Graduate Students Shine at 35th Annual Graduate Student Research Day

Biomedical Science Program Service Award for Mentorship and 3rd place poster presentation winner.

By Stephanie Rauch, Biomedical Science Program Coordinator

Tucked away in their labs, researching and studying, Biomedical Science graduate students on the UConn Health campus can be easily overlooked. But at the 35th Annual Graduate Student Research Day held on June 26, graduate students from the PhD program, as well as combined degree programs and other graduate degrees across the campus, had a chance to bring their hard work out into the light, celebrating their research achievements and inspiring each other to continue working to discover the next pieces of complex biomedical puzzles.

The day-long event included poster and oral presentations by graduate students, a scientific talk by 2017-18 Lepow award winning student Ashley Russo (Immunology AoC, Rathinam Lab), and a keynote address by invited speaker Christine M. Disteche, Ph.D., director of the University of Washington Regional Cytogenetics Laboratory, professor of pathology, University of Washington. She spent the day interacting with over 30 students during their presentations in the Academic Rotunda before her own talk, “3D Structure of the Inactive X Chromosome and Role in Sex Differences.

2017-18 Lepow Award winner Ashley Russo.

“As graduate students at UConn Health, we are the basic science behind our mission of “the power of possible,” said third-year neuroscience student and Leadership Award winner Robert Pijewski.  “A day such as Graduate Student Research Day really highlights what the graduate program at UConn Health is all about. The student’s passion, creativity, and hard-work was truly showcased in what was an informative event.”

The day ended with an awards ceremony recognizing a wide variety of students for their achievements throughout the year.

Henderson Memorial Prize for Outstanding PhD Thesis in Biomedical Science: Dr. James Fink, Neuroscience AoC, Levine Lab

Lepow Award for Outstanding Rising Fourth Year Biomedical Science PhD Student: Andrea Wilderman, Genetics and Developmental Biology AoC, Cotney Lab

Biomedical Science Program Service Award for Mentorship: (tie) Dipika Gupta, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry AoC, Heinen Lab and Brittany Knight, Neuroscience AoC, Baumbauer Lab.

Biomedical Science Program Service Award for Leadership:
Robert Pijewski, Neuroscience AoC, Crocker Lab

Raisz Award for Excellence in Musculoskeletal Research: Henry Hrdlicka, Skeletal Biology and Regeneration AoC, Delany Lab

Oral Presentation Award: Moriah Gildart, Cell Biology AoC, Dodge-Kafka Lab

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research Mentoring winner Dr. Laurinda Jaffe (center) with Associate Dean of The Graduate School, Dr. Barbara Kream (L) and Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Liang.

Poster Presentation Awards:
1st Place:
Valentina Baena, Cell Biology AoC, Terasaki Lab
2nd Place:
Gabrielle Valles, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry AoC, Bezsonova Lab
3rd Place (Tie):
Dipika Gupta, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry AoC, Heinen Lab
Katherine DiScipio, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry AoC, Weller Lab

In addition, two faculty awards were announced, including the inaugural Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research Mentoring presented by the Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Liang.

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research Mentoring: Dr. Laurinda Jaffe, Cell Biology AoC

Osborn Award for Excellence in Biomedical Science Graduate Teaching: Dr. Phillip Smith, Neuroscience AoC

Coast to Coast Riders Racking up Miles

The UConn medical and dental students making their way across the country by bicycle this summer continue their progress home from Washington state, with some now having reached the Eastern time zone.

Zach Giaconne, Josh Goodman and Brian Leland, all going into their second year in the UConn School of Dental Medicine, make up the first of three teams on the 2018 Coast to Coast tour. They were the first to fly to Seattle June 4 and are leading the way home, having just reached western New York.

Five other students also are pedaling their way back to Connecticut. Proceeds this year benefit the statewide nonprofit Mental Health Connecticut.

Second-year medical students Pat Lau and John Sullivan make up Team 2; they left Connecticut June 9 and just reached Niagra Falls. Team 3 left June 12 and includes Christine Donat, Taylor Larese, and Curtis Xu, also medical students. At last check, they had reached Minneapolis.

