Undergraduate Research Profiles

Meet the PRAs: Mahima Mehta

Meet Mahima Mehta ’22, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Spanish.

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

I have been working in Dr. Sarah Knutie’s lab since January 2020 as a member of the Nest Parasite Community Science Study. In this project, I quantify parasite abundance in the nests of eastern bluebirds and tree swallows to understand the effects of local ecology on the evolution of hosts and their nest parasites.

As someone who has always been interested in climate change and DNA, the focus of my UConn IDEA Grant project is to understand how elevated nest temperatures impact the DNA methylation of eastern bluebirds. We often see the physical effects of climate change: unusual snowstorms, devastating fires, and destruction of habitats- but what genotypic impact does this have? In my project, I will be investigating why it is adaptive for these birds to have changes in methylation in response to temperature and if this is helping them over their lifetime. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs: Chloe Zampetti

Meet Chloe Zampetti ’22, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Natural Resources.

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

My research is focused on interactions between elements mercury and selenium in fish. There is a theory that when there is more selenium present than mercury within a fish, the selenium can cancel out mercury toxicity by binding up all of the mercury, making it safe for human consumers. This is a really cool concept and would have lots of implications for human health, but there are some aspects to the research that could use updating and further attention.

With my research, I want to see how measures of human health risk based on selenium and mercury concentrations compare to metrics based on mercury concentrations alone. This way, I can emphasize the importance of understanding selenium’s potential ability to mitigate mercury toxicity before it is considered an official metric of human health risk via fish consumption. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs: Lauren Rudin

Meet Lauren Rudin ’22, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Exercise Science and minoring in Biological Sciences.

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

“Fitbit-Derived and Self-Reported Sleep Quality and Gestational Weight Gain in Women with Overweight or Obesity”, supervised by Dr. Molly Waring and funded by a UConn IDEA Grant, is comparing Fitbit-derived and self-reported sleep quality among pregnant women in their third trimester with pre-pregnancy overweight or obesity who gained gestational weight within or above recommended ranges. The aims are to assess how well the two sleep measures agree and to identify the potential use of a Fitbit device to assess sleep during pregnancy.

“Professional Exercise Recommendations for Healthy Women Who Are Pregnant: A Systematic Review”, supervised by Dr. Linda Pescatello, is assessing existing professional exercise recommendations for healthy pregnant women to formulate a consensus exercise prescription to better inform clinicians on an appropriate exercise program for pregnant patients without contraindications to exercise. Continue reading

Meet the PRAs: Kynza Khimani

Meet Kynza Khimani ’22, an OUR Peer Research Ambassador (PRA) majoring in Physiology & Neurobiology and Global Health.

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

My current research for my UConn IDEA Grant project focuses on studying the accessibility and barriers faced by families with children afflicted with Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS) in the implementation of healthy diets using a survey and interviewing physicians who treat PANS patients. PANS is an increasingly prevalent chronic condition that can manifest in children as severe OCD and anxiety, disordered eating, and developmental deficits. Because PANS symptoms are often a result of neuroinflammation and gut dysbiosis, studies suggest that replacing industrialized foods with an all-organic, gluten and dairy-free diet is often vital for treatment. Continue reading

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Ally Bettencourt ’21

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

My Journey:

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

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Mukund Desibhatla ’21

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

My Journey:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next:

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

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

Click here to learn more about Mukund.

Graduating PRA Spotlight: Oreoluwa Olowe ’21

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

What I’ve Learned:

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

What’s Next:

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


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

Click here to learn more about Oreoluwa.

Meet the PRAs: Anisha Jain

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

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

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

Why did you get involved in research?

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

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen?

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

What are your plans after graduation?

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

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

Meet the PRAs: Kerry Morgan

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

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

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

Why did you get involved in research?

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

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

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

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

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

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

Describe the impact your research experience has had on you.

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

What is your greatest accomplishment so far?

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

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

Meet the PRAs: Lily Zhong

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

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

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

Why did you get involved in research?

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

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

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

What do you enjoy the most about participating in research?

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

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