will start on a small scale but then attention will turn to scaling up the reactions in order to enhance the practicality of the approach.

William Brydon is pursuing dual B.S./M.S degrees in Chemistry. He is a Q-Center tutor and the president of the UConn iGEM Club. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry. In his free time, he enjoys going to movie theatres, listening to Arianna Grande and collecting fun socks.

Suzannah De Almeida

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Novel Epigenetic Therapeutics of Opioid Use Disorder
Committee: Gregory Sartor, Pharmaceutical Sciences (chair); Nathaniel Rickles, Pharmacy Practice; and Barbara Mellone, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: Current treatments for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) are primarily aimed at preventing overdose, but few are effective at reducing relapse and craving. Recent research has indicated that epigenetic proteins such as, bromodomain and extra terminal domains (BET), are involved in cocaine-seeking behaviors, but the role of BET proteins in OUD remains unknown. My project will identify a role for BET proteins in animal models of OUD and investigate how BET mRNA and proteins are altered by chronic opioid use.

Suzannah De Almeida is a junior pursuing a B.S. in Molecular Cell Biology with a chemistry minor. She is a McNair, MARC, and LSAMP Scholar, as well as the Diversity Inclusion Chair for MEDLIFE UConn. After completing her undergraduate studies, she aspires to enroll in a combined MD/Ph.D. program.

Matan Doron

Major: Biological Sciences and Individualized: Science, Medicine, and Ethics
Project Title: Soul Searching: A Reflection on Breath, Body, and Spirit
Committee: Sarah Willen, Anthropology (chair); Lewis Gordon, Philosophy; Dan Mulkey, Physiology and Neurobiology; and Regina Barreca, English.

Project Summary: The reality of a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus has forced society to reckon with the vulnerability of its breath. However, far from being an isolated physiological phenomenon, the symbolism and allegory of breath emerges as an important component in a various theological, philosophical, and sociopolitical thought systems. Through my University Scholars project I will integrate various understandings of breath into a manuscript addressing the meaning of and responsibility derived from inhabiting a breathing body. My goal is to reflect upon the shortcomings of contemporary society while inspiring the pursuit of livable institutions oriented about health and human flourishing.

Matan Doron is a Biological Sciences and Individualized: Science, Medicine, and Ethics double major from Simsbury, CT. He is involved in the student leadership of UConn Hillel, the Global Health Spaces on Campus (GloHSOC), and the UConn Men’s Crew club team. Following graduation, he hopes to attend medical school.

Johann Heupel

Major: Maritime Studies and Marine Sciences
Project Title: Historical Development of Railways and Marsh Ecology
Committee: Jamie Vaudrey, Marine Sciences (chair); Matthew McKenzie, History; and Mary Bercaw Edwards, English.

Project Summary: The salt marshes found across Connecticut and Long Island Sound – one of the most important ecosystems in relation to carbon sequestration – have had their range drastically reduced by human development over time. Though there have been studies on the disappearance of marshes in New England, the aim of this project is to focus on the historical development of railways – the transportation which helped power the industrial revolution – and how their construction and presence along the coast have changed the marsh ecosystem. At a time when climate change ranks as one of the central issues in society, any understanding on how to protect key environments is crucial.

Johann Heupel is a Williams Mystic alumnus and Presidential Scholar from Mystic, CT. He is pursuing a double degree at Avery Point: B.S. in Marine Sciences and B.A. in Maritime Studies, with an interest in Ecology and History. Outside of school he is an amateur photographer and multi-instrumental folk musician.

Kathryn Krocheski

Major: Art History
Project Title: Ottoman and Tudor England Political Relations through the Lens of Artistic Production
Committee: Kathryn Moore, Art and Art History (chair); Michael Orwicz, Art and Art History; Kenneth Gouwens, History.

Project Summary: My research project will explore the influence of Ottoman visual culture on Tudor-era English Renaissance portraiture (15th-16th century).  The circulation of materials depicting Ottoman Empire culture led to the development of the idea of a distinctly “Islamic Art” in Europe.  Such materials influenced England’s relationship with the arabesque, a design motif, and perceptions of what is “Islamic.”  In order to explore the significance of the influence of Islamic art on English visual culture, I will focus on the work of Hans Holbein the Younger, such as portraits of King Henry VIII and Jewelry Book.  Within this artistic context, I intend to illuminate the diplomatic context of the English monarchy with the Ottoman Empire.

