Undergraduate Research Profiles

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.

Meet the PRAs: Ariane Garrett

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

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

My research focusses on the development of a flow sensor for use in cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) shunts. This is important because CSF shunts are prone to breakage, however it is difficult to assess if the shunt is working in vivo. This flow sensing device enables the measurement of flow sensing in vivo, and has the potential to greatly improve patient quality of life.

Why did you get involved in research?

I knew I wanted to be involved in research as soon as I got to college, because I wanted to be a part of knowledge generation and work on exciting projects!

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to professors and get involved!

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

My favorite part of research is the design process. It is very rewarding to start with a concept, then design it, and finally hold the piece in your hand.

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

I plan to apply to graduate school after graduation. Research has greatly influenced this decision- I enjoy it so much I want to continue for the next 4 to 7 years!

Meet the PRAs: Jamie Georgelos

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

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Jamie

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

The healthy human gut is host to a community teeming with beneficial bacteria. These help us break down food, protect us from disease, and produce some of the compounds our bodies need to function correctly. When people take too many antibiotics, they wipe out these beneficial bacteria and are more susceptible to infection. My current research is focused on identifying probiotics effective in combating bacterial infections of the gut. Once identified, I am working to determine the mechanisms the probiotics use to defend the human body, which may include secreting antimicrobial compounds, affecting the acidity of the intestines, and changing gene regulation in infective strains of bacteria.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I originally got involved in research because, as a pre-med student, I thought I had to. Because I thought I was being forced into research, I took the first available position I could find. I was dispassionate about my research, and I found I was very unhappy. I left the lab, thinking the world of research wasn’t for me. When I started to learn more about microbiology in my classes, I couldn’t seem to get enough. I would stay after class to ask the professor questions, and I started to think about how certain strains of bacteria could even be used to combat issues like obesity and malnutrition. I knew the only way to keep asking questions like this was to get involved in research again. I found a lab on campus that matched my interests, and I’ve been happily asking questions ever since!

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Don’t forget to give yourself time to discover, and rediscover, your interests and passions. Before I settled into my microbiology work, I had a new life passion every semester! It was by figuring out what I didn’t like, both in research, classes, and even work environments, that I could find something that would keep my passions alive in the long run.

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

Research lets me explore more than anything else has in my undergrad career. When I run into obstacles, I get to problem solve, think creatively, and come up with new solutions as part of a team. This team is full of people much more qualified and educated than I am, which gives me the opportunity to grow in a supportive environment with people who are eager to guide my research.

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

By getting involved in research, I’ve been encouraged to leave my comfort zone. Starting with talking to professors, to developing a relationship with them, I’ve had to improve my interpersonal skills. In working with mentors, I have learned how to ask for the resources I need while still maintaining my independence.

Meet the PRAs: Emy Regan

Meet Emy Regan ’19 (SFA), an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Art – Illustration.

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Emy

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

I wrote and illustrated a comic book about a haunted Newport mansion. My goal was the create a spooky, but not scary, piece of entertainment that could be enjoyed by children and adults. I was also interested in exploring New England’s Gilded Age history through the architecture of the Newport Mansions.

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

I got involved in creative activity because I wanted an opportunity to work independently on my projects, outside my classwork. I wanted a chance to dig deeply into an idea and my project was able to give that to me.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to pursue your research or creative goals. Opportunities are rarely delivered to your doorstep. You will have to engage in your subject area, talk to professors, and be dedicated to your goals.

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

I enjoy the independence of working on a long-term project. It was very fulfilling to make creative decisions for myself and I gained a great deal of confidence knowing that I am capable of making these decisions.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest accomplishment so far is completing my IDEA Grant project. Completing my comic book was the first time I completed any independent, long-term project. I feel much more confident in my abilities after successfully writing and illustrating my project, as well as hanging and hosting an exhibit to showcase my work.

Meet the PRAs: Priscilla Grillakis

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

Peer Research Ambassador Priscilla Grillakis

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

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

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

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

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the PRAs: Natasha Patel

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

Meet the Peer Research Ambassadors: Natasha Patel

What is the focus of your research/creative activity?

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

Why did you get involved in research/creative activity?

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

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

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

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

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

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

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