Author: McGuire, Caroline

Meet the PRAs: Priscilla Grillakis

Meet Priscilla Grillakis ’19 (CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences.

Peer Research Ambassador Priscilla Grillakis

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

I received an IDEA Grant last year to work with three students from the Neag School of Education. Our project aimed to design a peer-tutoring program to help Emergent Bilingual students improve their language abilities, and I specifically focused on the language acquisition portion.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved in research because I intend on becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist, and evidence-based practice is essential in this field. Through conducting my own research, I was able to learn about the research process as a whole, and I feel very capable and excited to continue researching in the future. I feel that research can offer us invaluable information, and being able to contribute something to the research in the field I am passionate about is an exciting opportunity.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

I would highly recommend getting involved in research from early on. Research is a very rewarding experience, and acts a way to learn more about a topic than you would in your typical scope of classes.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research/creative activity?

Participating in research offered me a chance for a hands-on learning experience. I was able to explore the material I am passionate about in greater depth, and through working on an interdisciplinary team I was able to learn how to view a particular situation or problem from a variety of perspectives.

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

After graduation, I intend on attending graduate school in the hopes of becoming a Speech-Language Pathologist. My involvement in research has prepared me for my graduate school education and future career because the field values evidence-based practice, so I will need to stay updated on current research and methods. Conducting my own research has given me a new appreciation for each research paper I read, and has also inspired me to continue research in the future.

Meet the PRAs: Natasha Patel

Meet Natasha Patel ’19 (CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Natasha Patel

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

My research is on the use of biomaterials to treat growth plate injuries in mice. I am trying to develop a mouse injury model that represents the growth plate injuries children experience. Often during a growth plate injury what can occur is the formation of a premature bony bridge in the growth plate. This can prevent the growth plate from completing its normal function, which can stunt growth of the affected bone and lead to orthopedic problems like limb shortening and irregular growth. Studies show that blood vessels are what stimulate the formation of this unwanted bony bridge post growth plate injury. Therefore, I am using biomaterials to deliver factors that can suppress blood vessel arrangement at the injury site to hopefully prevent bony bridge formation so that the growth plate can continue to aid in its normal function of bone growth.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved with my research because I wanted to make a difference in the field of science. I believe each semester of work gets me one step closer to helping children with growth plate injuries. I see the significance of my project and realize that there needs to be more research done in my area of interest due to the great need of finding a treatment for children with growth plate injuries. Knowing that I will contribute to the field by pursuing this research makes it meaningful to me and is why I continue to participate in it.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Do not get frustrated if you cannot find a research opportunity immediately. It may take time and multiple attempts in order to find something that you are interested in. It is okay to try out a research interest and then change your mind. Do not settle for research you do not truly enjoy, there is something out there for everyone!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research/creative activity?

I enjoy being able to work in a professional environment such as UConn Health. It has allowed me to meet and connect with faculty and explore different types of research and opportunities available. I feel prepared for the professional environment in the future because of my experience at UConn Health with the Health Research Program.

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

I plan on attending dental school after graduation. My project has definitely helped me find my research interests such as histology. I would love to continue to do research involving histology while in graduate school. The lab skills I learned have prepared me for the hands-on work I will be doing in dental school and has improved my dexterity significantly. Having my lab in the UConn School of Dental Medicine has been amazing for me as I have been able to connect with the oral surgeon working on my project and was able to develop a strong relationship with her and even shadow her. Learning about dental research with other faculty has also expanded my knowledge on basic science and clinical research opportunities available in the future. My research and relationships made with other experts in the field have confirmed my desire to go to dental school.

Meet the PRAs: Shahan Kamal

Meet Shahan Kamal ’19 (CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Shahan

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

My research is focused on using computational methods to learn about the genetic connections to colorectal cancer.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved in research because I saw it as an opportunity to learn firsthand about the applications of techniques and technologies from the classroom and utilize them in the real world.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

I would advise freshman to not be afraid to ask any questions or pursue any opportunity. Every experience has some sort of benefit, but you can’t gain any experience if you don’t go after an opportunity.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research/creative activity?

My favorite thing about participating in research is the rewarding feeling of making progress. It can be a grind sometimes, but progression is incredibly gratifying.

Describe the impact your research experience/creative activity has had on you.