Katie Krocheski is an honors Art History major and co-founder and Vice President of the Art and Art History Club.  She is also a member of the 2021 cohort for the Leadership Legacy Program.  She hopes to eventually pursue a PhD in art history.

Maria Latta

Major: Doctor of Pharmacy
Project Title: Drugs, Information, and Innovation: How Can Pharmacists Improve Patient Knowledge of Opioids?
Committee: Nathanial Rickles, Pharmacy Practice (chair); Tiffany Kelley, Nursing; and David Noble, Management.

Project Summary: The opioid epidemic, which was declared a public health emergency in 2017, has only worsened during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. Over 80 percent of heroin users first misused prescription opioids; therefore, it is paramount that healthcare providers pursue innovative solutions to improve safe use of prescription opioids. Through an FDA clinical trial of an opioid packaging prototype, I aim to identify unmet needs in accessing opioid education. My secondary goal is to create an online opioid education tool utilizing the Elaboration Likelihood Model to consider factors that influence changes in attitudes or behaviors and measure its impact on medication information delivery.

Maria Latta is an honors student pursuing a PharmD. Outside of academics, she is on the board for the South Park Inn Clinic and an intern at Smilow Cancer Hospital. After graduation, she plans to obtain a pharmacy residency to further explore the intersection of research, innovation, and clinical practice.

Katherine Lee

Major: Structural Biology/Biophysics
Project Title: Computational Investigations into Binding Dynamics of Tau Protein Antibodies: Using Machine Learning and Biophysical Models to Build a Better Reality
Committee: Eric May, Molecular and Cell Biology (chair); Adam Zweifach, Molecular and Cell Biology; Yongku Cho, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Project Summary: Machine learning methods exhibit high potential for predicting protein biochemical function given structural data. This project will use a novel piece of software, Diffnets, to apply these concepts to analyze conformational ensembles of an antibody to hyperphosphorylated tau protein, which causes neurofibrillary tangles that are associated with the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. While these antibodies are used clinically to diagnose the condition, they do not exhibit strong or specific binding. Improving the affinity and specificity of a promising antibody mutant could revolutionize diagnostic and therapeutic methods not only for Alzheimer’s disease but also other conditions with similar pathology.

Katherine is an honors student from Monroe, CT pursuing a B.S. in Structural Biology/Biophysics. She is a staff columnist for the opinion section of the Daily Campus and a tutor at the Q Center. She aspires to obtain a PhD and perform computational biophysics research in an academic setting.

Fiona Liu

Major: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Natural Resources and the Environment
Project Title: Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Groundwater Seeps across the Farmington River Network
Committee: Ashley Helton, Natural Resources and the Environment (chair); Beth Lawrence, Natural Resources and the Environment; and Chris Elphick, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Project Summary: Reactive nitrogen (N) applied to surface areas infiltrate and accumulate in groundwater, forming a source of legacy N. As groundwater discharges back into the surface, it transports this legacy N into the water systems. Denitrification is a primary mechanism that removes reactive N but the process can often be incomplete, causing nitrous oxide (N2O) be released from groundwater discharge sites. I will measure the soil to atmosphere N2O flux at preferential groundwater discharge zones across the Farmington river network to provide insight into the spatial patterns of N2O fluxes and characteristics that might be driving this spatial difference.

Fiona Liu is a McNair Scholar, doing a dual degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Natural Resources. She is also a coordinator and mentor of the Asian/Asian American Mentoring Program. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue a graduate education and continue research related to the environment.

Madelon Morin-Viall

Major: English
Project Title: Memory, Mourning, and Grief: Reading Hamlet in the Age of Coronavirus
Committee: Evelyn Tribble, English (chair); Patrick Hogan, English; Debapriya Sarkar, English.

Project Summary: Hamlet​ is an intriguing, popular play, taught across American high schools and colleges. In the context of the English Reformation, ​Hamlet ​comments on what becomes when one’s environment disrupts the processing of grief. My project’s goal is to parallel ​Hamlet​, its historic context, and the pain of the coronavirus pandemic. Through blog posts incorporating creative and academic work, and eventually through an extensive written explication, I hope to accomplish a deeper understanding of the importance of remembrance in the human processing of grief; and, moreover, what becomes when one’s environment forbids it.

