Undergraduate Research Profiles

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Ally Bettencourt ’21

PRA Grad Reflections - Ally Bettencourt.Alexandra (Ally) Bettencourt ’21
Pathobiology & Animal Science
2020-21 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

My Journey:

When I first came to UConn as a freshman, I must admit that I was one of the many pre-professional freshmen that thought undergraduate research was just a box to check off when applying for professional school. I could not have been more wrong! When an opportunity presented itself through a club’s email listserv at the end of my freshman year, I jumped on it, having no idea the path that it would lead me on. Continue reading

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Mukund Desibhatla ’21

PRA Grad Reflections - Mukund Desibhatla.Mukund Desibhatla ’21 (Physiology & Neurobiology, Spanish)
2020-21 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

My Journey:

I entered UConn with zero prior experience in research. This prompted me to search outside of the classroom for areas of academia that would excite me and catalyze my growth as a scholar.

After joining Dr. John Salamone’s psychology lab, I dove into the field of neuropsychopharmacology and explored molecular binding affinity and its effects on behavior and symptoms of depression. Receiving a SURF Award last summer accelerated the timeline of my project and allowed me to build on the foundational knowledge that has now transformed into my PNB Honors thesis.

My observation of a gap in peer mentorship led to the creation of my original leadership podcast, Agents of Change, which highlighted the success stories of fellow students and accessible campus resources that facilitate leadership development. Through the UConn IDEA Grant program, my co-host Vinayak Mishra and I expanded on this idea by hosting UConn’s first Podcast Symposium in February 2021. This event brought together professional podcasters to discuss bringing change through podcasting mediums.

For my Spanish major, I opted to write a separate Honors thesis to investigate social determinants of health in the community of Granada, Spain. Inspired by my study abroad opportunity at the University of Granada, I reached out to former mentors and interviewed them about the Spanish healthcare system and advocacy to help marginalized communities overcome barriers to healthcare. With support from an OUR Supply Award, I was able to record these international conversations and compile them into an interdisciplinary portfolio.

I grew up with a diverse South Asian musical background that showed me the power of music to evoke emotion. These observations helped me sculpt my personal goal—to direct my passion for the Indian classical arts in a direction that would create a social impact in my own community. There is a dire need for self-directed mental health therapies, so I developed a novel music therapy app to bridge this gap and in doing so, increase students’ happiness and quality of life. For this project, I have been fortunate to receive an invitation to join the Clinton Global Initiative University.

In pursuing a double major, my goal has been to touch a multitude of disciplines and explore their infinite combinations! I planted seeds that evolved into independent projects that have nurtured my curiosity and tenacity to investigate the unknown.

What’s Next:

Next year, I plan on pursuing an MPH at Yale School of Public Health in Social & Behavioral Sciences with a concentration in US Health & Justice. While I am not yet certain what type of research I will get involved in, I believe that UConn’s research network has prepared me for the next chapter.

When I look back at my time at UConn, I think about the handful of original questions I posed to the world and the journey I took to find an answer. Research is beneficial to anyone, regardless of long-term goals!

Click here to learn more about Mukund.

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Oreoluwa Olowe ’21

PRA Grad Reflections - Oreoluwa.Oreoluwa Olowe ’21 (Mechanical Engineering)
2020-21 OUR Peer Research Ambassador

What I’ve Learned:

Research has been a part of my entire college career. I am well aware that UConn is a research school. I did not expect to utilize this opportunity so well working on four different research projects. I learned a lot more about myself from each project, from interacting with team members and faculty.  I was in positions where I had the opportunity to grow.  I have gained interpersonal, communication and public speaking, and time management skills participating in research. It has been a huge learning experience being part of undergraduate research.

What’s Next:

After graduation, I plan to use the skills gained from my research experience to start my own company. The dedication to keep reading literature and running experiments when you don’t know if there is a viable solution at the end is very important. I believe it would play a role in my entrepreneurial endeavors.


Take risks. I try to take calculated risks where I account for every possible situation. However, taking risks means believing in yourself and the fact that you will succeed.

Click here to learn more about Oreoluwa.

Meet the PRAs: Anisha Jain

Meet Anisha Jain ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Pathobiology and minoring in Molecular & Cell Biology.

Meet the PRAs - Anisha.What is the focus of your research?

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and it’s more severe form non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), typically arise in individuals who are obese. In these cases, typically weight loss is the treatment option. In recent years physicians have discovered a large proportion of non-obese individuals who develop NASH. The pathogenesis and treatment of this distinct disease phenotype is not well understood. Since weight loss isn’t a viable option for non-obese individuals, my research aims to better understand the disease mechanism for NASH, as well as identify pharmaceutical and nutritional methods to mitigate steatosis and inflammation in mouse models of lean NASH.

