Undergraduate Research Profiles

Rebecca D’Angelo, future historian

By Samantha Ruggiero CLAS ’14, originally published March 24, 2014 in CLAS News.

History and Anthropology student Rebecca D’Angelo, CLAS ’14.
History and Anthropology student Rebecca D’Angelo, CLAS ’14.

While still in high school, Rebecca D’Angelo was working in the Research Department at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum when she stumbled across an unusual detail in a book about New England whalers. She read that these whalers were apparently using using schooners for their journeys to the sub-Antarctic islands between Australia and Antarctica.

“I thought that was odd because I know that they wouldn’t typically use schooners to whale,” says D’Angelo, currently a senior history and anthropology double major, referring to the small size of schooner boats. “So I looked into it and turns out they were actually catching seals.”

As a native to the Connecticut shoreline, D’Angelo paired her passion for maritime culture with a major in history and anthropology so that she could enrich her understanding of the world’s evolving social, political and environmental patterns.

“We talk about history all the time in the conversations we’re having now about politics, culture, and life,” says D’Angelo. “If you know history, you can identify when public figures are invoking it correctly, and when they are invoking it incorrectly. Understanding history ultimately makes you a better consumer of culture.” Continue reading

Krisela Karaja, future editor

By Samantha Ruggiero CLAS ’14, originally published May 19, 2014 in CLAS News.

Fulbright scholar Krisela Karaja (CLAS ’14) will return to Albania to conduct research.
Fulbright scholar Krisela Karaja (CLAS ’14) will return to Albania to conduct research.

If there’s one word that translates UConn senior Krisela Karaja’s story into words anyone can understand – it would probably be “translation.”

Literary translation, says Karaja, is a challenging endeavor because the translator carries the responsibility of not only delivering an author’s message, but also interpreting the cultural background of a word or phrase.

“I like the process of translating poetry because there are so many ways to tackle it,” says Karaja. “There’s no such thing as a literal translation because an expression in Albanian might not have the same cultural baggage if it were just translated word-for-word in English.”

Karaja, a double major in English and Spanish, has spent much of her undergraduate career bridging the gap between language and literature by composing English translations of poems and academic essays originally in written Albanian or Spanish. Born in Albania, Karaja moved to the United States when she was two years old and is a native Albanian speaker. She is also fluent in Spanish.

“My interest in language and literature stems from a natural desire to integrate my knowledge of the Spanish, English and Albanian languages,” says Karaja. “I’ll be reading a really great text in Albanian that isn’t very well-known in English, and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could translate and share this?’” Continue reading

Ragini Phansalkar, future physician scientist

By Samantha Ruggiero CLAS ’14, originally published May 19, 2014 in CLAS News.

Ragini Phansalkar will pursue her MD and PhD at Stanford in the fall of 2014.
Ragini Phansalkar will pursue her MD and PhD at Stanford in the fall of 2014.

Ragini Phansalkar will pursue her MD and PhD at Stanford in the fall of 2014.

For senior Ragini Phansalkar, bridging the gap between different fields of research through her dual degree in computer science and biology has been like solving an exciting puzzle – and one that has taken her around the world.

“I think a lot of the advancements that are going to be needed to overcome today’s medical challenges are going to be achieved through interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Phansalkar. “Biomedical engineering is interdisciplinary, but I liked having the freedom to choose for myself the aspects of engineering and biology that I wanted to integrate, specifically bioinformatics.”

Phansalkar has spent the past four years at UConn combining computational science with biological sciences by working in the labs of Assistant Professor Daniel Schwartz of the Physiology and Neurobiology Department and Assistant Professor Barbara Mellone of the Molecular Cell Biology Department. Phansalkar’s interdisciplinary research experiences at UConn have developed her interest in pursing the medical field, and earned her acceptance to the MD/Ph.D program at Stanford University. Continue reading

Kinesiology Student Selected as Undergraduate Research Fellow

Congratulations to Luke Belval, a senior Kinesiology student, who has been recognized as a 2013 Undergraduate Research Excellence Fellow by the American Physiological Society. The selection is a tremendous achievement as Luke is one of only six students nationwide to be honored with this award. Luke was one of 64 students who received a UConn SURF award to fund undergraduate research. Check out the UConn Today article at http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2013/08/kinesiology-undergraduate-receives-national-research-award/.

