Undergraduate Research Profiles

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.

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.

Meet the PRAs: Oreoluwa Olowe

Meet Oreoluwa Olowe ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

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

My research in the past has always focused on proteins and how they can help solve problems in the human body as well as in different industries, including but not limited to the biomedical field and energy industry.

Why did you get involved in research?

To be better prepared for the work force when I graduate and experience something outside of my academic activities.

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

Don’t be shy. Reach out to many professors and advisors and you will find the answer you are searching for.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

I enjoy working on tasks that don’t have a textbook answer but you figure out the solution as you spend more time on the project.

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

My research experience has allowed me to think and approach problems in a unique manner.

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

Meet the PRAs: Ariana Rojas

Meet Ariana Rojas ’21, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Political Science and Environmental Studies.

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

My research interests mainly include developmental biology and genetics and my research so far has mainly focused on evolution of development. Evolution of development essentially tries to understand how certain developmental processes evolved. Previously I participated in an REU program at the University of North Florida with Dr. Frank Smith. There I studied the evolution of the Tardigrade gut patterning mechanism. For that past academic year, I have been working in Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch’s lab studying the development of double layered body wall in the Milkweed bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, and helmet development of the treehopper, Entylia carinata. For my SURF project this summer I was studying the evolution of the insulin signaling pathway in insects by using bioinformatics techniques.

Why did you get involved in research?

 I love working in science because science is fundamentally creative. I wanted to get involved with research because I wanted a way to really get creative with my science education and the topics that interested me. I knew that research was a whole other world of learning, which was different from learning in the classroom. I was excited by the idea of being able to apply the concepts I was learning about in my classes, past being in a classroom lab. I wanted to use research as a way to supplement my science education and creativity, and I’m so happy I’ve had wonderful opportunities that allowed me to do exactly that.

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

Many freshmen feel as though they need to get involved with a research project right away, or they will be behind. My advice to freshman is that you should take the time to really explore your interests and to try new things. There are so many different things you could be interested in doing, that you may not even know about just yet! Take the time to explore what fields may interest you and try to get creative. Don’t feel pressured to start anything right away if you feel you’re not ready. I didn’t start my research career until the summer after my Junior year, and I am grateful for my experiences before that summer.

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

I love studying evo-devo because it’s a field of science that combines so many different disciplines. When I first learned about the field, I was absolutely fascinated with the idea of applying my love for genetics to unlocking the mystery of the universe. In a sense, I imagine myself as a historian, trying to understand what happened in the past by using genetics. Furthermore, my research allows me to apply what I am fundamentally interested in, which is genetic and molecular processes, to a field I have never worked with before. Since I am not trained in evolutionary biology and have only taken a handful of classes concerning the subject, I am constantly learning during my research. It is so much fun to always be learning new concepts through research rather than through a class and a textbook.

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

My greatest accomplishment so far has to be how far I’ve come in almost a year. I first started my research career when I began my REU program at the University of North Florida during the summer of 2019. Since then I’ve presented my research about 4 times, two of those times being at major conferences. I’ve also received multiple grants to support my travel to those conferences, as well as the SURF grant to conduct a research project of my own. When looking back at how much I’ve done in the past year, I am extremely proud of myself. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without the support of my incredible mentors, both at UConn and at the University of North Florida. I cannot wait to see what the next year has in store for me.

Click here for more information on Ariana 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.