Undergraduate Research Profiles

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.

Meet the PRAs: Alexandra Bettencourt

Meet Alexandra (Ally) Bettencourt ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Pathobiology and Animal Science.

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

The title of my research project is “the effects of poor maternal nutrition on colostrum and milk composition in sheep.” The goal of the project is to determine the protein and fat composition milk samples at various points in lactation, as well as the concentration of IgG, an antibody very important to lambs present in the colostrum. Earlier in my college career, I spent some time working on a project in dairy cattle that involved detecting mastitis using ultrasound technology. During my junior year, I also spent a semester at the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory on campus working in the necropsy laboratory with veterinary anatomical pathology residents.

Why did you get involved in research?

I started working with Dr. Sheila Andrew during the spring semester of my freshman year in order to gain more experience working with the dairy cattle at the Kellogg Dairy Center (KDC) – put simply, my initial involvement in research came from me really loving cows and wanting to learn more about them. After spending several semesters with Dr. Andrew learning more about lactation physiology, mastitis, and automatic milking in cattle, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Sarah Reed to further pursue my interest in studying lactation in a sheep model.

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

Take a deep breath, this is going to fly by and you are going to accomplish more than you ever could have imagined. Give yourself credit and take care of yourself. Study smart, not hard. Join a club or two that you are really passionate about, but do not overwhelm yourself this first semester. Do not be afraid to reach out to professors and upperclassmen, I have never encountered one myself that was unwilling to help.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

Spending time at the animal barns, providing the highest level of care to these sheep alongside some of the greatest friends has undoubtedly been one of the best parts of my current research activity. As the First Vice President of Sigma Alpha, a professional agricultural sorority on campus, I have found myself surrounded by some incredible women in agriculture. Many of these brilliant women in my sorority are also involved in this project, and it has been such a privilege to care for animals, collect data, and make some incredible discoveries alongside them.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

In 2016, I was the national first place winner of the FFA Veterinary Science Career Development Event out of nearly two-hundred strong competitors from across the country. Since then, I have spent thousands of hours working in general practice veterinary clinics, specialty veterinary hospitals, large animal ambulatory veterinary services, and in laboratories. During March of 2019, I spent my Spring Break in Roatan, Honduras providing voluntary veterinary relief care to exotic animals at the Maya Key Sanctuary. Although I had never worked with exotic animals before, by our second day of volunteering, the veterinarian I was working with complimented my knowledge and dedication to the patients we were caring for. By the end of the week, this veterinarian had allowed me to assist her on a variety of procedures on some incredible animals, including white-faced capuchin monkeys, a three-toed sloth, a spider monkey, and a jaguar. At the end of our trip, although I had only spent about 40 hours working with this doctor, she and her technician hugged me, offered me a letter of recommendation, and said that I would be an incredible veterinarian one day. Our greatest accomplishments do not necessarily involve the largest trophies or prizes, but may simply be a moment in time where everything we are working towards seems truly seems possible.

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

I am currently submitting my applications to veterinary medical school and hope to pursue a career in large animal medicine and surgery. My involvement in research as an undergraduate has given me such an appreciation for the scientists making discoveries that influence our understanding of physiology, and the future of medicine in its entirety. Most importantly, I have realized the essential role of research to One Health, a movement that emphasizes the importance of the intersection of human, animal, and environmental health. This realization has led me to a desire to concurrently pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. As an aspiring DVM/MPH, I hope to not only protect large animal health and welfare during my career, but to eventually teach in higher education. Above anything else I have learned from research activities, I have discovered that having a devoted mentor can change a student’s entire perspective on learning. I can only hope to be that mentor for future students, as my mentors have been for me at UConn.

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

Meet the PRAs: Sarah Tsuruo

Meet Sarah Tsuruo ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Biological Sciences and minoring in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Molecular & Cell Biology.

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

My research focus is looking into the endocrine-immune interaction and trade-offs in the host parasite system in the threespine stickleback fish. I’ve also done work on starting and maintaining cell culture lines.

Why did you get involved in research?

I was motivated to become involved in research to really delve into scientific interests and projects knowing I would build essential foundations for my future career.

