2024 University Scholars

Anabelle S. Bergstrom

Majors: Political Science and Philosophy
Project Title: Deadly Choices: Political, Legal, and Moral Understandings of U.S. Supreme Court Death Penalty Decisions
Committee: Virginia Hettinger, Political Science; Paul Bloomfield, Philosophy; Richard Wilson, Anthropology, UConn Law

Project Summary: The death penalty has historically challenged the philosophical beliefs of the Supreme Court and the individual justices who interpret the Constitution of the United States. My research seeks to understand why justices have penned legal decisions in past capital punishment cases through political, legal, and moral lenses. It will also examine an evolution of thinking about the death penalty by justices John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun throughout their tenure on the Court. The findings of my research will help legal scholars and political philosophers gain a deeper understanding of what factors influence capital punishment Supreme Court decisions.

Anabelle Bergstrom is a Special Program in Law honors student majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. She is a BOLD Women’s Leadership Network Scholar, UConn Humanities Institute Undergraduate Fellow, and 2022 Holster Scholar. She is also a Peer Research Ambassador in the Office of Undergraduate Research. After graduation, Anabelle plans to attend law school.

Rachel Cleveland

Major: Physics
Project Title: Determining the Parameters that Drive the Co-evolution of Black Holes and Galaxies
Committee: Daniel Angles-Alcazar, Physics; Cara Battersby, Physics; Lea Ferreira dos Santos, Physics

Project Summary: Cosmological simulations are incredibly useful tools for astrophysicists. They allow a deeper exploration of celestial phenomena and reveal their intricate workings. In the past, I have observed patterns between black holes and their host galaxies using SIMBA simulations. I now plan to enhance my research by transitioning to the CAMELS simulation. This offers the flexibility to manipulate various cosmological parameters, which brings the promise of uncovering the fundamental drivers behind my previously observed trends. This endeavor will help advance our understanding of the cosmos.

Rachel Cleveland is a junior honors student from Windsor, CT pursuing a major in Physics and a minor in Mathematics and Statistics. She is a McNair Scholar, Presidential Scholar, and Babbidge Scholar at UConn. She plans to attend a PhD program after graduation.

Zachary Cotter

Major: Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences (SLHS)
Project Title: Analyzing Effects of Gesture Use on Language Outcomes of Minimally Verbal Autistic Individuals
Committee: Lindsay Butler, SLHS; Inge-Marie Eigsti, Psychology; Derek Houston, SLHS

Project Summary: Among children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), nearly one third are expected to develop little to no language skills. Through this study, I will analyze the extent to which these minimally-low verbal (MLV) autistic children use gestures as a means of communication. I’ll also chart the correlation between participants’ gesture use and the level of language skills they exhibit. My hope is that this will begin to shed more light on the underlying causes of MLV autism and thus help us understand more effective interventions to promote linguistic skills.

Zachary Cotter is a New England scholar studying Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences. Outside of class, Zach is a member of the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association, American Sign Language Club, and multiple musical ensembles. After graduation, he aspires to attain an AuD and practice as a clinical audiologist.

Karen Lau

Majors: Economics and Individualized: Asian American Studies
Project Title: Reaping What They Sew: Oral Histories of Asian Garment Workers and the Collective Labor Rights Struggle
Committee: Fiona Vernal, History; Delia Furtado, Economics; Shareen Hertel, Human Rights and Political Science; and Bandana Purkayastha, Sociology and Asian American Studies

Project Summary: Chinatowns are sites where immigrants imagine new political and economic futures by mobilizing for labor rights. In the 1982 International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union strike, the largest strike in Manhattan Chinatown’s history, 20,000 garment workers marched to demand higher wages. This project will examine how the strike—a watershed moment in the mobilization of Asian American women—improved workers’ labor market outcomes. My mixed-methods approach comprises archival research, oral history, and difference-in-differences regressions derived from wage and employment data. By putting intergenerational immigrant narratives in conversation with labor data, I will extrapolate upon the realities of community building toward economic justice.

