Undergraduate Research Profiles

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Emma Beard ’24

Emma Beard ’24
Major: Molecular & Cell Biology; Minor: Physiology & Neurobiology
2023-24 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

My Journey:

Most of all, I believe that my undergraduate journey has taught me the value of patience, resilience, and exploration. Starting college in the middle of a pandemic was an incredibly difficult experience. I came to UConn with goals of what I wanted to achieve as an undergraduate and felt frustrated when reaching those goals felt impossible. I knew in high school that I wanted to be involved in undergraduate research, but with the pandemic keeping campus closed, that goal was put on hold. Once campus opened up again, I had a hard time finding a lab to join on-campus, and began to worry that, as I approached the halfway point of my undergraduate studies, it would be harder for me to find a lab willing to spend the time to train me.

Luckily, I was able to join the Health Research Program the summer after my sophomore year, which has had an incredible impact on my growth as a researcher. I would not have been able to have this opportunity without the experience of my first two years. If I had joined a lab at Storrs, I would never have gotten to learn about the fascinating research at UConn Health. Even if I had joined the HRP one year earlier, I might not have met my research mentor. By waiting until after my sophomore year, I had the opportunity to take courses in cell biology, a part of the MCB major I was initially disinterested in, and discover my enthusiasm for the subject. I have now been a member of the Department of Cell Biology at UConn Health for two years!

Although I was initially disheartened by the setbacks I experienced in my first two years at UConn, I am now grateful for the time I was given to further explore my interests before getting involved in research. There will always be obstacles to overcome, but now I have a better appreciation for the value of working my way through these challenges and growing through the process.

Next Steps:

I am very excited to continue my education in the Ph.D. Program in Biomedical Science at UConn Health this fall! My decision to join this program was heavily influenced by both my research experience and the Office of Undergraduate Research itself. I was first introduced to UConn Health through the Health Research Program in the summer of 2022. Since then, I have gotten the chance to learn more about what it means to be a researcher and also engage with the research community at UConn Health. My experience as part of the HRP not only solidified my interest in pursuing a Ph.D. and research as a career, but also my desire to spend my next chapter at UConn Health!

My Advice:

It might sound silly but read the UConn Daily Digest. All of the most meaningful opportunities I have had as a UConn undergraduate were things I first discovered in the Daily Digest. When I was having trouble finding a lab to join in Storrs, I saw a posting about the HRP, through which I was able to join the lab of my current research mentor. Throughout my involvement with undergraduate research, I turned to the PRA blogs for advice. When I saw a call for PRA applications in the Daily Digest, I knew I wanted to be able to provide the same guidance for other undergraduate researchers and applied for the position. I’ve gone to incredible presentations, performances, and events I never would have found without the Daily Digest. Next time, give the Daily Digest a look; I promise it’s not just inbox clutter!

Click here to learn more about Emma.

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Lina Layakoubi, Dec. ’23

Lina Layakoubi ’23
Major: Biological Sciences; Minor: Physiology & Neurobiology
Fall 2023 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

Picture of OUR Peer Research Ambassador Lina Layakoubi with text: PRA Grad Reflections, Lina Layakoubi '24.My Journey:

When I began college during the height of the pandemic, I never would have imagined that I would find myself in a research lab working with fruit flies. Yet reflecting on these past few years, I can say that undergraduate research has been the most impactful and enriching experience I have had at UConn.

For a long time, research seemed like this daunting academic feat that I could never be capable of. Though on the most basic level I understood that research was a mechanism to create new knowledge, I had no idea what it could actually look like or how I could possibly fit in. As my classes became more advanced and focused on “why” we know certain models to be accurate, my passion for biology lead me to want to participate on the hands on aspect of the field. Lab classes were great but to have the chance to contribute to current work and learn alongside a lab at an R1 school became the dream. I sought out guidance from the OUR staff and after attending Fall Frontiers twice, I was absolutely mesmerized by all the incredible projects my peers had created.

Joining Dr. Karen Menuz’s lab was one of the greatest opportunities I experienced at UCONN. On a day-to-day basis, I feel like research pushed me to grow beyond what I ever could have expected of myself. Academically, weekly journal clubs and working through concepts behind the challenges in my project made me far more scientifically literate and reframed ideas in a way my coursework never could. Being able to do my own experiments, analyze data and even write a grant proposal helped me build confidence in myself that this was something I could be a part of and this was something that would enrich my life. I had a lot of fun with various fly related tasks but more so than that, my lab became a second home at UCONN. Between the other undergrads, my PI and the grad students, our lab felt like a community and each day there was always something new and exciting. I can say one of the highlights of my time in Dr. Menuz’s lab was being able to present at Fall Frontiers. The undergraduate research symposium was where my journey began and so being able to share my project with my peers was incredibly rewarding. Looking back on myself, my time in lab truly helped me to self-realize that research is something I am passionate about and helped me to grow into a more confident version of myself.