Madelon Morin-Viall is an honors English major and History minor. Madelon is passionate about combining the arts, humanities, and sciences to ponder the question: What does it mean to be human? After graduating, she plans to pursue a doctorate in English Literature, focusing on the influence of narratives on human reality.

Mehreen Pasha

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: When Problems Become Solutions: Harnessing the Osteogenic Capacity of Disease-Causing Stem Cells to Repair Bone Fractures
Committee: David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology (chair); Geoffrey Tanner, Physiology and Neurobiology; Adam Zweifach, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: While we often perceive disease as negative, there is potential to engineer seemingly negative biological phenomena into therapeutics to treat human illnesses. Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) involves uncontrolled, widespread, extraskeletal bone growth. In FOP patients, cells called fibro/adipogenic progenitors (FAPs) follow an abnormal pathway and turn into bone. This project investigates whether mutant FAPs, which are exceptional at producing bone, can be used to repair bone fractures in otherwise normal patients. Through techniques like microCT and histology, we will test whether mutant FAPs can localize at the site of bone fracture and repair bone better than traditional stem cell therapies.

Mehreen is an Honors Student and STEM Scholar majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and minoring in Spanish. When she isn’t at the lab bench, she enjoys running, bullet journaling, and getting boba with friends. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in medicine.

Seema Patel

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Translesion Synthesis Inhibitors: A New Class of Cancer Chemotherapeutics
Committee: Kyle Hadden, Pharmaceutical Sciences (chair); Ashis Basu, Chemistry; and Charles Giardina, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: Translesion synthesis (TLS) is a DNA repair mechanism, orchestrated by a multi-protein complex, that is overexpressed in cancer cells. TLS promotes cancer cell growth and division even in the presence of anti-cancer drugs such as cisplatin. My research involves discovering and testing inhibitors that bind and disrupt key protein-protein interactions within a domain called REV7/REV3 in the TLS machinery. My project will test synergistic interactions of REV7/REV3 inhibitors with cisplatin in an ovarian cancer cell model. Developing TLS inhibitors that synergize with cisplatin is a novel approach to cancer treatment because it promises lower use of cisplatin, a drug known to induce toxic side effects, while increasing its efficacy.

Seema Patel is a third-year Honors student from North Haven, CT pursuing a B.S. in Molecular and Cell Biology and a minor in Healthcare Management and Insurance Studies. She is the president of STEMTalk Magazine, vice president of Learn To Be, and volunteers for Paper Airplanes. After graduation, she plans to attend medical school and receive an MD/MBA dual degree to learn how the business of healthcare impacts patient care.

Matthew Phillips

Major: Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences and Psychological Sciences
Project Title: Exploring a Time-Based Perceptual Deficit in People Who Stutter: Behavioral & Electrophysiological Approaches
Committee: Emily Myers, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (chair); Gerry Altmann, Psychological Sciences; Erika Skoe, Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences; and Nicole Landi, Psychological Sciences.

Project Summary: Stuttering is a neurodevelopmental disorder most observable as a disruption in the forward flow of speech. Some research, however, suggests that people who stutter (PWS) do not only have disordered speech production, but perception as well. Frustratingly, there is little consensus whether PWS have atypical processing in just speech, or speech and non-speech, and where this breakdown in processing occurs. Using behavioral and electrophysiological methods, this project aims to (1) determine if PWS differ from people who do not stutter in speech or non-speech processing, and, if so, (2) is this deficit present in time-based information only, or time- and pitch-based information, suggesting a more general auditory processing deficit?

Matt Phillips is a Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences & Psychological Sciences double major from Ellington/Broad Brook, CT. He is currently a research assistant in the Language and Brain Lab and is the Teen Program Co-Coordinator for the National Stuttering Association. After graduation, Matt plans on pursuing a joint master’s-Ph.D. specializing in stuttering.

Mehak Sharma

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: Evaluating the Pharmacological Activity of a Protein-Based Artificial Retina
Committee: Caroline Dealy, Reconstructive Sciences (chair); Nicholas Leadbeater, Chemistry; Christian Brueckner, Chemistry.