My research experience has allowed me to grow as a critical thinker and be more comfortable dealing with unknowns or not knowing what might come next. The confidence to do work that doesn’t have a confirmed outcome is incredibly valuable and has completely changed the way that I approach my work.

Meet the PRAs: Brendan Hogan

Meet Brendan Hogan ’21 (CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Political Science and Psychology.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Brendan

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

As of right now, I have participated in research that revolves around the influence of intellectual humility upon public discourse. Essentially, when someone engages in a conversation with another person over a political issue in today’s political climate, the conversation tends to go into one of two directions. When a conversation begins, it can either end with both parties either agreeing or both parties disagreeing. When both parties disagree over a topic, a hostile conversation usually is created where both sides become angry and attempt to force their opinion on the other. Thus, the researchers I have worked with have been trying to create a third outcome where parties can instead agree to disagree. With this, both sides are able to acknowledge the facts of the other side and ultimately end the conversation with a humble realization that we are all trying together to find a solution. Thus, it creates this idea that we are all attempting to solve the issues of today and should work together as a society to compromise.

In the future, I hopefully will be able to carry out a research project where I can intertwine my love for photography with political science and human rights. I may look towards the area of political journalism to find a more solidified direction for my project.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

When I was provided this opportunity to carry out research, I saw it as a chance to become exposed to a real life research project. From the opportunity, I hoped that I would be able to take what I learned and then carry out my own project. While the research experiment is an important aspect of the project, it was also pertinent that I became accustomed to the behind-the-scenes management and organization of a project.

In addition, I took the research opportunity as I felt a desire to understand this area of political science and attempt to figure out how researchers are trying to solve the political polarization of today. Without this desire to take part in this specific research project, I would not have gotten involved as the work that I conducted and research that I carried out would not have been enjoyable.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

When you are jumping into college, it is easy to sign up for and commit to many extracurricular activities. If I could give you any advice, it would be to try to find a few things that you love the most and stay committed to those activities throughout your undergraduate years. Work to improve those clubs, positions, and opportunities, but also look to find a balance between your own personal life and college career. The next few years will be some of the most enjoyable years of your life, so don’t forget to take the time to not only build your resume, but to grow as an individual and find yourself. If you can do this, you will be able to graduate with an idea of what is important to you and what you want to do after your time at UConn.

Describe the impact your research experience/creative activity has had on you.

After I finished my research, I found that I have begun to approach arguments from the perspectives of both sides. This concept of intellectual humility has really shed light on the issue of political polarization for me and has shown me that it is important to work towards compromises. With this real world application of research, this experience has left a lasting impact on my outlook in my everyday interactions with others.

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

After I graduate, I hope to go to law school and eventually practice law in Connecticut or New York. From this research, it has inspired me to take on a neutral stance in debates and conversations so that the facts of the argument can first be examined. From there, it has shown to me that no one side is necessarily right, but rather both sides should meet in the middle and overcome this political divide. Without people attempting to reach a middle ground, our polarized political climate will only worsen in the future. Thus, as this research was applicable to my area of study, I have found that it has allowed me to grow as a political scientist, a potential lawyer, and as an individual.

Meet the PRAs: Wawa Gatheru

Meet Wanjiku (Wawa) Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Environmental Studies.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Wawa

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

During the summer after my freshman year, I was lucky enough to join the Community Nutrition lab of Dr. Amy Mobley – an experience that lasted for a year and a half. It was through that experience that my passion for food access issues emerged and my eventual IDEA grant project was born: the UConn Access to Food Effort – an initiative to quantify food insecurity at UConn and to create a locally sourced food pantry on campus.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I initially got involved in research through the Bridging the Gap program the summer of 2017. It was this experience that allowed me to work as a research assistant in Community Nutrition lab of Dr. Amy Mobley.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

UConn is a hub of opportunity – take advantage of it! As a freshman, you have a fresh slate and more time to explore than any other year. Take this time to discover your passions and dislikes. Take risks, be open, and put yourself out there! And most of all – do not get caught up in following a pre-determined plan. Unplanned opportunities will be some of the most important ones you will get involved with. Take a chance with the unexpected – you might be pleasantly surprised.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest accomplishment has been making a conscious decision to dedicate myself to public service. As a future public servant, my involvement in undergraduate research and creative endeavors has allowed me to focus my time at UConn on advocacy and awareness.