Karen Lau is a Day of Pride Scholar pursuing a dual degree in Economics and Individualized: Asian American Studies. A BOLD Scholar and Co-op Legacy Fellow, she is involved in the Equity & Social Justice Reading Group and the National Humanities Leadership Council. She enjoys indie rock concerts and paddle boarding.

Lisa Liang

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: Nanocarrier Mediated Delivery of Therapeutic Nucleic Acid for Targeted Brain Tumor Therapy
Committee: Jessica Rouge, Chemistry; Nicholas Leadbeater, Chemistry; Michael Kienzler, Chemistry; Raman Bahal, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Project Summary: Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) is the most common and aggressive form of primary malignant brain tumor in adults, eliciting symptoms such as headaches and progressive neurological disorder. Existing treatment strategies, such as temozolomide-based chemotherapy, have been established as robust treatment methods but risk the elimination of healthy cells. Therefore, my project aims to design and test a nanocapsule capable of both delivering temozolomide drugs and displaying a tumor cell-targeting nucleic acid called an aptamer on its surface. In essence, GBM brain tumor growth will be addressed more effectively and specifically. The prospective application is to improve targeted GBM medication.

Lisa Liang is a Stamps Scholar majoring in Chemistry. She is passionate about serving her peers as the Vice President of the Honors Council and enjoys reading, running, and hanging out with friends and family. After graduation, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. to conduct research in nucleic acid therapeutics.

Neo Lin

Major: Chemistry
Project Title:  Sensing Magnetic Fields with Emissive Molecular Qubits
Committee: Tomoyasu Mani, Chemistry; Nicholas Leadbeater, Chemistry; Jing Zhao, Chemistry

Description: Quantum behaviors, like superposition and entanglement, allow us to exponentially increase our computational ability by implementing quantum bits. With the guidance of Dr. Tomoyasu Mani, Neo is trying to design fully organic quantum bits via spin-correlated radical pairs (SCRPs). In the summer of 2022, Neo studied how steric hindrance affects rates of electron transfer. This research resulted in the first author’s publication in Chemical Science. In the summer of 2023, Neo received the SURF grant to continue this research. In his last three semesters, Neo aims to further probe how magnetic fields can affect the SCRPs he synthesizes for applications as quantum bits.

Neo Lin is a junior honors chemistry student from Madison, Connecticut. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry following graduation from UConn. Outside of research, Neo enjoys spending time with friends, family, and his dog Loki.

Fraser McGurk

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Investigating the Role of CD13 in Macrophage-to-Myofibroblast Transition During Implant-Induced Foreign Body Reaction
Committee: Mallika Ghosh, Center for Vascular Biology, UCHC; David Daggett, Molecular and Cell Biology; Syam Nukavarapu, Biomedical Engineering; Eugene Pinkhassik, Chemistry

Project Summary: Upon surgical implantation of medical devices such as joint replacements, the body’s immune system reacts to the device in a process known as the foreign body response (FBR). Among the last stages of FBR is total fibrotic encapsulation by fibroblasts and myofibroblasts, which isolates the implant from the rest of the body and can result in implant failure. My project will analyze the macrophage to myofibroblast cell differentiation pathway and its prevalence in fibrotic encapsulation. Furthermore, my project will investigate the transmembrane aminopeptidase CD13 as a negative regulator of this pathway, thus making CD13 a novel target for anti-fibrotic therapeutics.

Fraser McGurk is an honors student majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and minoring in bioinformatics. On campus, he is the vice president for iGEM genetic engineering. In the future, he plans to pursue a PhD in immunology and work in biotech to develop immune-based therapeutics.

Pranav Seshadri

Major: Exercise Science
Project Title: Assessing Neuromuscular Function Following Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction
Committee: Steven Harrison, Psychological Sciences/Kinesiology; Jeffrey Kinsella-Shaw, Physical Therapy; Linda Pescatello, Kinesiology

Project Summary: The study of how musculoskeletal injuries can alter skilled motor performance is central to the rehabilitation science underwriting clinical practice. Peripheral changes, like torn ligaments, affect biomechanical performance and central neuroplasticity. These factors may contribute to persistent impairment. My research isolates the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) as a critical location of catastrophic rupture in overhead athletes like baseball players. By studying neurophysiological and motor control changes following UCL reconstruction, I aim to observe the consequences of ligamentous injuries on neuromuscular performance. My research will elicit critical insights on how peripheral changes may drive central nervous system reorganization.

