Undergraduate Research Profiles

Meet the PRAs: Grace Nichols

Meet Grace Nichols ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Mathematics.

Meet the PRAs: Grace.What is the focus of your research?

I currently work in a neuroscience laboratory at UConn Health where we are studying the auditory system and occurrence of tinnitus in mice. I also assist with clinical research at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Prior to these experiences, I worked in a computational biology lab and helped in producing mathematical models of the genes promoting chemotherapy resistance in Triple Negative Breast Cancer tumors.

Why did you get involved in research?

When I first came to UConn, I was pursuing a major in Mathematics/Actuarial Science and was planning to become an actuary. After taking a few science courses and shadowing healthcare providers, I ended up changing my career track and switching my major to Molecular and Cell Biology. I initially got involved in research because I wanted to gain more exposure to how scientific investigation connects back to patient and community health. Participating in computational biology research provided a unique and valuable bridge between my background in mathematics and my new interest of cell biology.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Get involved in as many different activities as possible, attend different lectures and workshops offered on campus, and take a wide breadth of classes. You never know who you may meet and connect with, or what new topics will pique your interest. College is one of the few times you will get to freely explore in this way, so take advantage of it!

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

What I enjoy most about my research activity is how no two days are the same in the laboratory – there are always new problems to solve and every day is a new learning experience. Being in such a dynamic work environment has helped me to develop my personal and professional skills. Under the guidance of my mentors, I have gained experience in planning and troubleshooting experiments, learned how to communicate the goals and results of a project with my peers, and gained confidence in myself as an investigator. This enriching experience reaffirmed my interest in the healthcare field, and inspired me to pursue scientific research beyond my undergraduate education.

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

After graduation I plan to apply to medical school. My involvement in undergraduate research has truly been a positive experience, and has encouraged me to incorporate scientific investigation into my higher education and career goals. It is because of my time spent in research that I plan to apply to MD/PhD programs.

Meet the PRAs: Chenghong Deng

Meet Chenghong Deng ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Psychology and Bioinformatics.

Meet the PRAs. Chenghong.What is the focus of your research?

I am interested in the field of genetics. My research is bioinformatics based. I am focusing on a type of frog called Breviceps. During the mating season, the female and male Breviceps physically stuck to each other with a bio-glue. I am using computational methods to identify the genetic material response for glue production.

Why did you get involved in research?

I like to explore the unknown world. I also wanted to gain some valuable research experience to help me decide whether I want to go to graduate school.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

It’s never too early to ask about getting involved in research!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

Learning new things every day!

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

By working closely with faculty members, I have become more comfortable reaching out to faculty to ask questions. By using the materials covered in lectures during my research, It has become easier for me to understand the lecture materials. I’ve also improved my critical thinking ability by reading a lot of research papers.

Meet the PRAs: Shreya Murthy

Meet Shreya Murthy ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Criminology, Human Rights, and Finance, and minoring in Political Science.

Meet the PRAs. Shreya.What is the focus of your research?

My research focus is on the intersection of Criminal Behavior, Law, Human Rights and Business. I am looking at how widespread business failures/mishaps happen and unfold and what can be done to remedy the situation after the fact.

Why did you get involved in research?

I initially came into UConn with the focus of doing Criminology and Human Rights. This interest in criminal behavior and the impact of human rights led to my IDEA Grant Project. However, an internship made me reconsider my projected career path of doing Criminal Law as a Prosecutor and significantly changed my research and career interests. This led to a period of exploration during my sophomore year which introduced me to the field of business and human rights. Throughout my sophomore year, I was attending events, meeting with faculty, and taking up a research assistantship with a professor in the field to help inform my own research interests and project.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

If a professor’s class or research work stands out to you, go to their office hours! This is the best way to not only get research opportunities but to network and potentially gain advisors for your own research in a neutral and low-stress environment. Just make sure to have a 30-sec “about me” introduction ready to go. Never turn away from opportunities to learn about people’s work. This means attending research presentations, symposiums, or going to a lunchtime seminar. Going to these events allows you to meet people in your field and learn research techniques that you have never seen before.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

When you are doing a research project there are so many different things that you have to do depending on the project. This could be the proposal, IRB paperwork, or working on posters. My favorite part is the research itself and finding out new things about my topic. Being able to be that “creator” of knowledge is so much fun because of how you can be so lost in what you find one moment and then the next you find the missing piece that links all of the data together!