U21 Undergraduate Research Conference in Amsterdam

During a week in July, some of the world’s best undergraduate researchers had an opportunity to get to know each other, learn more about research, and explore one of the world’s great cities.

54 undergraduates from 21 universities around the world divided their time  between exploration of Amsterdam on bicycles and sharing details of their research projects with each other and 14 accompanying faculty and staff members. Junior, Julianne Norton, and May 2013 graduate, Stefanie Walker, were selected to represent UConn as research presenters. Read more …

Honors Freshmen Conduct Research Through Holster Scholars First Year Program

This summer, six Honors freshmen pursued their passion through individualized, self-designed research projects with funding from the Holster Scholars First Year Program.

The Holster Scholars First Year Program, funded by an endowment established by Robert and Carlotta  Holster, provides Honors freshmen with the opportunity to pursue independent and individualized learning experiences.  Prospective scholars complete a highly selective application process in the fall of their freshman year, submitting an innovative  project proposal. Holster Scholars are eligible for up to $4,000 in funding, and spend the spring semester fine-tuning their project plans.  They carry out their research in the summer.

This year, six Holster Scholars pursued a kaleidoscope of investigations, in fields ranging from creative art to neurobiology.

Robert Holster '68 (CLAS), at left, shown with Holster Scholars Julianne Norton, Lior Trestman, Xiao Li, Kaila Manka, Kaitrin Acuna, and Xu Zheng. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Each Scholar received personalized mentoring from a faculty member in the development and implementation of their projects.  Former Holster Scholars also provided peer support to this year’s group.

The 2012 Holster Scholars presented their summer projects last month at the Dodd Center.  Among those present were their mentors and donor Robert Holster,  himself.

Lior Trestman ’15 (ENG) is an Honors biomedical engineering major who became intrigued by the idea of developing his own research after watching the first Holster Scholars present their projects in 2011.  He satisfied his desire to explore ways of improving human health and the environment by using microbial fuel cells to purify water while simultaneously creating energy.

“About 1 billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean water or electricity,” says Trestman.  Trestman spent the summer developing and optimizing  fuel cells, which take wastewater and, using various chemical processes, reduce the bacteria and other organic matter into more elementary substances.  What makes this process different from common methods of water filtration is that it provides clean water while simultaneously creating electricity.  With future research and development, this self-sustaining method of purifying water could potentially provide drinkable water and electricity to populations that do not have access to either.

Kaila Manca ’15 (CLAS) is a physiology and neurobiology and cognitive science major. She is interested in the treatment of aphasia, a partial or total loss of the ability to communicate verbally or using written words, in stroke patients.  She has had a longstanding interest in the mind and its inner workings, but Manca’s project was directly influenced by her experience with her grandmother’s stroke.  “It is always important in research to be passionate about what you are investigating,” says Manca.

For her project, Manca analyzed conversational samples from five participants in graduate student Jen Mozeiko’s research in Contraint Induced Language Therapy on stroke patients, a concentrated approach to the treatment of aphasia.  Manca transcribed the samples and analyzed each participant’s word choice.  Manca was especially concerned with the type-token ratio of the samples, which measures the vocabulary variation in an individual’s speech.  She found that the stroke patients reached a point in their treatment in which their type-token ratio plateaued, indicating a threshold in the variability of their vocabulary.  Manca hopes to further pursue this research in the future in order to determine whether aphasia is the true cause of this impasse in communication.

Julianne Norton ’15 (CLAS), a psychology major, was surprised to find that the Holster Scholar Program funded arts-related research projects. “I always thought that research was really just for science majors,” says Norton.  “It’s amazing to me that the program accepted creative art projects.  It really shows they have an open mind.”

Norton’s summer project was focused on art through postmemory, a fascination that stemmed from having two grandparents who survived the Holocaust.  Postmemory refers to the effect of a traumatic cultural event on a second generation; in this case, it refers to the emotions summoned by the photographs and narratives that Holocaust survivors pass on to subsequent generations.  Norton took a piece of artwork from each of the past four generations of her family and recreated those pieces, responding to the themes and ideas they evoked through her own paintings and sculpture.

This year’s Holster Scholars will be mentors to next year’s Scholars. “I would highly recommend the program to someone who has found something they are really interested in and want to spend a lot of time looking at,” says Trestman.