Pranav Seshadri is a Stamps Scholar majoring in Exercise Science. He is pursuing a Biomedical Engineering PhD and a career in biotechnology venture capital. Pranav is a Senior Analyst in UConn’s Hillside Ventures. He also consults with T.Rx Capital, a new venture firm focusing on biotechnology and digital health investing.

Makenzie Smith

Major: Art History
Project Title: Reconstructing Art and Evidence: Forensic Architecture in Institutional Settings
Committee: Robin Greeley, Art History & Human Rights; José Falconi, Art History & Human Rights; Michael Orwicz, Art History

Project Summary: Forensic Architecture (FA) is an artist-activist collective that investigates instances of human rights abuse perpetrated by state governments, militaries, and corporations. Using digital technology, architectural modeling/spatialization techniques, along with openly-sourced, photography-based media, FA visually reconstructs such violations. Forensic Architecture presents their case studies in various institutional settings–from legal courts to art museums. This project questions how the evidentiary and artistic nature of such exhibitions impact the viewer’s experience, specifically within the space of the art institution. How has this changed our definition of art entirely, and what does this work say about our conceptions of truth in contemporary culture?

Makenzie Smith is an honors student majoring in Art History, particularly interested in the intersection between art and human rights. At UConn, she is an intern at the William Benton Museum of Art. Upon graduation, Makenzie will pursue a Ph.D in Art History, specializing in contemporary art and activism.

Nicholas Thiel-Hudson

Major: Physics and Music
Project title: Rare-Earth Manganites for CO2 Reduction and Quantum Sensing
Committee: Dr. Menka Jain, Physics; Dr. Peter Schweitzer, Physics; and Dr. Ronald Squibbs, Music

Project Summary: Lanthanum strontium manganite (LSMO) is a solid-state material that exhibits particularly interesting electrical and magnetic properties. This makes LSMO a good candidate for use in advanced technologies, however, it is very difficult to make. This project will thus investigate novel synthesis methods to fabricate LSMO powders and films for two different applications. Powders will be optimized for use as a selective electrocatalyst in the conversion of carbon dioxide into usable hydrocarbon products. Films will be optimized for use in quantum sensing, which is useful for advanced technologies like quantum computers.

Nicholas Thiel-Hudson, from New Fairfield, CT, is a Presidential Scholar pursuing dual degrees in Physics and Music. In his free time, he enjoys playing the violin and listening to music from around the world. Nicholas is also an avid weightlifter and occasional rock climber.

Nathan Velazquez

Major: Pathobiology
Minors: Mathematics & Spanish
Project Title: Investigating Regulation of Neutrophil-mediated Inflammation in a Murine Mycoplasma pneumoniae Infection Model
Committee: Dr. Steven Szczepanek, Pathobiology; Dr. Clinton Mathias, Nutritional Sciences; and Dr. Steven Geary, Pathobiology

Project Summary: While vaccines are intended to teach our immune system how to protect us, historically that has not been the case with vaccine attempts against M. pneumoniae. Neutrophils, a type of immune cell, play a central role in damaging our lungs instead of removing bacteria in a normal infection and can cause a vaccine-enhanced disease state. Interestingly, other typically inflammatory cells, called B cells seem to protect our lungs from the neutrophils’ wrath. The present study aims to characterize the subtypes of B cells regulating this neutrophil-mediated damage (termed Bregs) and characterize this, potentially novel, Breg-Neutrophil regulatory axis.

Nathan Velazquez is a Day of Pride and Ronald E. McNair Scholar pursuing a degree in Pathobiology. He also runs the 2LGBTQIA+ peer-mentoring program at the Rainbow Center. Nathan hopes to apply his experience in DEI and Immunology to a career in medicine. He also enjoys dance, yoga and baking!