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

After graduation, I plan to join the Peace Corps as a Coastal Resource Management Community Outreach Facilitator or pursue another service-oriented international experience. My service-learning IDEA grant has made it more evident to me that public service is the path for me.

Meet the PRAs: Divya Ganugapati

Meet Divya Ganugapati ’19 (CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Cognitive Science.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Divya

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

My current research project investigates what aspects of language and phonetic properties of speech contribute to voice identification.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved in research because I had a curiosity to learn more about the brain. My courses offered me a strong foundation in understanding neural mechanisms, but I had many questions that were unanswered, thus pointing to research as the mechanism to discover answers.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

As a freshman, you face a wide array of opportunities – socially and academically – don’t be afraid to take the time to explore and discover your passions. Being adaptable is the best way to find the major, research, internship, etc. that is best for you.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research/creative activity?

My favorite part of research is that I create the questions. Unlike in classes, where the curriculum is predetermined in a syllabus, in research I design an entire experiment to follow my own interests. The feeling of intellectual freedom and creativity is something I had not experienced until conducting research.

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

Doing research in the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Department actually altered my career interests by swaying me towards medicine. Analyzing fMRI scans, interacting with aphasia patients, and reading literature connecting speech to neurological disorders sparked an interest in neurology and cognitive/communicative disorders.

Meet the PRAs: Veronica Pleasant

Meet Veronica Pleasant ’19 (CAHNR), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Animal Science and Pathobiology.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Veronica

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

I’ve been involved with Dr. Kristen Govoni’s laboratory for the last three years, and our focuses have varied from sheep to neonatal calves, all under the umbrella of maternal programming, or the idea that alterations to the intrauterine environment can impact offspring growth and development. Currently, we are working on the impact of maternal nutrition on the offspring in conjunction with North Dakota State University.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

As a member of Women in Math, Science and Engineering (WiMSE) Learning Community, we were introduced to the idea of getting involved in undergraduate research as part of the FYE class. Although incredibly intimidating, I got the idea that I would really like to try it out, to see if I liked it. Luckily, Dr. Govoni is the faculty director of WiMSE, and I asked her if she had space in her lab, and she did! Here we are three years later, still going strong!

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Faculty are people too. I think a lot of first year students become intimidated by their professors because they are so knowledgeable, and more experienced. However, having that in-person connection makes all the difference. Faculty members often love to talk about their research, so please don’t hesitate to ask them about it!

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

Presenting in Vancouver, Canada, was definitely my greatest research accomplishment. It was absolutely terrifying to be representing UConn on an international stage, and in such a scientific capacity with people who have had careers in the animal science field longer than I’ve been alive. However, it went swimmingly, and I am better for the experience!

What are your plans after graduation? How has involvement in research/creative activity influenced your plans and/or prepared you for the future?

My plans after graduation including going to veterinary school for my DVM, and then, or concurrently, my PhD in some facet of infectious disease research. I never, ever, in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be interested in putting myself through school for an additional 7-8 years, but research led me here. Working in the lab has built my confidence, my laboratory skills, and my time management skills in a way no other experience could have. It piqued my interest in doing research for any part of my career, and now I’m actively pursuing my new goals.

Meet the PRAs: Ariane Garrett

Meet Ariane Garrett ’20 (ENG, CLAS), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Biomedical Engineering and Spanish.

Peer Research Ambassador Ariane Garrett

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

I work in the Hoshino Laboratories developing a novel cerebral spinal fluid shunt capable of detecting flow. Cerebral spinal fluid shunts are the primary form of treatment for hydrocephalus, a disease that causes a buildup of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. Shunts are intended to be lifelong implants but are very prone to failure. In addition, the symptoms of shunt failure are often ambiguous, making it difficult to diagnose. Our device aims to solve this problem by creating a simple, cost effective, and non-invasive way of determining CSF flow through the shunt.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I initially got involved in research because I was curious about the research process and I wanted to learn more about biomedical engineering. I stayed involved with research because I really enjoy the design process, and it is extremely rewarding to see your ideas come to life. At this point, I’ve been working on my project for over a year now. Throughout this time, I’ve grown as a researcher and learned many useful skills that I wouldn’t have in the classroom.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

When you first join a lab, it may seem very boring or overwhelming. Try to stick with it for a little while and be patient. Most likely, it will take time for you to be given real responsibility and interesting tasks. In the meantime, learn as much as you can by observing those around you and reading relevant literature.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research/creative activity?