“There is no other place where I could have been able to experience the opportunities that have been available to me here at UConn so soon,” Manca adds.  “I feel really grateful to the Honors program.”

(adapted from a UConn Today Story by Mirofora Paridis ’13 (CLAS)

Profiles in Undergraduate Research: CLAS SURFers 2012

[adapted from a story by Cindy Weiss, CLAS Today]

Sarah Grout was only six years old when a terrible stomachache at gymnastics practice led to a rushed ride to the hospital, where her appendix was removed before doctors discovered the real problem – an E. coli infection. She spent two weeks in the hospital recovering. Sarah, now 20, spent this summer in a biology lab in Beach Hall, running RNA interference experiments for her research project on how enterohemorrhagic E. Coli, often associated with food-borne illness, sets up its potentially fatal infection in humans.

Robert “Bo” Powers, 27, started college in Georgia as a music major in classical guitar. A treble clef tattooed on his ankle hints at his love of music. But after a move to the New Haven area, a job at Yale-New Haven Hospital and an associates degree earned from Gateway Community College, he came to UConn last fall as an honors student in cognitive science. This summer he designed an artificial neural network that he will use in his research project on metonymy – what causes people to choose certain metaphor-like descriptions. For instance, he wonders, why does a waitress tell the cashier, “The ham sandwich at Table 3 wants his check.”

“Creative use of language has deep implications when considering how languages change within a culture, what is considered ‘cool’ or novel, and how ambiguity is resolved,” he wrote in his research proposal.

First in the lab

Sarah, Bo, and 63 other students at UConn had their first full-time research experiences this summer thanks to Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships that provided them with up to $4,000 in stipend and supply funding and the opportunity to spend ten weeks in the lab. Thirty-nine of the students were from CLAS, and the CLAS Dean’s Office provided $24,000 to the program.

While many of the students have worked on research projects during the regular school year, the nine hours a week they devote then, in between classes, is much less intense. A SURF award gives them the luxury of time to do a literature search, read books on their topic, and design their own experiments.

“It’s really a great opportunity to be able to focus fulltime. I wouldn’t be able to get this much done during the year,” says Grout.

The fellowships make the difference between a summer spent pursuing their passion and a summer spent job surfing.

Devin O'Brien
Devin O’Brien’s research on insects is in the research group of Elizabeth Jockusch, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

If he hadn’t won a SURF award, says Devin O’Brien, a 21-year-old ecology and evolutionary biology major from Ballston Spa, N.Y., “I’d be at home, trying to get a normal job that wouldn’t further me in my career path.” Instead, he spent seven hours a day, five days a week, in the lab.

O’Brien, who is founder and president of the Entomology Club at UConn, studies insects from an evolutionary and development perspective. He’s examining the role that three descriptively named genes – fringe, frizzled, and dishevelled – have on the appendage development of a species of red flour beetle, T. castaneum. Appendages – legs, wings, mouths – are an area of diversity that might be responsible for an insect’s success in the world.

O’Brien came to UConn as a pre-veterinary major, but found that “the more I worked with cows the more I realized I didn’t like them.” After a brief stint as a pre-med major, he scaled down to insects, calling UConn “a great biology school.”

Lab lessons

One of the eye-openers for students about lab life is how an experiment can go awry. Some have found that their carefully planned project had far from the anticipated outcome.

“It’s frustrating, but interesting, because you can come up with all new ideas to see what’s going on,” says Catherine O’Brien, a 20-year-old senior majoring in molecular and cell biology. She filled two large binders with lab reports this summer.

The protein she is studying is linked to various mitochondrial diseases. If biologists could find a way to study it outside of the cell in a reconstituted form, it could advance research into these medical conditions, which have many variations and can affect vision, major organs, muscles and nerves, among other things.

O’Brien, who is from Old Saybrook, started out as a nursing major at Endicott College in Massachusetts. Courses she took there in genetics and microbiology turned her interest to pre-med studies, and she transferred to Clemson. But she missed New England. Before transferring to UConn, she emailed Nathan Adler, assistant professor of MCB, to see if she could work in his lab.

She works independently in the lab, although under the supervision of a PhD student in Adler’s group, Ashley Long. Long encouraged her to stake out her own research territory, and O’Brien says that gave her the confidence to explore her topic. In her previous research experiences at other schools, she was not allowed so much responsibility, she says.

Her SURF summer has taught her that research “is really a thinking process – it’s about how you think and how you approach things. I couldn’t have guessed I would learn so much.”

