There are many highly accomplished undergraduate students at UConn, but only a select few receive one of the most prestigious honors, that of being named a University Scholar. The University Scholar Program provides students the opportunity to explore their intellectual interests during their final three semesters. As a Scholar, students develop their own individualized plan of study and execute an original, in-depth research project. To become a Scholar, students must make it through all phases of the rigorous application process. An interdisciplinary faculty committee reviews all applications, selecting students with excellent academic backgrounds and creative and innovative projects.
No more than 30 Scholars are chosen every year. In 2014 and 2015, four CAHNR students received this honor.
2014 CAHNR University Scholars
Katelyn McFadden (Animal Science, “The Effects of Poor Maternal Nutrition on Expression in Liver in Offspring”)
As a senior in high school, Katelyn McFadden was already participating in research in Assistant Professor Kristen Govoni’s lab.
“I have had the pleasure of working with Katelyn as her research mentor since her senior year of high school,” says Govoni. “She is a very mature young woman and has grown as a scientist over the past four years. She has achieved the ability to work independently on her research projects, develop new ideas and experimental designs and secure funding for her research, she has received awards at national meetings for her research and she is a true team leader.”
“I was fortunate enough to receive several grants through the Office of Undergraduate Research to do research,” McFadden says. “I felt that the University Scholars Program was a natural progression for me in order to continue to grow as a researcher.”
Using sheep as a model, McFadden is looking into the effects of poor maternal nutrition on gene and protein expression in the liver during the gestation period. This stems from a larger collaborative project in the Department of Animal Science department that is examining the effects of poor maternal nutrition on growth and offspring.
“I participated in this project my freshman year, working with the sheep and collecting samples. Having been so heavily involved in the in-vivo and sample collection work, I really wanted to have an independent role in the laboratory analysis for a portion of this project,” she says.
“I advocated for investigating the gene and protein expression in the liver as it is a critical organ involved in many aspects of growth and metabolism.”
Professor and department head Steve Zinn, who serves on McFadden’s’s committee, commends her hard work and focus.
“As an undergraduate researcher, Katelyn is one of the most mature scientists that I have met at UConn. She understands her project thoroughly, from the molecular level to the very applied aspects, including sample collection and analyses, data analysis, large animal management and the impact of her research on animal science and human health. In the future, she will make an excellent independent scientist.”
McFadden sets high goals for herself, and she feels being selected as a University Scholar is a huge accomplishment. “It has been challenging, but it has been very rewarding to work so in-depth on this project and contribute to the larger collaborative study.”
For the future, McFadden has set her sights on a career in veterinary sciences; she has already been accepted into veterinary school. “Currently, I am interviewing for combined DVM/PhD programs at a couple veterinary schools. I am considering a career in veterinary research,” she says.
Peter Larson (Pathobiology and Veterinary Science, “Logical Vaccinia Virus Vectors”)
Before he even started at UConn, Peter Larson already had the University Scholar Program in his sight. “As an aspiring scientist, I hope to spend my life pursuing independent research projects using current scientific tools toward practical ends,” he says. “I knew this program is the closest I would get to that as an undergraduate.”
In his first semester, Larson was already significantly involved with research in Associate Professor Paulo Verardi’s lab. “It allowed me to develop the experience, skills, relationships and knowledge to be able to design and execute a challenging University Scholar thesis project,” Larson says.
“I met Peter in the summer of 2011 during freshman honors orientation. He immediately struck me as a highly motivated and bright student,” Verardi says. “I met with Peter a number of times during his freshman year to discuss the start of his research experience and the possibility of his conducting a research project in my lab, to which I eagerly agreed.”
His project, “Logical Vaccinia Virus Vectors,” is concerned with the development of a “smart” vaccine with numerous applications in the evolution of vaccines, gene and cancer therapy, and synthetic biology.
Says Larson, “Scientists have developed a large enough body of knowledge of biological systems that we can start engineering them from simple building blocks for our purposes. To me, this field of ‘synthetic biology’ is perhaps the most exciting part of our time. I imagined what could be the future of viral vectors, and hope with this project to open the door to making them smart, safe, and more effective tools for the treatment of many diseases.”
Becoming a University Scholar was not only a personal goal for Larson; he believes it distinguishes himself as an aspiring scientist. “I consider it an important milestone along my path to pursuing my own research, recognition by national scholarships and success in applying to MD/PhD programs,” he says.
In the future, Larson wants to continue this path in medical research for practical therapies, specifically in the field of infectious diseases. In fall 2015, he will begin the combined MD/PhD program at the UConn Health Center.