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

I am planning on going to graduate school after I finish my undergraduate degrees. However, with my interest in research and participation in research programs at UConn, I have been investigating the possibility of doing a PhD program after college instead of or in conjunction with a JD program. Participating in these research programs has taught me a lot about myself and my interests and has shown me the tools I need for my future outside of simply my research.

Meet the PRAs: Mary Vlamis

Meet Mary Vlamis ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) double majoring in Economics and Political Science.

What is the focus of your research?

I am a part of two current research projects. One focuses on gender and ethnic discrimination in the Peruvian labor market, the other focuses on tort reform and public opinion.

Why did you get involved in research activity?

I have always been a curious person, and I have a genuine interest in most of the classes I take. Working hard and showing interest in my classes lead professors to approach me to assist them in their projects. Research is a long and difficult process, but my love for the topics I research helps me to stay focused!

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Put yourself out there! Ask questions in class if something interests you, or go to office hours and talk with faculty on their research. This is the only time in your life you will be surrounded by people who know so much about things you elect to study. Take advantage of it!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

I most enjoy figuring out a creative way to solve a problem. In social science research, it is often difficult to measure your subject of interest. You have to think outside of the box to construct a project that properly analyzes what you intend.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

My research experience has taught me to be patient with myself and be patient with the process.  In this, I have learned that I am capable of much more than I once believed. My research experience has also added a new dimension to my interest in public policy.

Meet the PRAs: Brendan Hogan

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

Meet the PRAs. Brendan.What is the focus of your research?

In my Freshman and Sophomore years, I participated in research that revolved 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 worked with were trying to create a third outcome where parties instead agreed to disagree. With this, an attempt was made to have both sides acknowledge the facts of the other side and ultimately end the conversation with a humble realization that we are all trying to find a solution. Thus, the overall goals were to promote this idea that we are all attempting to solve the issues of today and need to work together as a society to compromise.

Currently, I am beginning to participate on a project that will examine the role of race and the far-right in the making of the US-led postwar ‘liberal international order’. In particular, through theoretically-informed empirical analysis, the manuscript that I will be helping edit will show how the far-right contributed to the crystallization of a distinct racialized anticommunist politics at home crucial to US power-projection abroad.

In the future, I hopefully will be able to carry out a research project where I can intertwine my love for photography with this current project I am working on. 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?

When I was provided my initial opportunity to carry out research, I saw it as a chance to become exposed to a real life research project. From that opportunity, I hoped that I would be able to take what I learned and then carry out my own project. While the research experiment was 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 chose all these research opportunities as I felt a desire to understand these areas of political science and attempt to figure out how researchers are trying to solve the political issues of today. Without this desire to take part in these specific projects, I would not have gotten involved as the work and research may 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 has had on you.

After I finished my research around intellectual humility, I found that I have begun to approach arguments from the perspectives of both sides. This concept 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 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, D.C., or New York. From this research, it has inspired me to try to see both sides 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 always right, but rather both sides should try to meet in the middle and overcome any divides. Without people attempting to reach a middle ground, our polarized political climate will only worsen in the future. Thus, as my previous research was applicable to my area of studies, I have found that it has allowed me to grow as a political scientist, a potential lawyer, and even as an individual.

Meet the PRAs: Kavita Rana

Meet Kavita Rana ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Psychological Sciences.Meet the PRAs. Kavita.

What is the focus of your research?

The focus of our research is on parasitic organisms and how to hinder growth and replication in order to avoid disease on a macroscopic level.

Why did you get involved in research?

I became involved in research because I thought it was interesting to see science applied in real life.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

I would tell freshman to get involved in research early in their college career so they can start getting a better idea of the field they want to go into. Another benefit of starting early is that you can become more independent by the time you are an upperclassman.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest accomplishment in research was being an author on a publication. I was especially happy to contribute to the project in a major way. It really opened my eyes to research and the field, which was good for me as a premed student. I’m always learning about physiological processes, and it is great to see the things I’ve learned in class be applied in the real world.

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

My plan after graduation is to attend medical school. Being involved in research has exposed me to a microscopic level of medicine that I didn’t know existed. For example, I was researching the relationship between sickle cell diseased patients and bone health. I learned about both of these topics, but I had not thought to investigate the relationship between them.

Meet the PRAs: Ian Sands

Meet Ian Sands ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Biomedical Engineering.

Meet the PRAs. Ian.What is the focus of your research?

Using nanoparticles as vehicles for drug delivery into biological tissue that is normally difficult to penetrate.  I work with chondrocytes, neurons, astrocytes, and microglial cells with the hopes of delivering nucleic acids at a high penetration efficiency.