Project Summary: Today, 1.5 million individuals suffer from retinitis pigmentosa (RP), the most commonly inherited retinal degenerative disease. Currently, there are no cures for RP and no therapies with significant patient impact. LambdaVision, a UConn-based startup company, has created the first artificial retina using bacteriorhodopsin, which has been developed to provide patients visual perception at high resolution with minimal surgery complications. This project will explore methods of measuring the light-induced proton-pumping activity of multilayered bacteriorhodopsin films that are non-destructive and sensitive enough to examine implant quality and performance. If successful, the assay will facilitate determining implant configurations that yield the greatest visual performance in RP patients.

Mehak Sharma is an honors chemistry major with a global studies minor from North Haven, CT. She is the program director of the Community Outreach’s Windham Hospital Volunteer Program, the Vice President of STEMTalk Magazine, and a UConn TIP Fellow. She hopes to attend medical school and stay involved in biotechnology startups.

Drew Tienken

Major: Environmental Science and Political Science
Project Title: Bacterial Community Composition and Denitrification: An Interdisciplinary Evaluation of Thin-Layer Placement Restoration in Coastal Connecticut Salt Marshes
Committee: Beth Lawrence, Natural Resources and the Environment (chair); Matthew Singer, Political Science; Kendra Maas, Microbial Analysis, Resources, and Services.

Project Summary: Salt marshes are currently threatened by anthropogenic sea level rise, which may result in marsh drownings. Thin-layer placement is a restoration method that has been practiced to mitigate sea level rise by applying dredge material to elevate the marsh surface. However, this technique has been practiced largely without regards to its effects on microbial communities. The focus of my work is to determine how varying sediment depths affect bacterial community structure and denitrification, an ecologically important pathway performed by these communities. This will inform natural resource managers on how to optimize both restoration results and ecological services from the salt marsh.

Drew Tienken is an honors student majoring in environmental science and political science. He is an undergraduate research assistant in the Lawrence Lab, and recently completed a research fellowship with the Connecticut Sea Grant this past summer. After graduation, Drew hopes to attend law school and work at the intersection of science and policy.

Nathan Wetherell

Major: Mechanical Engineering
Project Title: Optimization of Orbital Trajectories Using a Genetically Evolved Artificial Neural Network
Committee: Bryan Weber, Mechanical Engineering (chair); Cara Battersby, Physics; and Jonathan Trump, Physics.

Project Summary: Interplanetary crewed space travel has recently come to the forefront of our collective consciousness and has become one of the decade’s defining scientific goals. The problem of how to get between two celestial bodies in the most efficient manner has several analytical solutions, such as the Hohmann transfer, that excel in the area of fuel efficiency but suffer in regard to transit time. This project aims to determine how a genetically evolved artificial neural network with augmenting topology can find a more holistically efficient solution to the interplanetary travel problem considering non-impulsive thrust and gravitational assist trajectories.

Nathan Wetherell is a junior Honors student pursuing a major in Mechanical Engineering with an Aerospace concentration and a minor in Astrophysics. He is actively involved in the engineering community through the Concrete Canoe Association and the Engineering Tutoring Center. He plans to pursue his passion for space exploration and mechanical design through a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.

Robert Minh Lu Williams

Major: Material Science and Engineering
Project Title: Improving Air Filtration of HEPA Filters via Graphene Application
Committee: Douglas Adamson, Chemistry (chair); Seok-Woo Lee, Material Science and Engineering; and Thomas Abbott, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: With the SARS-CoV-2 virus having an average diameter of 0.3 μm, it falls within the most penetrating particle size (MPPS) range for HEPA filters. In HEPA filters, particles below 0.1 μm follow Brownian motion to embed within the matrix, whereas those greater than 1.0 μm follow impaction. Other filtration technologies such as electrostatic precipitation ionize air-borne particles, which are then attracted to charged filter plates. My research will combine electrostatic precipitation and HEPA filtration into one uniform filter via a coating of graphene. With the passage of charge through the percolating network, it will act similarly to an electrostatic precipitator removing the MPPS from the passing air while maintaining the intrinsic properties of HEPA filters.

Robert Williams is an honors student majoring in Materials Science and Engineering while minoring in Molecular and Cell Biology. Outside of lab, he is a coordinator for the Asian/Asian American Mentoring Program, a team leader for Kids and UConn Bridging Education, an elected official for the Board of Education in Coventry, Connecticut, and works as a PCA at Hartford Hospital. Robert hopes to pursue a career as a physician-scientist with an MD/Ph.D.