As an engineer, my favorite part of research is the design process. You start with a conceptual goal and a few parameters that must be met, and it’s your job as the researcher to turn that concept into reality. I always start by brainstorming and sketching in my lab notebook. Then, after I’ve fleshed out my idea a bit more, I design it in Solidworks. At this point I seek feedback from other people in the lab, who often point out some problems I missed the first time. Then, I make a procedure for turning the design into reality. Sometimes, that just involves sending the design to Shapeways, other times it requires designing and milling molds. Finally, the design is made. It’s pretty cool to hold a part you designed in your hands, knowing every little detail that went into its creation.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest research accomplishment so far was presenting at the Holster Scholar symposium early in my sophomore year. After spending the whole summer working on my project and struggling to find my place in the lab, it was rewarding to stand up in front of my peers and talk about my accomplishments. Even though that time didn’t mark the height of my research achievements, it signified the end of my first summer doing research full time, living in an apartment, and working independently. I proved to myself that I was capable of seeing my project through to the end, and it felt great!

Research Assistant in Molecular Modeling Lab

Opportunity Description

Our group specializes in molecular modeling & simulation to study biomaterials, biomechanics and biophysical processes associated with the body’s function in health and disease. We are always interested in mentoring self-motivated undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds. Multiple projects are available depending on student interest and fit.

More details on the projects can be found at: http://me.engr.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/F18-REU-Anna-Tarakanova.pdf

The student will gain experience in molecular model development, atomistic modeling, coarse-graining approaches, molecular simulation setup and implementation on supercomputers, molecular visualization software, MATLAB/Python scripting, and scientific writing. The student will have a chance to participate in a collaborative project, and if successful, contribute to a scientific publication.

Research activities may include:
– Read and summarize related literature
– Build and iterate molecular models
– Perform simulations on computing cluster
– Post-process data
– Visualize and analyze data
– Meet weekly with faculty member

Commitment: 10 hours/week, including a weekly meeting with faculty member

Course credit available.

Student Qualifications
Helpful experience for all projects: Familiarity with scripting in the Linux environment, molecular modeling with molecular-dynamics-based approaches, experience with Python/MATLAB.

Preferred coursework: Differential Equations/Linear Algebra, Physics I: Mechanics/Statistical Physics, Biochemistry.

How to Apply
Interested students should email a resume/CV and a brief cover letter to anna.tarakanova@uconn.edu indicating why they are interested in this research opportunity. Please indicate whether you are interested in the Fall semester or both Fall & Spring.

Mentor: Anna Tarakanova, Assistant Professor
Department: Mechanical Engineering
Email: anna.tarakanova@uconn.edu
Timing: Fall 2018, Spring 2019
Campus: Storrs

• 2018 Mentorship Excellence Awards

mentorship3

In recognition of the pivotal role that mentors play in supporting undergraduate research and creative activity, the Office of Undergraduate Research is pleased to announce the recipents of the 2018 Mentorship Excellence Awards. These awards recognize two faculty members – one in a STEM field, and one in a non-STEM field – and one graduate student who exemplify the ways in which outstanding mentors challenge and support their students, enabling them to take intellectual risks and achieve milestones they might not have initially envisioned being able to reach.

The 2018 Mentorship Excellence Awards were presented to Andrea Voyer, Nicholas Eddy, and Laura Mickelsen during the Frontiers in Undergraduate Research Poster Exhibition on Friday, April 13, 2018.


Andrea Voyer, Assistant Professor, Sociology
Professor Voyer’s award was presented by Savannah-Nicole Villalba ’18 (CLAS). The following text is excerpted from Savannah-Nicole’s presentation remarks.

Savannah-Nicole Villalba presents plaque to awardee Andrea Voyer.
Savannah-Nicole Villalba ’18 (CLAS) presents the award to her mentor, Professor Andrea Voyer.

I had Dr. Voyer for one of the required classes for our major, social theory. Dr. Voyer gracefully worked us through the dense theories of 19th century sociologists. It was my first time engaging with sociological theory, and many of us were struggling to understand the concepts. Dr. Voyer was patient with us as we tried to make connections to the material. She was encouraging so that we weren’t afraid of being wrong, and was personable in a way that encouraged students to work harder.