Michael Vrionides

Major: Chemistry
Project Title: Photo-Switchable Photocatalysts for ATRA Reactions
Committee: Michael Kienzler, Chemistry; Tomoyasu Mani, Chemistry; Chat Abeywickrama, Pharmaceutical Sciences

Project Summary: I joined Dr. Tomoyasu Mani’s lab to conduct research on fluorescent dyes that exhibit charge transfer emission in Fall 2022, which gave me significant background in organic synthesis. My subsequent acceptance into the SULI program under the Department of Energy to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory for the summer of 2023 led to me becoming very familiar with spectral characterization of photocatalysts. I will combine these two skillsets with Dr. Michael Kienzler’s expertise on azobenzene photoswitches to create a new class of photocatalyst to be used in Atom-Transfer Radical Addition (ATRA) reactions.

Michael Vrionides is a Chemistry major from Canton, CT, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Chemistry after completing his bachelor’s degree, with an end goal of working in industry. In his free time he enjoys listening to music and spending time with friends.

Lyla White

Major: Pharmacy Studies
Project Title: Development of a Stable Aspirin Suspension
Committee: Robin Bogner, Pharmaceutical Sciences; Bodhi Chaudhuri, Pharmaceutical Sciences; Youssef Bessada, Pharmacy Practice

Project Summary: Aspirin has been used for over a century to effectively decrease inflammation, pain, and fever, and a low dose reduces the risk of blood clots. However, many patients are permanently or intermittently unable to swallow aspirin tablets. Oral liquids are the preferred alternative because they can be self-administered and are comfortable to swallow. Unfortunately, most oral medicated liquids are water based and aspirin rapidly breaks down in water. I aim to develop a stable aspirin oral liquid and procedures to determine its stability so patients who are unable to swallow have a safe, effective, and comfortable way to take aspirin.

Lyla White is a Presidential STEM Scholar from Newington, CT. She is currently in pharmacy school, and plans to teach at a school of pharmacy or work in the pharmaceutical industry to continue improving drug design to help patients. Lyla is the President of the UConn Climbing Team and is always wearing something purple!

Nazanin Zaer

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Minors: Bioinformatics and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Committee: Fumilayo Showers, Sociology; Amir Kouzehkanani, Statistics; Juliet Lee, Molecular and Cell Biology; Jane Pryma, Sociology
Project title: Investigating the Healthcare Barriers Impacting Immigrant Women in Connecticut Clinics

Project Summary: It’s crucial for patients to trust their healthcare providers when seeking treatment. However, due to cultural differences, immigrant women, in particular, may feel out of place. While cultural competency is taught in medical curricula, it is unclear if patients feel comfortable interacting with their providers. My research aims to discover the barriers that immigrant women face when accessing healthcare in Connecticut. Patient and provider relationships will be analyzed using linked surveys. Follow-up interviews will allow patients to share their stories. Results will help healthcare providers better understand the needs of immigrant women, improving their healthcare experience.

Nazanin Zaer is a Molecular and Cell Biology major from Wethersfield, CT, looking to attend medical school after graduation. On campus, Naz is a student manager at SHaW, and runs a lung cancer screening club (ALCSI). In her free time, she enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and music.

Crystal Zhu

Major: Biological Sciences
Project Title: Unveiling and Illustrating the Diversity of Lichen-Forming Fungal Species in Chile
Committee: Bernard Goffinet, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Louise Lewis, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Paul Lewis, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Ray DiCapua, Art and Art History

Project Summary: Lichens are fascinating composite “organisms” formed through mutualistic associations between fungal and photosynthetic partners such as green algae or cyanobacteria. Historically, lichenized fungal species were heavily delimited based on morphology (i.e., form/appearance/structure) and chemistry of secondary metabolites. I aim to employ integrative taxonomy incorporating phylogenetic analysis alongside morphological and chemical data to elucidate species identities and potentially uncover new species in the genera Sticta and Pseudocyphellaria. The insights gained from these studies will also inform the creation of a visual communication project highlighting the biodiversity and beauty of these often-overlooked entities in Chile.

Crystal Zhu is an honors student from Mansfield, CT, majoring in Biological Sciences with a minor in Studio Art. At UConn, she helps run the Sci-Art Gallery. Outside of school, she enjoys drawing, going to cafés, and spending time with her cat.