Next Steps:

I am graduating a semester early with a BS in Biological Sciences and a minor in Physiology and Neurobiology. As of now, I’ve been accepted to five dental schools and it is up to me to decide where I would like to spend the next four years. I’ve wanted to pursue a career in dentistry for some time, but after joining a lab I now see research becoming a huge part of this career. I hope to continue research in dental school and remain engaged in academic dentistry while practicing clinically in the future.

My Advice:

My greatest piece of advice to those beginning their journey is to follow your interests regardless of your inhibitions. I spent a lot of time feeling like I couldn’t get involved because I did not understand research or believe that I was a fit for it. Never miss the chance to follow your passions! Even if you decide research is not for you, go and try it, you may fall in love with it!

Click here to learn more about Lina.

Meet the PRAs – Anabelle Bergstrom

Meet Anabelle Bergstrom ’25, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy and minoring in Public Policy.

Meet the PRAs - picture of Anabelle, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

The areas of interest for my research are quite varied. During high school, I wrote a mock legal brief arguing in support of including women into the draft. For my Holster Scholar project, I examined how the experiences of ROTC cadets affect their career ambition. For my SURF research, I went back to my roots and conducted legal research into the influence of campaign contributions on state supreme court decisions. This academic year, I will be conducting philosophical research at the UConn Humanities Institute on the effects hyperconnectivity has on pragmatist theories of the self. I am excited to continue to broaden my horizons!

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved in research because I enjoy the challenge it provides. Creating a viable hypothesis, writing grant proposals, conducting the research, and analyzing data all come with challenges. Some of these can be rather unexpected at times. It is in those challenges that I feel I excel. I enjoy the intellectual puzzles that must be solved to continue projects. I have learned the most about myself as a lifelong learner through my research which is why I continue to seek more opportunities. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Romir Raj

Meet Romir Raj ’24, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Biomedical Engineering.

Meet the PRAs, picture of Romir, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

The focus of my research is to understand the relationship between the structure of the genome and its function or if there even is a relationship at all between the two. Specifically, I am trying to deduce a relationship between chromosomal homolog pairing/interactions (genome structure) and gene expression or development (genome function).

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved in research because I wanted to become involved in extracurriculars on campus. I have since grown to love research and have a passion for the intricacies of research.

What advice would you give to aspiring student researchers?

If you are interested in research, be sure to give it a shot! There are so many different labs that study many unique and different things – you are sure to find your place at one and find where you will thrive as an undergraduate researcher. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Sana Gupta

Meet Sana Gupta ’24, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Statistics and minoring in Mathematics.

Meet the PRAs - picture of Sana, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

I am working on an IDEA Grant project in the Statistics department, focused on the imputation of compositional missing data. I am using a statistical programming language called R to test different functions on my dataset with percentage data to figure out a way to fill in the gaps in the data. I also help with data analysis and writing manuscripts in a lab in the Allied Health department.

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved with research because I wanted to apply what I’ve learned in my classes to a project where I could learn and potentially develop something new. I also appreciate the opportunity to improve my research skills as I prepare to apply to graduate school.

What advice would you give to aspiring student researchers?

Don’t be afraid to explore outside of your department when looking for research opportunities. There are many unexpected places you could apply your skills and learn something new, and looking outside of the box can allow you to apply your coursework in unique ways beyond the scope of your major’s curriculum. This can also be an opportunity to explore interests you might have outside of your field of study, and college is the perfect time to foster those interests and grow your skills. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Emma Beard

Meet the PRAs - picture of Emma, Peer Research Ambassador.Meet Emma Beard ’24, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Physiology & Neurobiology.

What is the focus of your research?

Broadly, my research focus is the Drosophila male germline. Previously, I looked at asymmetric stem cell division of male germline stem cells. During asymmetric stem cell division, newly synthesized histone H3 is inherited by the differentiating daughter cell, while preexisting H3 is inherited by the daughter stem cell. I worked on visualizing this asymmetric inheritance through live imaging of Drosophila testes, and also investigated the effects of perturbing asymmetric H3 inheritance. Currently, I am more focused on the later stages of Drosophila spermatogenesis. I am investigating the relationship between the expression of fertility factors on the Y chromosome and transposable elements in spermatocytes.

Why did you get involved in research?

I first became interested in research by hearing others talk about their research projects. I was really inspired by the passion people had for exploration in their field. I have also always loved lab classes, both in high school and college, so I thought the best way for me to get involved in research was in a lab. While I enjoy all aspects of research like reading papers and presenting my work, I will always be most fascinated by the techniques I get to use at the lab bench. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Darren Lee

Meet Darren Lee ’25, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology.