2015 CAHNR University Scholars
Leanne Jankelunas (Animal Science and Pathobiology, “Investigating the Efficacy of Plant-Derived Antimicrobials in Increasing the Sensitivity of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Vancomycin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA) to Antibiotics”)
Always interested in veterinary medicine, Leanne Jankelunas had no idea what avenue she wanted to pursue. “Before I met my advisor, I learned about public health veterinarians and became interested in research involving zoonotic diseases, “ she says. “I became involved with Professor Kumar Venkitanarayanan’s food microbiology lab my freshman year. I quickly discovered that I had a passion for microbiology and research.”
“Unlike most of the Animal Science honors students who indicate an interest in attending vet school, right from our very first meeting Leanne demonstrated a strong interest in performing research on zoonotic infectious diseases and pursuing a combined DVM/Ph.D. program,” says Venkitanarayanan. “And during our regular meetings, she was always keen on exploring opportunities and internships for gaining experience on zoonotic diseases.”
“Leanne has a strong interest in infectious diseases,” says Professor Sandra Bushmich from the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science, who serves on Jankelunas’s committee. “She has pursued these interests by working in the necropsy [animal autopsy] and diagnostic serology [antibody testing] sections of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory in the Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science.”
Jankelunas’ Scholar project looks at bacteria that have developed resistance to many currently used antibiotics, specifically methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and its more virulent cousin, vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (VRSA). This drug resistance has affected treatment options for those infected by these bacteria.
“My project will attempt to use three different plant-derived antimicrobials (PDAs) to increase sensitivity of these organisms to methicillin and vancomycin,” she says.
Similar studies using PDAs have suggested that those compounds in combination with antibiotics offer a viable treatment option. These studies may be the catalyst to discovering a new treatment method that will not lead to the development of further drug resistance within these bacterial populations.
“I chose this topic because I was extremely interested in MRSA and its resistance when I came across it as part of a pathobiology class,” she says. “I then learned about a study that used plant components to reduce antibiotic resistance in a similar bacteria, and that inspired my project.”
Jankelunas says that becoming a University Scholar is a great honor. “It has genuinely affirmed for me that my hard work and commitment to research are valued and recognized by the University,” she says.
Jankelunas will graduate with a BS in Animal Science and Pathobiology in May 2016. Afterwards, she plans to attend veterinary school, then pursue a PhD in microbiology. “Following all of that, I hope to work for the Centers for Disease Control in controlling, treating, and preventing zoonotic epidemics worldwide,” she says.
Alexandra Rudolph (Animal Science, “Effects of Bovine Granulocyte-Macrophage Colony Stimulating Factor on Milk Neutrophil Apoptosis”)
The University Scholar Program attracted Alexandra Rudolph because of the opportunities it afforded undergraduates to take graduate courses and focus on research.
“After working with Associate Professor Sheila Andrew on using ultrasound to detect mastitis in dairy cattle, I decided I would like to continue research into mastitis,” she says. In addition, she became interested in genetics and was looking for a way to combine the two areas for a possible Scholar project.
“I came across a paper about the effects of granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor (GMCSF) on the JAK/STAT pathway (involved in cell apoptosis) in blood and milk neutrophils. I found this paper very interesting and decided to pursue the topic for my research.”
Andrew, the chair of Rudolph’s faculty committee, has nothing but praise for the student. “Ali is an excellent example of our University Scholars,” she says. “Her boundless scientific curiosity, coupled with her strong work ethic, is truly remarkable. Her project to determine the effect of bovine granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor on milk neutrophil apoptosis and ultimately the severity of mastitis in dairy cows is an exciting, original research area that Ali initiated, and the results of this project have the potential to make a significant impact on a major dairy cow disease.”
Rudolph’s project got its start at the Kellogg Dairy Center.
“While working at the KDC, I noticed the large quantity of milk discarded from mastitis-affected cattle. Given my undergraduate plan of study (dual degrees in Animal Science and Molecular and Cell Biology) and my research, I was curious to further understand how modulation of host cellular processes underlies the immunobiology of the disease,” she says.
Her project investigates the role of GMCSF in regulating apoptosis, or cellular death, as a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development. Previous studies have shown that levels of GMCSF increased in cattle affected with mastitis, the inflammatory reaction of udder tissue. This increase in GMCSF hinders apoptosis of certain white blood cells known as neutrophils.
Rudolph is investigating this role of GMCSF by looking at two things: the mechanics of apoptosis in GMCSF-treated milk neutrophils and the profiles of these apoptotic genes in both healthy and mastitis-infected cattle.
“If successful, my project will pave the way for a future research project into a sub-clinical mastitis treatment that does not utilize antibiotics, reducing the potential for antibiotic contamination of the milk supply,” she says.
Rudolph is excited to begin working on this planned research project.
“This program empowered me to plan a full research project and work in-depth on a subject that interests me for the duration of my undergraduate career,” she says. “It has also allowed me to interact closely with the faculty in the Departments of Animal Science and Molecular and Cell Biology.”
After graduating, a PhD from a genetics program is her next goal.
“Afterwards, I would like to eventually lead my own academic research laboratory,” she says.