Profiles in Undergrad Research: Devin Chaloux

Devin Chaloux. Photo by Frank DahlmeyerDevin Chaloux (2010) came to the University of Connecticut with plans for eventually becoming a band teacher.  “But when I got here, I took a mandatory course on music theory designed to broaden student understanding on the subject of music,” says Chaloux, who will be the student speaker at the School of Fine Arts’ undergraduate commencement ceremony. “I was hooked.”
Music theory is the study of the science of music, explains Chaloux. Theorists break down compositions to their basic components in order to understand how and why music works the way it does. “In chemistry there are molecules; in physics there are atoms,” says Chaloux. “With music theory, the basic building blocks that you’re working with are the single notes of a piece.”
Chaloux decided to come to UConn after a stellar piano audition that left him feeling comfortable with the faculty who would later become his close advisors. He studied piano with professors Neal Larrabee and Minyoung Lee, and composition with Professor Kenneth Fuchs. He is graduating this semester with a Bachelor of Music degree in music theory.
One of 24 University Scholars graduating this year, Chaloux developed a senior project titled “A Theoretical and Analytical Approach to Poetry by Emily Dickinson through Composition.” The project allowed Chaloux to work with faculty from both the Department of Music in the School of Fine Arts and the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“I worked with Professor David Abraham from CLAS to really read into the poetry and develop my own interpretations of the texts,” says Chaloux. “At the same time, I was working closely with Dr. Kenneth Fuchs to create compositions for voice and piano, using Emily Dickinson’s poetry for the text of the songs.”

Chaloux’s project was performed on March 28. He has since been accepted to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he will be working towards a master’s degree in music theory. He hopes to someday earn a doctorate in music theory and become a tenure-track professor.

“I started out wanting to teach band,” says Chaloux. “I never dreamed that I’d wind up where I am today.”

Adapted from a UConn Today story by Timothy Stobierski.

Profiles in Undergrad Research: Alexis Cordone

Alexis Cordone '14 (CLAS) and her research mentor Clare Costley King'oo, assistant professor of English. (Ariel Dowski '14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)Alexis Cordone ’14 (CLAS) and her research mentor Clare Costley King’oo, assistant professor of English. (Ariel Dowski ’14 (CLAS)/UConn Photo)

Protestants and Catholics waged bloody wars over doctrinal differences during the Reformation, but an undergraduate research project shows they shared similar views about hell. In a historical study comparing how eternal damnation was depicted in centuries-old religious texts, Alexis Cordone 2014 (CLAS), a religious studies major, found more similarities than differences between the two denominations.

Cordone attributes this unexpected convergence to the fact that what the two groups were reading about hell was virtually the same material.  She cites, for example, “a sixteenth-century devotional handbook that was first published by a Jesuit [Catholic],” and then “republished by a Protestant.” Investigating the two versions of the handbook in detail, Cordone says she began to notice that “most of the content about hell in the second publication was exactly the same as that in the original.”

During this historical period, when opposing religious powers were engaged in a struggle across much of Europe, such re-publication methods led to a surprising degree of “ecumenical” thought. This continuity “was not what I would have expected for works written about such a controversial topic during the Reformation,” says Cordone.

Cordone’s opportunity to examine early printed books in detail and uncover insights into what scholars know about the Reformation period, comes thanks to a UConn program that funds undergraduate research in the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

UConn’s Office of Undergraduate Research has taken the initiative to promote and support early career undergraduate research such as Cordone’s. The Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts Research Experience (SHARE) program encourages a research partnership between a student and faculty member, which exposes the student to research in these disciplines and provides the faculty member with an apprentice for their professional projects.

The program was initiated in 2010 by Lynne Goodstein, associate vice provost for enrichment programs and director of the Honors Program, and the then-director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Jennifer Lease-Butts, to promote research experience in the early stages of students’ undergraduate careers in the social sciences, humanities, and arts.

Attention to early career research is beneficial for students in the long run, says the current program coordinator of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Gwen Pearson. “The fact that SHARE is specifically for early students makes it unique,” she says. “It’s usually been juniors and seniors that are heavily involved in research. There’s recognition now that if you help freshman and sophomores get ready for that, then they will have an even better experience.”

Early career research is also crucial in preparing students in the social sciences, humanities, and arts for competitive research grants against candidates in the hard sciences who have been exposed to research early on in laboratory courses.