The students are aiming for a mid-August return to Connecticut. So far they have raised more than $13,000 toward their goal of $20,000.

Team 1 is posting updates on Instagram, while Team 3 is maintaining the Coast to Coast 2018 blog.

Those interested in supporting this year’s ride can make an online pledge at


Speed Networking for Grad Students and Industry

Barry Schweitzer, Elm Street Ventures, meeting with grad student Menghan Du.

By Brittany Knight, graduate student at UConn Health

You’ve heard of speed dating? Well, how about speed networking? An inaugural event was held this spring at UConn Health’s academic rotunda with positive reviews. Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows met one-on-one with industry representatives who included start-up CEOs, venture capitalists, patent agents, technology transfer professionals, and scientists.

“I loved the energy and the curiosity of the students and post-docs I met.  They all seemed excited about their science, but wanted to learn more about the business of biotech,” said Barry Schweitzer Ph.D., partner at Elm Street Ventures and entrepreneur-in-residence at UConn. “Their number one question was ‘How do I get my first job at a biotech company?’ Unfortunately, there is no easy answer – it’s really hard to get that job. Nevertheless, my advice is to network, network, network. Most often, getting a position in industry (like in academia) comes about through personal connections and recommendations. It takes time to build that network, so start now.”

Marcia Fournier, CEO of Bioarray Genetics, meeting with students.

Marcia Fournier, Ph.D., CEO of Bioarray Genetics, said, “It was refreshing talking to UConn Health graduate students and to share my experiences with them.”​

One of the students that attended said, “It was really great to have several professionals together in one room just to talk to us. I really appreciated how friendly and open they all were, and they provided some great career advice.”

In a survey conducted among the student attendees after the event, 71 percent of the respondents found the event informative and 86 percent said they are likely to recommend it to others.

“These types of events are incredibly insightful and productive for students and the business community,” said Carrie White, senior investment associate at Connecticut Innovations. “As the innovation ecosystem continues to grow in Connecticut, we look forward to seeing more of these vibrant events at UConn and at other universities around the state.”

Coordinators Cory Brunson and Robert Pijewski

Biomedical scientists and biotechnology companies have been collaborating since 2003 through the Technology Incubator Program (TIP) at UConn. The program has sponsored 96 independent start-up biotechnology companies.

Robert Pijewski, president of the Graduate Student Organization, and Cory Brunson, Ph.D., president of the UConn Health and Jackson Laboratory Post-Doctoral Association, coordinated the inaugural speed networking event. Robert and Cory received encouragement and mentorship from Vaibhav Saini, Ph.D., who is the licensing director for Life Sciences, Office of the Vice President for Research.

Biomedical Graduate Student Participates in Discovery Education Program

Students brainstorm to design and construct a heart valve facsimile. (Photo by Ellen Ravens-Seger

By Brittany Knight, Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Sciences

The Connecticut Area Health Education Center (CT AHEC) Biomedical Education Discovery Saturday Program at UConn Health teaches middle- and high-school students about the use of biomedical engineering (BME) in health care.

Through the use of problem solving, team development, and hands-on application, students and coaches use recycled materials to design and build biomedical prototypes such as hydraulic arms, heart valves, and prosthetic legs, all the while considering the possibility of careers in health and BME.

Urban Service Track/AHEC scholars (a select group of students enrolled in UConn Schools of  Dental Medicine, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Social Work, and Quinnipiac University’s Physician Assistant Program) serve as BME activity coaches.

On a recent weekend, the BME activity was heart valve engineering. After teaching 24 learners about heart valves and blood pressure, the UST/AHEC scholars guided them to design and construct a heart valve facsimile.