Why did you get involved in research?

My dad is a physician in academia and his involvement in research has always been a large part of his identity, which he often shared our family.  We would often travel to conferences both national and international to hear my dad and his colleagues present, as well as I’d frequently visit his office. Through all of this I was consistently surrounded by brilliant, awe-inspiring physicians and scientist who shaped my idea of research and academics. In the end I’m grateful to my dad and his brilliant colleagues who made research an exciting prospect and instilled the desire to be like them. In high school was accepted into a science research program in which I began to actually participate in this research I grew up hearing about. It was mentors in those few years, especially Dr. Karin Finberg,  who deepened my curiosity and appreciation for research and eventually gave me the critical thinking and technical skills which enabled me to design an IDEA grant project.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

There’s a dichotomy of undergraduate research: don’t feel rushed to get involved, but it’s there for you if you want it at any point in time. I am an example of getting involved in research very early in my life and academic career, which means that it’s there for anyone at any point, but it’s best to find ways to prime your curiosity. What I mean by that is listen to seminars, read papers, talk to professors, inside and outside of your academic major. Find things that excite you and that you’re passionate about, and keep an open mind.

What are your plans after graduation?

I hope to apply into M.D.-Ph.D. dual degree programs and study to become a physician-scientist. In short, my career will hopefully be completely research-centered.

Click here for more information on Anisha and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Kerry Morgan

Meet Kerry Morgan ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Allied Health Sciences and Molecular & Cell Biology.

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

I have been working in Dr. James Li’s lab at UConn Health since the beginning of June 2019. My project focuses on tracing lineages of cells throughout cerebellar development. We use genetically modified mice to replicate human models of gene expression, and we analyze the resulting phenotypes. The specific mouse lines used for my project focus on the upregulation and downregulation of the ERK kinase cellular signaling pathway. By doing this, we can observe the effects on a specific type of cell, specifically the granule cells. This research has the potential to uncover the developmental activity of specific lineages and clusters of cells, which contributes to the overall picture of how cerebellar cell types interact through molecular signaling during development.

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved in research for a lot of different reasons. First off, I wanted to find a project that I was really passionate about. I didn’t want to get involved just for the sake of having it on a resume, rather I wanted a meaningful research experience that I could learn from. While classes teach you basic information, it is easy to simply memorize and move on with your life. I wanted to go further into the science behind what is learned in class. Research is a real life application of the things you learn in class; it is hands on rather than written on a PowerPoint in a classroom. My current research endeavor has taught me infinitely more than I could’ve ever imagined as an undergraduate student. It still surprises me how much I learn just by going into the lab each day!

Another reason I chose to pursue research was for the purpose of building applicable skills. Research has the potential to really build on important skill sets, which can be applied in any future job field. Being able to problem solve, think creatively, and thoroughly analyze data are all skills that I wanted to learn from getting involved in research. I have always wanted to go to medical school (and am considering a combined MD/PhD), and all of the skills used in research are directly useful for treating patients. Although my research does not directly involve human subjects, I can confidently say that many of my developed skills are directly transferable to my future career path.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

My main advice for an incoming freshman would be to take it slow and not rush into anything you aren’t ready for.  Freshman year is a really exciting time, but it can also be really overwhelming. I didn’t even have my first research opportunity until fall of sophomore year, which is completely normal! There is no timeline for getting involved, so taking your time and feeling everything out is sometimes the smartest move. Another thing I would recommend is looking at faculty webpages to read about their research. This may help you gauge what you are interested in, and it will help you follow along with current research being performed in a department of interest. Lastly, I would recommend broadening your horizons. Think outside of your major, and maybe you could find something really interesting that you never would have expected!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

One of my favorite things about my research is that I can make what I want out of it. There are endless things to learn and know about my area of research, and it is always exciting to constantly be learning new concepts. I feel as though I can always better myself through my research, and it constantly pushes me to learn more.  Even further, the feeling of accomplishing something new is motivation enough to keep trying harder. I also love being able to contribute and make sense of what is happening around me, which is something I am able to do every day in the lab.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

I feel more and more confident every day, and it has affected my overall confidence outside of the lab as well. I never thought I’d be able to conduct some of the experiments and procedures that I am currently doing in the lab, and it has given me so much hope and excitement for my future as a researcher/physician! No matter what I accomplish at school, I will always feel most proud of my work in research. I will always be able to reflect upon my experiences as an undergraduate researcher, and it has definitely changed me for the better.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

I would have to say my greatest accomplishment is being selected as a University Scholar. This is something that I was hoping to achieve as an undergraduate student, and having that become reality was very exciting. I have much more that I want to accomplish before I graduate, such as publishing a couple of papers and presenting at a conference.