“The students who were able to start in labs in their freshman and sophomore year, by the time they were writing a proposal for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fund grant they were more grounded in their work and able to discuss methodology with more authority,” Goodstein says. “We thought that [SHARE] was the equivalent of the lab experiences students in the sciences had.”

Another rewarding feature of the SHARE program is the opportunity faculty members and students have to establish a working partnership. “The research proposal is jointly submitted by the faculty member and the student,” says Goodstein. “[What’s great] about being a faculty member working with ambitious students is the personal satisfaction you get from being able to watch the student develop.”

Clare Costley King’oo, associate director of graduate studies and assistant professor in the English department, agrees that the partnership is a rewarding one. “Training an undergraduate apprentice is no doubt challenging. But the benefits far outweigh the costs,” says King’oo who mentored Cordone in her immersion into Reformation literature.

For her part, Cordone is grateful for the opportunity to help with researching literature relevant to the Protestant Reformation. “It’s given me a better understanding of the development of modern Catholic and Protestant teachings,” she says. “I am also gaining a lot of firsthand experience in understanding the course and development of a research project in the humanities.”

Undergraduate research is intense: for many students, it opens up a whole new world of information they did not know was available to them, notes King’oo. “These grants enable undergraduate students to get a better picture, early on in their careers, of the kind of work we non-scientists do as scholars,” she says. “I hope, in particular, that it will persuade some undergraduates to prepare for graduate work in the social sciences, humanities, and arts.”

Stephanie Godbout, one of last year’s SHARE recipients, is enthusiastic about the research she conducted with mentor JoAnn Robinson, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Godbout’s project was a study of the relationships formed within the JumpStart program between mentors and preschool children. She too says that the partnership opened her eyes to the research opportunities available in the social sciences.

“Prior to my involvement in the SHARE program, I had little knowledge of how research in the social sciences was conducted,” she says. “The program gave me the opportunity to learn how to develop a research question, design a study, collect and analyze data, and ultimately complete a cohesive thesis. In addition, it allowed me to form wonderful relationships with my thesis supervisor, graduate students, and fellow undergraduate researchers.”

As for the impact of the program, King’oo says, “I would certainly recommend the experience – not just to faculty members, but to students, too.”

Applications for the 2013 SHARE program will be available for students and faculty on August 30, 2012. Applications are due in October and winners will be announced in December.


Adapted from a UConn Today story by Lynnette Repollet

Profiles in Undergrad Research: Danielle Millar

Danielle Millar '12 (NUR). (Max Sinton/UConn Photo)Nursing students do research too–here’s an example!  Danielle received a 2011 SURF award from the Office of Undergraduate Research.

At the cusp of graduation, nursing senior Danielle Millar (Nursing 2012) has learned to balance academic and social excellence.  She entered the School of Nursing during her freshman year at UConn. “I wanted to be a nurse, because it’s a great integration of science and medicine and social skills,” she says. “You have to have the knowledge to ask difficult questions and genuinely care about the answers you get.”

But Millar wasn’t always so gregarious. “I was a much more reserved person when I came to UConn,” she recalls. Looking back on her growth as a student and the challenges she has conquered in her four years as an undergraduate, she says it wasn’t always easy. It’s clear, however, that she has overcome the initial anxiety she felt when she embarked on her college career.

A student in the Honors Program, Millar has spent the past two years researching the effects of omega-3 fatty acids in treating the symptoms of PMS. Working with her mentor Michelle Judge, she solicited participants from across the University to participate in her research, coordinating more than 50 volunteers. Now that her study is complete and her findings in, Millar is hard at work preparing poster presentations and writing her senior thesis.

In addition to nursing and academics, Millar has been an avid dancer since childhood. She has spent the past four years as a member of the UConn Dance Company, as both dancer and choreographer. “I was in the first generation able to spend all four years in the company,” she says. “We helped to create a lot of structure and set the company up for success.” Millar studies all types of dance, from ballet to jazz, and works at a dance studio in Ellington instructing young ballerinas.

Millar is excited to graduate and begin work as a full-time nurse. A recent summer internship at the UConn Health Center has her eager for the future. Her success was recognized by the School of Nursing this year, when she received the Undergraduate Senior Woman Award in April.

Adapted from a UConn Today story by Devin O’Hara