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

Make your own opportunities and don’t give up if you’re told no. Stay resilient, network and trail blaze your own path, because you can 100% do it if you stay determined.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

One of my greatest accomplishments so far would be my resiliency — I’m known as a “tough cookie” to close friends and family. Besides that, one of the things I’m very excited about is the STEM enrichment initiative I created and implemented at a Domestic Violence Crisis Center with the support of the OUR Change Grant.

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

After graduation I plan on working as a clinical research coordinator before I attend medical school! My involvement in clinical research definitely influenced my decision to be involved in clinical research as a physician and my current research experiences have introduced me to the world of poster conferences, publications and collaboration.

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

Kailey Huot: The Power of Persistence

Kailey Huot ’19 (CLAS) earned her bachelor’s degree last December and reiterates the need for persistence in seeking out a research experience.

Since I was in grade school I always knew I had a special interest in the math and science fields, but it wasn’t until high school when I figured out what I really wanted to do in the future; chemistry.  My high school teacher completely sparked my interest in the concepts of chemistry, and I also had a strong interest in medicine, eventually combining both fields into a career goal of pharmaceutical sciences.

When I got to college, I was immediately enrolled into a First Year Experience course where several chemistry majors were told of different opportunities in our major, including research opportunities.  I understood that UConn had recently invested money into STEM fields the year before I came to the university, but I did not understand the level of opportunity for each student to acquire a position as an undergraduate research assistant, not knowing that UConn was a Tier 1 research-based campus.  I was instructed to look through the faculty members on the UConn Chemistry website, and started reading about different research projects and their publications.  One of the first faculty members I clicked on was a woman from the Pharmacy Building named Dr. Marcy J. Balunas.  Her research mainly focused on Natural Products in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and it immediately caught my eye.  Not only was the research under pharmaceuticals, but she was studying different marine bacteria for potential bioactivity against pathogenic compounds, combining my interests of chemistry, medicine, and sustainability into one research opportunity.

I emailed her within two weeks of the start of my freshman year, asking if there were undergraduate positions open in her lab, as well as reading her most recent publication and sparking a conversation about her work with Hawaiian bobtail squids.  To my dismay, she did not have any openings for undergraduates at the time, but told me to email her once the time to pick classes neared.  Again, she didn’t have openings for the spring semester either, but I decided to continue our communication.  I read several more of her publications, and would send her an email every few weeks with more information and questions about the research.  By the time picking classes in the spring came around, she finally brought me in for a meeting with her, and was offered a position to start at the beginning of my sophomore year.

In the lab, I had the privilege of working with both microbiology and organic chemistry instrumentation and protocols.  Strains of bacteria were first grown on an agar plate containing several nutrients to help the bacteria grow.  From there, bacteria were transferred to liquid media and the culture scale increased, allowing more area for bacteria to grow.  Once the cultures were scaled up to 500mL volumes, they were brought into the organic chemistry lab for extraction.  With a main focus on more non-polar compounds, extractions using resin beads were able to trap target, non-polar molecules, while eluting unwanted polar molecules.  The isolation process yielded a more purified version of the product, eventually preparing for tests of bioactivity and structure elucidation.  In order to analyze the bioactivity of a bacterial strain, compounds were commonly tested against bacterial and fungal compounds such as Candida or MSSA.  Upon doing so, my research found very little bioactivity in Hawaiian Bobtail Squid bacteria, despite indications of preliminary research.

Last year I made the decision to graduate a semester early, and was unable to give the same amount of time to the research lab as I had in the past, so I am no longer working in the lab.  However, the experience and confidence I gained through working as an undergraduate in research was irreplaceable, and the skills I acquired will stay with me throughout my career as a chemist.  This past summer I worked at Pfizer in Groton, CT as an organic synthetic chemist, and I owe a large portion of my success as an intern to the research opportunities that UConn has brought me.  I will be graduating in December of 2019, and I have accepted a full-time position back at Pfizer in Groton to continue the research I had worked on over the summer.  Without resources such as the OUR program at UConn, I wouldn’t be in the same position I am today, and I am eternally grateful for the opportunities that UConn and the Office of Undergraduate Research has brought me.

For anyone looking into a research position at UConn, my biggest piece of advice is to make yourself known to faculty members.  If you continuously show your interest and excitement about the subject, your work will pay off and research faculty will be eager to hire someone so interested in what they are doing.

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.