Ph.D. student and “shark investor” Rajamani Selvam looks on as a team of BME Saturday Program learners pitch their innovative heart valve design. (Photo by Ellen Ravens-Seger)

During the competition portion of the activity, Rajamani Selvam, fourth-year Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. student, served as a “shark”- just like on the show Shark Tank where inventors pitch their ideas to potential investors. Rajamani used her critical thinking skills to assess the quality of projects. She asked the teams questions about their heart valve: What materials did they use to make the valves? How long will a surgeon require to implant the valve? How durable is the valve? Can the valve withstand any strenuous activity? Learners often replied with a combination of factual and intentionally comical responses, considering their heart valves were constructed from recycled materials.

Rajamani said, “Some students get very creative in their pitch. For instance, one group proposed that they are a foundation of people working to address heart problems and this valve is affordable for all sectors of people, saying: ‘We are motivated to form this foundation to help other people who suffer from this ailment.’ I saw valves made of balloons, cardboard and clear tape.”

At the end of the competition the teams are scored based on the design of their valve as well as the effectiveness of their valve.

The final BME activity for the academic year—on the topic of prosthetic legs—will be held on June 2.

MD/PhD Students Participate in National Physician-Scientists Meeting

UConn MD/PhD students recently attended a national meeting for physician-scientists in Chicago. (Photo courtesy Feria Ladha)

By Feria Ladha and Maria Xu, UConn MD/PhD students and APSA Institutional Representatives

Sponsored by the Office of Physician-Scientist Career Development, seven UConn MD/PhD students recently attended the national meeting for physician-scientists, which was held in Chicago. This annual joint meeting brings together some of the nation’s most illustrious physician-scientists from the Association of American Physicians (AAP) and American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI), as well as early-career trainees from the American Physician-Scientists Association (APSA), to celebrate advances in science and medicine.

It was an incredible opportunity for the students to present their research, hear talks from leaders in their field, network, and attend mentoring events. Anthony Pettinato, a third-year MD/PhD student, said, “I had a great time presenting and getting feedback regarding my work, connecting with others in the medical field, and gained invaluable insight into the research being conducted throughout the country by fellow students.”

This year, the meeting focused on aging, human genetics, and health longevity, with researchers and clinical investigators providing insights into their basic and clinical research. Students had the opportunity to listen to talks ranging from neurodegeneration to aging in the clinic. Michael Chung, a fourth-year MD/PhD student, said, “These talks really helped put my research, which involves neurology and human genetics, into a translational and clinical perspective. It’s great to see how innovative investigators can bring basic science research to the forefront of clinical care.”

There were also numerous mentoring sessions, where students had the opportunity to receive beneficial career advice directly from residency directors and established investigators. Jennifer Chung, a third-year MD/PhD student, said, “The mentoring events were extremely helpful, as they provided firsthand information from residency directors that you wouldn’t have the opportunity to hear elsewhere.” These sessions were multidisciplinary, enabling students to gather information regarding different specialties via the unique perspectives provided by physician-scientists of varying career backgrounds. Timofey Karginov, a first-year MD/PhD student, said, “Meeting residency directors and professors at other institutions allowed me to get a better idea of the steps I could be taking early on in my time as an MD/PhD in order to support my interests and my career goals.”

In addition to APSA-sponsored events, all seven UConn MD/PhD students attended the annual ASCI dinner and new member induction ceremony with Andrew Arnold, MD, an ASCI/AAP member and director of the UConn Office of Physician-Scientist Career Development. This prestigious dinner recognized the novel scientific contributions of new ASCI inductees, and attendees heard powerful career advice and perspective from George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, dean of Harvard Medical School and a renowned stem cell and cancer biology expert.  Dr. Arnold noted that “exposing our aspiring physician-scientists to the Joint Meeting’s diverse array of role models and exciting clinically-relevant science has long been a major priority for our office and the UConn School of Medicine, and the continuous enthusiasm and participation from our students makes it all worthwhile.”

This year’s meeting was also notable as being the final one for Alexander Adami as a student, as he is nearing the end of his eighth and final year in the UConn MD/PhD program, after which he will begin an internal medicine residency at the University of Washington. Alex served as the national APSA President and played a crucial role in organizing these meetings. He has been an incredible liaison for UConn students to APSA and he will be greatly missed.

Whatever the stage of training, MD/PhD students all derived inspiration and excitement from their interactions at the Joint Meeting and look forward to returning.