Why did you get involved in research?

I began research in order to become more involved with the particular interests I had within biomedical engineering.  As an undergraduate studying within a broad major with many avenues of specialty, I was able to take time to settle on a topic that truly interested me which just so happened to be tissue engineering via nanoparticle drug therapy.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

My advice to freshman would be to remain unbiased towards opportunities that come their way.  Speaking academically, keep an open mind to subjects and research opportunities that may arise because you never know the types of collaborations and perspectives you can gain through the various fields of study.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

Research as an undergraduate has helped me stay focused and consistent, especially as a senior that is nearing the end of my four years at UConn.  Any worry that I had about losing motivation as time goes on has disappeared completely and I am continuously motivated by the results, both retrospective and prospective, that I produce on a week-to-week basis.

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

My post-graduate plans involve pursuing my Ph.D in biomedical engineering with a specific focus in nanomedicine and/or drug therapy.  There is increasing demand in the research community with respects to nanomedicine in cancer treatment and tissue regeneration applications and I would like to take my skill set and perspective into a lab that focuses on some of these topics.  My experience as an undergraduate researcher will be invaluable especially due to the many publications and presentations that I will have authorship on.  There are also multiple opportunities for me to present at both Frontiers conferences and even a few international ones which will further assist me in my outreach and connections process.

Kathryn Allen: The value of major exploration in discovering a research interest

Kathryn Allen ’19 (CLAS) earned her bachelor’s degree this spring and shares the value of an unexpected academic “detour” in this essay.

When I first entered UConn, I had a plan. Like many eager incoming freshmen, I would major in Biology; take classes that follow the pre-med track, hopefully gain some research experience, and ultimately apply to medical school the summer of my junior year. However, also true of many freshmen entering the academia environment, that plan would soon change over my time at UConn.

After enjoying a few courses that were not strictly biology focused, I began thinking about a major that would provide both science-oriented subjects and those focused on the humanities. During my sophomore year, I changed my major to Cognitive Science, an interdisciplinary major, and began exploring various subjects including linguistics, psychology, and speech language and hearing science. My new major, while quite small, was a perfect medium that allowed me to enroll in a wider array of unique courses, while still having adequate time to fulfill the pre-med requirements. By the end of my sophomore year, I started to recognize my interest in topics like child development, language, and neurological disorders and function.

At this point in my undergraduate career, I began my search for a lab that would allow me to complete my thesis. Like many uncertain undergraduate students, I had no idea where to begin my search. During my junior year, I reached out to a professor in the psychology department, met with them about their interests and area of research, and eventually began working in their lab. Throughout the semester, I gained valuable experience running clinical trials, but realized that I wished to conduct my thesis on a different topic.

Towards the end of my junior year, my academic advisor, Dr. Naigles mentioned that she had a spot opening up in her lab, as well as a project she thought I might be interested in. I had taken two classes with her during my time at UConn and she proposed a project that had both language and neural components; two areas I was particularly interested in. Knowing that I was behind on my project compared to my classmates, I began doing preliminary work on it during the summer before senior year. I worked from home transcribing audio of story narratives told by both children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and typically developing children. In the fall, I had the opportunity to accompany our graduate student to a home to collect additional story narratives. A graduate student in our lab had previously collected the Auditory Brainstem Response data with an EEG and my project focused on the relationship between story narratives and internal brainstem response for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and typically developing (TD) children.

As I was transcribing the data, I realized noticeable differences between the narratives derived from the children diagnosed with ASD and those from the TD children; however, I could not initially explain why. I proposed to Dr. Naigles a method for assessing if these differences were significant. I generated a document featuring story narrative transcripts from the children, administered the transcripts to peers and had them rate the stories based on how well they understood them. Dr. Naigles was supportive and encouraging of the creative component of the project and suggested that we include it.

After transcription was performed during the summer, I spent the fall administering the transcripts to peers and analyzing the data. Prior to this project, I had never used SPSS besides minimal exposure in STAT1000Q and was not entirely sure what I was doing. However, as the months progressed, the data analysis became easier and easier. By the end of the project, I was able to run correlations, identify whether to run a paired or unpaired t-test, interpret statistical significance, and

Kathryn Allen presenting her research at the INSAR conference.
Kathryn Allen ’19 (CLAS)

more.