Click here for more information on Kerry and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Lily Zhong

Meet Lily Zhong ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Physiology & Neurobiology and minoring in English.

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

The focus of my research is the biological basis behind stress and anxiety, specifically through characterizing the anatomy and functionality of a certain neural circuit in the mouse brain implicated in stress- and anxiety-related behaviors.

Why did you get involved in research?

I became involved in research to apply what I learned in the classroom to a setting where I could contribute to the creation of new knowledge while also improving upon crucial transferable skills that only a research experience can offer, such as resilience, patience, and critical thinking.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

Give yourself permission to explore your own unique interests in college rather than pursuing only the activities you think you “should” be doing.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

What I enjoy most about participating in research is sharing and exchanging exciting findings with others, whether it be through poster presentations, lab meetings, written proposals, or research articles. Being challenged to explain what I’ve learned in these various settings has pushed me to develop a more in-depth understanding of the background and implications of my research. Similarly, learning about what others are discovering in research not only allows me to gain exposure to a lot of interesting work, but also inspires me to think critically and ask questions about new, unfamiliar topics.

Click here for more information on Lily and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Brendan Hogan

Meet Brendan Hogan ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Political Science, Psychological Sciences, 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.

My Junior year, I worked on a project that planned to 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 helped to edit worked to explain how the far-right contributed to the crystallization of a distinct racialized anticommunist politics at home crucial to US power-projection abroad.

In Spring 2020, I was awarded a summer UConn IDEA Grant to study the vice of arrogance and psychological group biases within white nationalist leaders’ online rhetoric. To carry out this project, I conducted a qualitative content analysis of various blogs written by prominent white nationalist leaders. Following the analysis, I will use the empirical data collected to inform and guide my UConn Political Science and Philosophy Dual Honors Thesis during the 2020-2021 academic year.

Why did you get involved in research?

When I was offered 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 first-year students?

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.

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 prepared you for the future?

After I graduate, I plan to go to law school and eventually practice law with a concentration in constitutional law or civil rights and liberties. From my involvement in research, I have become inspired 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. It has motivated me to pursue a legal career in which I can promote positive, public discourse and intellectual humility.

Click here for more information on Brendan and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Claire Fresher

Meet Claire Fresher ’22, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Mathematics.

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

In my engineering lab I work on analyzing metabolites that undergo aggregation in the body which is linked to the development of various diseases. I work on ways to characterize the self-assembly of metabolites in the body through analysis of simulations and construction of molecular models. In my psychology lab I administer neuropsychological assessments to families to test the effects of environmental and genetic factors on cognitive development skills like language, math, and reading comprehension.

Why did you get involved in research?

I got involved in research because I wanted to pursue my specific interests in engineering and psychology. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to discover new knowledge and expand my skillset. I also wanted to gain hands-on experience in order to get an in-depth knowledge of the topics I investigated. I was also able to work closely with faculty mentors which allowed me to be challenged and think in new ways.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

To incoming freshmen, I would say to not be scared of research and research professors. Everyone started from somewhere so start with finding out what you find most interesting and what you want to put your time and energy into learning more about. After you find your passion everything else with fall into place with a little hard work and help from mentors.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

I enjoy working with my research groups and mentors the most. I have found that I can really lean on my research team when I don’t understand things or need help when I’m stuck on something. I think working with other people has also helped me to develop my own leadership and research skills since I learned from others and then implemented what they taught me in my own approach.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

Research has made me a more independent and analytic thinker. I pushed myself in research to explore new topics and think outside the box which helped me to become a better student and problem solver. It has also made me more curious in the fields I study. Research has taught me to question things I don’t understand and explore more topics to give myself a better overall view.

Click here for more information on Claire and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Pavitra Makarla

Meet Pavitra Makarla ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Cognitive Science and minoring in Neuroscience and Psychological Sciences.

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

I currently study literal (positive and negative) and nonliteral (sarcasm and jocularity/teasing) language exchanges, and how they are affected by individual differences between people (including differences in prosody/intonation, facial expressions, gestures, etc.). Sarcasm and jocularity are considered to be two very complex language functions because of how much effort is required to understand statements beyond their literal meaning. We recently used eye tracking to monitor where people look during a conversation that involves the use of literal and nonliteral language— they either look at the Asker, the one asking the question, or the Responder, the one responding in a literal/nonliteral manner. We also tested how long they look, and how many people tend to look at either the Asker or the Responder.