Meet the PRAs, picture of Darren, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

Broadly, I’ve been interested in studying the interactions between organisms and their microbial communities. During my first year, I worked on a Holster Scholar project with Dr. Jonathan Klassen from MCB on fungus-growing ants, which cultivate a co-evolved fungus as their main food source. Work from the lab showed that the ants responded to chemical signals from pathogens, so we wanted to understand how this response was communicated between the ants and fungus. For my project, I evaluated how the ants’ behavior was affected by whether the fungus was alive or dead.

I’ve also worked in Dr. Joerg Graf’s lab, which studies the bacterial community of the European medicinal leech. The leech is an interesting model system since its digestive tract contains a relatively simple microbial community. We experimentally evolved Aeromonas veronii (one of the dominant community members) to look for genetic changes that might confer an advantage in colonizing the leech, then made a mutant A. veronii with the changes we observed to see if they affected the bacterium’s ability to colonize.

Since this summer, I’ve been in Dr. Yanjiao Zhou’s lab at UConn Health where I’ve done some data analysis for several ongoing studies in the lab. So far, I’ve worked on a study looking at a walnut diet in mice—walnuts have a unique nutrient profile that’s been linked to several positive health effects, so we were interested to see if long-term supplementation would lead to lasting changes in the mouse gut microbiome and metabolism.

Why did you get involved in research?

I’ve been a gardener for the longest time, and this has really made me appreciate the idea that there’s a whole world beneath our feet that’s intricately linked with the plants and animals that we can see. When I came to UConn, I was interested in doing microbiology research to pursue this curiosity, and I would say that although it’s taken me in an unexpected direction, I’ve had a really enriching experience so far! Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Grace Vaidian

Meet Grace Vaidian ’24, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) double majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and Drugs, Disease, and Illness (individualized major) and minoring in Psychological Sciences.

Meet the PRAs, picture of Grace, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

In the past I have done research on drug repurposing, which is the process of identifying new therapeutic uses for old / existing drugs. Currently I am involved in a project related to how personality may affect medication adherence. For this project I am working with Dr. Nathaniel Rickles from UConn’s Pharmacy department as well as St. Francis Hospital. Additionally, I work in Dr. John Salamone’s lab, which focuses on neuropsychopharmacology research.

Why did you get involved in research?

I was motivated to get involved in research because it allows me to have an outlet where I have the freedom to pursue my passions / interests. Research gives me a space to let my curiosity flow freely.

What advice would you give to aspiring student researchers?

The advice I would give to aspiring student researchers would be to take everything as a learning experience. You don’t have to be an expert on something to start pursuing research on that topic. Along the way you will learn the skills and information you need. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Fariha Fardin

Meet Fariha Fardin ’25, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Bioinformatics.

Meet the PRAs - picture of Fariha, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

My research focuses on exploring muscle development and diseases of the musculoskeletal system through the use of mouse models and cell culture models. My current project, for which I received a SURF Award in the summer of 2023, delves into the effect of Acvr1R206H expression in muscle stem cells aka satellite cells on skeletal muscle regeneration, specifically in relation to the rare musculoskeletal disorder known as fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva or FOP in short. By investigating these intricate mechanisms, I aim to deepen our understanding of FOP and contribute to advancements in the field of musculoskeletal research.

Why did you get involved in research?

My involvement in research began as a natural extension of my lifelong curiosity with science. From an early age, I found myself drawn to science fairs and thriving in my science classes. Throughout high school, I actively participated in science fairs and relished the opportunity to explore my scientific inquiries. Competing at both regional and state levels, I felt fortunate to delve deeper into my scientific questions. During high school, I was able to secure an internship with the U.S. Army, where I had the incredible opportunity to conduct research for a summer. This experience further ignited my interest in research, solidifying my passion for scientific investigation. Upon entering UConn, I was determined to continue pursuing research and honing my skills. In general, my unyielding passion for science and my unwavering curiosity propelled me to embark on the path of research. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs – Lina Layakoubi

Meet Lina Layakoubi ’24, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Biological Sciences.

Meet the PRAs - picture of Lina, Peer Research Ambassador.What is the focus of your research?

I work in the Menuz Lab in the PNB department. The main focus of my research is to understand the molecular and physiological mechanisms in which insects detect and seek out certain odors in their environment. My current project involves finding receptors involved in ammonia seeking behavior which is one way mosquitoes find human hosts.

Why did you get involved in research?

When I first started looking into research as a freshman, it seemed intimidating, confusing and otherwise unattainable. I spent my first year at UConn with completely online labs and the thought of jumping to a real lab was terrifying to me. As I learned more about molecular biology and physiology in my classes, I developed a passion that trumped this fear. I knew that my time as a biology major would not be complete without experiencing the world of research. Not only did joining a lab give me the chance to contribute to something beyond my textbooks but it also immersed me in a world rich with hands-on learning and new challenges. To me, research has been fun, exciting and crucial to my experience as a student. Looking forward, I can’t imagine research not being a part of my career! Continue reading