Liisa Kuhn Named AIMBE Fellow

Liisa T. Kuhn, Ph.D. (Janine Gelineau/UConn Health Photo)

The American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering (AIMBE) has announced the induction of Liisa Kuhn, Ph.D., associate professor of biomedical engineering at the UConn School of Dental Medicine to its College of Fellows. Kuhn was nominated, reviewed, and elected by peers and members of the College of Fellows for advancing the translation of bone biology and mechanics to its application in regenerative medicine. Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to a medical and biological engineer. The College of Fellows is comprised of the top
two percent of medical and biological engineers. College membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering and medicine research, practice, or education” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of medical and biological engineering, or developing/implementing innovative approaches to bioengineering education.”

A formal induction ceremony was held during the AIMBE Annual Meeting at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. on April 9. Dr. Kuhn was inducted along with 156 colleagues who make up the AIMBE College of Fellows Class of 2018.

Nia Harris Wins Inaugural Hartford Medical Society Research Award

Dr. Bernard Kosto from the Hartford Medical Society presents Nia Harris with its inaugural award.  (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health photo)

The Hartford Medical Society presented its inaugural award at the Medical and Dental Student Research Day 2018.  Members of the Society from all over the world voted on the abstracts from eligible candidates with the last vote being cast from Zanzibar to select Nia Harris as the winner. Her project was “Filling the Therapeutic Void: Creating Guidelines for Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) through Film.” HMS members judged her project as the kind of research that helps doctors serving their communities, which is the purpose of the HMS award – to help advance community medicine.

UConn Health Hosts State Contest for Junior Scientists

Genetics researcher Stormy Chamberlain giving the keynote talk during the JSHS event held March 24, 2018. (Photo by Brittany Knight)

By Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. candidate Brittany Knight and JSHS  event organizer

For the second year in a row, UConn Health hosted the statewide competition of the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS).  This year around 200 students, teachers, and parents representing 40 schools took part in the all-day conference. It’s designed to provide high schools students with a forum to share ideas about how to solve real world problems with STEM education. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics which are all essential to the future of our technology-driven world.

In preparation for the competition, students submitted research proposals several months in advance that recognized a significant problem pertaining to human affairs. About 80 proposals were then rated by a panel of professionals in STEM science to be presented as oral or poster presentations. Needless to say, the scientific merit and rigor that went into these projects exceeded expectations and it was challenging to decide which projects were to be a part of the competition.

The symposium included a keynote presentation by Stormy Chamberlain, an associate professor in genetics and associate director of the Genetics and Developmental Biology Graduate Program at UConn Health. Her talk focused on her research using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from patients with Angelman syndrome, Prader-willi syndrome, and 15q duplication syndrome.

Following the keynote, students were divided into groups to present or attend the poster and oral presentations. Students were also given the opportunity to attend a career panel session with young professionals in social work, nursing, pharmaceutical science, medical science, research, public health, and dentistry. Students asked the panel questions pertaining to career motivations, challenges with career decisions, college or high school course preparation, internships, college planning, loans, etc.

Another option for students was touring some of our research labs, including the virtual anatomy lab, to participate in hands-on activities and learn about the exciting research being done here. Graduate students in the Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program, including Matthew Sticco (Neuroscience), Nicholas Wasko (Immunology), Rajamani Selvam (Neuroscience), and Shubham Khetan (Genetics) led the tours. They each created a short module that consisted of hands-on activities as well as career advice for students interested in pursuing a career in research.

At the end of the event, top presentations were announced. The effort and scientific merit that went into this year’s projects was nothing short of amazing. It’s important to note that last year’s first place national winner was one of Connecticut’s JSHS winners last March.

JSHS is nationally organized by the Academy of Applied Sciences with sponsorship from the U.S. Army, Naval, and Air Force. Connecticut’s program would not have been made possible without the dedication of Connecticut Area Health Education Center Network (AHEC) and the staff at UConn Health. We wish the best of luck to the five Connecticut representatives at the national competition in May.