Why did you get involved in research?

I decided that I wanted to explore research the summer after my freshman year. I knew that research was a big part of my major and the skills I would get would be applicable regardless of what I ended up doing, so I went ahead and conducted an independent research project based on my interests. That project made me realize I wanted to pursue research much more vigorously at UConn itself, especially since I needed a little more structure to what I was exploring, so I decided to join a lab my sophomore year.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

Don’t give up! If you don’t get into the lab of your choice the first time, that’s okay! Keep applying to labs that are exploring ideas similar to your interests. If you get into one of those, that’s great! Now you can get even more research experience. If you feel that you still want to get into that first lab that you weren’t able to get in, after that one year of experience, they might be more willing to take you — apply again! There’s no one set path to getting the lab you want, and if you keep pushing towards your goal, you’ll be all set!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research? Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

I think there is a unique sort of joy that comes with participating in research. It might be the relief that comes with finally finishing data collection, or getting revisions back with extremely helpful critiques instead of getting rejected, or maybe it’s the delayed gratification that comes from finally publishing a paper. There is also a certain joy in getting data that doesn’t make sense, or hitting a wall in your flow of research ideas. There is never a dull moment when it comes to research, and I think there is beauty in the fact that the process can almost never be perfect all the way through. It’s the problem solving, the constant remedying, the creativity that really makes research the enlightening field it is.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

In research, one of the best feelings is getting a paper published; but, an even better feeling is knowing that you will be listed as second author on the paper as an undergraduate research student. I had the opportunity to work on two related papers simultaneously, one of which is a paper to be published in a special edition journal, and have both papers in the process of revisions— one step closer to official publication.

Click here for more information on Pavitra and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.

Meet the PRAs: Mukund Desibhatla

Meet Mukund Desibhatla ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Physiology & Neurobiology and Spanish, and minoring in European Studies.

Meet the PRAs - Mukund.What is the focus of your research and your creative activities?

Well, there are 2 ends to this—research and creative activity. I’ll start with research.

My research involves the study of novel atypical antidepressants and their effects on the reversal of depression-like symptoms in rat models. Depression is a debilitating and multifaceted disorder, and for this reason, many commonly prescribed antidepressants (e.g. Lexapro, Prozac) fail to ameliorate symptoms such as fatigue, anergia and motivational dysfunction. This summer, I was awarded a SURF Award to map various analogs of atypical dopamine transport inhibitors and analyze their binding affinities and relative efficacies.

Now a total flip! I have always carried a strong interest in podcasting, leading me to pioneer UConn’s first Podcast Symposium in Spring 2021. I have been fortunate to materialize this vision through a UConn IDEA Grant. The symposium will feature exhibitions and panels consisting of professionals from outside of UConn, conducting research in various fields. Scheduled to debut in February 2021, it will welcome speakers to share their innovations and experiences so that UConn students can get a glimpse of possibilities that exist in the world of research outside of the undergraduate setting.

Why did you get involved in research?

I have always been attracted to the idea of interdisciplinary study, which to me means challenging yourself outside the boundaries of your major and bridging an unexplored connection. With Physiology & Neurobiology and Spanish as my primary disciplines, I never expected to become involved in psychology research or podcast production. Especially seeing my PNB classmates join labs within their major, I always assumed that finding research under a PNB professor was the “right” way to immerse myself in UConn’s research landscape. Contrary to these naïve assumptions, I gravitated away from my major and realized that I could really tailor my personal interests in the direction of genuine curiosity. After all, research is nothing without curiosity.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students?

Don’t ever feel too underqualified to reach out to professors about their research. The faculty at UConn love to involve students in a dynamic learning environment—they love questions! A professor’s publications may seem intimidating, but the most important note is to be flexible and open-minded about the research that you would like to pursue. Find something that speaks to you or something you want to learn more about. Instead of sending your résumé in that first email, ask to meet with them to genuinely learn more about their research.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

Last fall, I recorded Agents of Change, a 12-episode podcast featuring stories of exemplary leadership and student-led research on UConn campus. I noticed a gap between the number of students wanting to get involved in research and those actually being able to obtain a specific research opportunity. Through this podcast, I was able to deliver first-hand stories of experienced students to help open up possibilities for others. I interviewed individuals passionate about a variety of topics, including political advocacy, food insecurity, CPR education, and research abroad. I was fortunate to share my story with the Edtech Podcast, which features educators from all over the world who are using unique modes of technology in STEM applications. You can listen to Agents of Change here!

Click here for more information on Mukund and other OUR Peer Research Ambassadors.