This mentality was one that she brought with her when we began the IDEA Grant application process. When we started discussing the possibility of applying, she did not bring me in to work on something she was interested in. In our first meeting, she asked me what I was passionate about and I could tell she genuinely cared. Dr. Voyer was the first person to believe in my passions and to tell me that my research questions were valid. We spent months working on the application process, and when the grant was approved, I knew it would not have been possible without her guidance.

With her own incredible research and personal life, she has always been accessible to discuss the newest challenge I faced. Instead of just providing answers, she would offer suggestions on ways to problem solve to reach reasonable solutions. Even though Dr. Voyer has been away this school year, she has helped me apply (and be accepted) to graduate school, supported (and protected) me at my first research conference, and has shown me what an academic mentor should be.


Nicholas Eddy, Assistant Professor in Residence, Chemistry
Professor Eddy’s award was presented by Pranjali Ichalkaranje ’18 (CLAS). The following text is excerpted from Pranjali’s presentation remarks.

Pranjali Ichalkaranje presents plaque to awardee Nicholas Eddy.
Pranjali Ichalkaranje ’18 (CLAS) presents the award to her mentor, Professor Nicholas Eddy.

Research with Dr. Eddy has been the most rewarding experience I could have wished for as an undergraduate. I was able to grow tremendously by obtaining knowledge and skills applicable not only in research but also other aspects of life. In terms of research, teaching an undergraduate student with experience in life sciences but limited knowledge in Organic Chemistry was a challenging task that Dr. Eddy took on with no hesitation.

I was challenged each day, whether it was mixing a solution or reading articles with little background on the material. He was not afraid to hold me to a higher standard and push me beyond my limits, allowing me to put classroom knowledge into practice and increase my critical thinking and problem solving skills. He encouraged me to read, write, ask questions, and – most importantly – make mistakes. Though I made more than he agrees to, he offered reassuring and constructive feedback each time. Most importantly, he made sure I had everything I needed to succeed in anything I put my mind to – a role he took on as my mentor.

My research experience opened my eyes to career opportunities in research and medicine. I have been able to grow immensely as a scientist, researcher, student, writer, teacher and an overall individual.

Dr. Eddy represents the diligence, passion and commitment that students, scientists and teachers need on a daily basis. He puts his students, researchers and colleagues before himself. He is the highlight of the students’ day, and a source of comfort for many as they embark on their undergraduate experience.


Laura Mickelsen, Ph.D. Candidate, Physiology and Neurobiology, Jackson Laboratory
Laura was presented with her award by Eric Beltrami ’19 (CLAS) and Jacob Naparstek ’18 (CLAS), two of the undergraduate researchers who work under her supervision in the Jackson lab. The following text is excerpted from Eric’s presentation remarks.

Photo of James Costanzo, Jacob Naparstek, awardee Laura Mickelsen, Eric Beltrami, and Alexander Jackson.
Award winner Laura Mickelsen, center, is pictured with undergraduate researchers James Costanzo, Jacob Naparstek, and Eric Beltrami, as well as Professor Alexander Jackson.

Laura is an incredible scientist and speaker, and she has made an effort to help develop those skills in us. She challenges us to explain our projects and try to troubleshoot our setbacks independently so that when we present our work we are prepared to take ownership of what we did and understand the scientific process behind it thoroughly.

Laura’s exceptional mentorship is not limited to guidance in our research projects. Laura has fostered a family of people who deeply care about one another… and the lateral hypothalamus. Laura makes coming to lab not only incredibly productive but also fun. With her effortless humor and kind heart she has made lab somewhere we look forward to going every day. She never hesitates to make sure we are keeping up in our courses and ask us about our extracurricular involvement. It is clear to us that she cares about our personal lives and is always there to provide us guidance in our daily life and about our career goals. I can honestly say that Laura’s mentorship was a major factor in my decision to pursue a career in which I can make research a part of my life.

Laura, whatever path you take on your journey to success will be an amazing and rewarding one because of your incredible dedication and love for what you do. I am constantly inspired by your personal drive and ability to master such a diverse set of skills. James, Jake and I cannot thank you enough for everything.


Congratulations to the 2018 award recipients! The Office of Undergraduate Research thanks the undergraduate students who nominated their faculty and graduate student mentors as well as the Peer Research Ambassadors who served on this year’s selection committee.