During my spring semester I compiled the data, started writing my thesis, and with the encouragement of Dr. Naigles, I applied to present my findings at an international conference held in Montreal, CA. The aid from the OUR grant made my attendance at the conference possible. I had few expectations of what it meant to present a poster at a conference, let alone attend one, but when I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found. I hope to attend medical school in the future and have interests ranging across disciplines. During the conference, I was able to attend talks focused on an array of different topics, such as clinical treatments, genetic predispositions to Autism Spectrum Disorders, and global disparities within the medical field. They were fascinating and educating. My poster presentation was scheduled for the second day I was there. I am generally not nervous when it comes to talking to new people, but when I knew I would be presenting my findings to experts in the field, I clammed up. Dr. Naigles helped me practice how to present the poster, which calmed my nerves significantly. Gradually, individuals approached my poster and began asking questions. As time went on, I became less and less nervous and it felt natural to tell others about the findings of my research.

The aid from the OUR grant not only allowed me to attend a conference, but it offered a space for me to explore exciting ongoing research, and refine my public speaking skills, which will be valuable for my future career in medicine. I am so grateful for the opportunity I have had to complete a project of my own and attend a conference where I was able to present my thesis to others in the field. Ultimately, I am happy my initial plan entering college took the many detours it did to get me to where I am today and surpass all my expectations as to what research can entail for an undergraduate at UConn.

Meet the PRAs: Abigail LaFontan

Meet Abigail LaFontan ’20, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Political Science and minoring in French.

Meet the PRAs. Abigail.What is the focus of your research?

The overall focus of my research is food policy and the environment. I want to move on to do environmental law and public health so I have tailored my research projects to be related to these areas.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved in research because it allowed me to pursue my interests independent of any classroom setting or grading system. Research has always appealed to me because I like to have a broad base of knowledge and I like to pursue my interests as I see them, not by following a course curriculum. So, I use my major courses and requirements as my way to learn about political science and french, and then I use my research to learn about the intersection between these areas and my other passions, and their overall applicability to reality. Research, in the end, brings you deeper into reality.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Don’t be afraid to reach out. Research was the best thing I got involved with here at UConn and it all started because I got an email from a political science professor the July before I began my freshman year about an offer to apply for a political science research assistant position. I look back on that opportunity and consider myself lucky for how the research came to me and I consider how much differently my undergraduate career may have gone had I not applied or had I never received that email.

Even if an opportunity doesn’t present itself automatically, realize that there are so many ways you can pursue all of your interests. Don’t let yourself become too focused on one path and miss the chances all around you to expand your perspective and do some learning to advance your passions. Research can truly help you find the connection in this world between all of your interests.

What do you enjoy most about participating in research?

I most enjoy the community that comes with conducting research at UConn. Whether you are working with a professor, a mentor, your friends, or a research advisor from the Office of Undergraduate Research, you are surrounded by people who are interested in what they are doing and truly want to be there. It is a unique community in which you can truly get to know someone through their interests as presented through their research endeavors.

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

After graduation I plan to go to law school and pursue the intersection between public health and environmental law with my main focus staying on food policy. My involvement in research has helped me define my personal interests and goals by giving me the opportunity to go outside of my classes and learn through doing. Through my different projects, I have been able to refine my passions so I better understand how I can accomplish my personal goals and how I can apply my interests to my future career.

Meet the PRAs: Maria Latta

Meet Maria Latta ’20 (Pharm. D. Candidate 2022), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Pharmacy Studies and minoring in Sociology and Molecular & Cell Biology.

What is the focus of your research?Meet the PRAs. Maria Latta.

Currently, I am researching the impact of a project management team on sustainability in public health programs that utilize pharmacist services. Previously, I have researched social influences on Traditional Chinese Medicine use, nanoparticles for chemotherapy drug delivery, and the role of mitochondrial proteins in Alzheimer’s Disease.

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved in research because I wanted to utilize novel techniques to make an impact and further progress in healthcare and pharmacy for minority groups.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

First year students should be open to exploring different types, styles, and approaches in research. This helps to expand your understanding of what research can look like and the impact you can have in your field!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

My favorite part of doing research is that I can use problem solving to enact change and progress in my field. This is anything from supporting and developing healthier communities to highlighting the unique needs in minority groups.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

Research has helped me explore my interest in sociology and social research within pharmacy as well as gaining confidence in my creative capacity and problem-solving abilities.

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

Research has helped to connect me with a community of social researchers in pharmacy that continues encourages me to pursue a graduate degree in medical sociology. My goal is to combine research and clinical practice into public health policy and program implementation.