University of Connecticut

AHS Honors Scholar receives prestigious national scholarship

 Irini Agaraj working in the lab.

Irini Agaraj working in the lab.

A spring 2015 CAHNR graduate is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Association of Genetic Technologists’ Foundation for Genetic Technology Barbara J. Kaplan Scholarship. An Honors Scholar with a 3.9 GPA, Irini Agaraj recently completed her BS degree in the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ Diagnostic Genetic Sciences (DGS) program in cytogenetics.

“I feel extremely honored to receive this scholarship,” Agaraj says. “It is a wonderful recognition.”

The competitive national award is based on outstanding scholastic performance, volunteer work, initiative and potential to contribute to the profession.

“Working with Irini as a student and an honors advisee was never considered ‘work,’ but rather an enjoyable conversation,” says Judy Brown, assistant professor in residence and director of the department’s master’s program in health care genetics. “Irini is articulate, has a great sense of humor and above is all kind and respectful.”

“Over the past 24 years as program director of the DGS program, I have graduated over 500 students in cytogenetics and molecular diagnostics, and we’ve had some really amazing students,” says Martha Keagle. “Irini is in the top three. She is an outstanding student. Just stellar.”

Agaraj recently completed a six-month clinical internship at New York Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University Medical Center that included peripheral blood, prenatal, cancer, and FISH cytogenetic rotations, in addition to a research project focusing on the efficacy of OncoScan for the detection of chromosomal abnormalities in glioma samples. The project compared methods of genetic testing of oncology specimens.

Agaraj plans to sit for the national cytogenetics certification exam, and will enter the one-year tract in the UConn Medicine and Dental Medicine Post-Baccalaureate Program. After completing the program, she plans to work as a genetic technologist while applying to medical school.

“I feel grateful to have found the DGS program,” Agaraj says. “I owe so much to the program. The clinical rotation was a great experience and it will help set me apart when I apply to medical school.”

“Although Irini has had a challenging honors curriculum in our program, she successfully balanced academics with volunteerism and participation within the University community,” says Brown. “Irini is a motivated and bright young scientist and will be an exceptional addition to the genetics profession, continuing to challenge herself to improve and inspiring those who work with her to do the same.”

Irini Agaraj receiving the Barbara J. Kaplan Scholarship, presented by Robert Gasparini, who founded the UConn DGS program in the early 1980s. It was the first baccalaureate program in cytogenetics in North America.

Irini Agaraj receiving the Barbara J. Kaplan Scholarship, presented by Robert Gasparini, who founded the UConn DGS program in the early 1980s. It was the first baccalaureate program in cytogenetics in North America.

Agaraj has already displayed excellent leadership and teaching abilities, serving as an unofficial teaching assistant in one of Keagle’s human genetics classes. “We had to make up for snow days and I was out of town for a conference,” Keagle explains. “Irini prepared for the class and did an outstanding job.”

Agaraj served as community service chair for UConn’s Albanian Student Association from 2012 to 2014. During that time she organized and hosted a blood drive, translated documents for a UConn professor opening a center for autistic children in Albania, and raised funds to purchase an electric wheelchair for an individual with muscular dystrophy, as well as volunteered at a number of multicultural children’s events.

During her winter break in 2014, Agaraj spent a week in Panama as a volunteer for Global Health Brigades, working with medical and dental professionals in a health clinic. In 2014, she volunteered for a month in a cytogenetics laboratory at Sifa University Hospital in Izmir, Turkey. She was a member of Alpha Phi Omega, a national service fraternity whose members commit to 25 hours of community service per semester. On campus, Agaraj worked as a student athlete tutor in the Counseling Program for Intercollegiate Athletes.

Agaraj received the Smyrski Farm Scholarship and the Anne McLendon Memorial Scholarship. She was also chosen as the student representative to the DGS Advisory Board. “It is the highest compliment we can bestow on a student,” remarks Keagle.

“I feel lucky to have been a part of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources,” Agaraj says. “They provide many opportunities for students. I enjoyed the close-knit community of the College. You don’t get that kind of connection anywhere else.

I have had the pleasure of working with dedicated professors who went above and beyond to help me whenever possible. I just want to thank them.”

By Kim Colavito Markesich



Tools for Healthy Living offers 4-H’ers opportunity to explore principles of a healthy home

4-H'ers show their enthusiasm during a lesson about clutter

4-H’ers show their enthusiasm during a lesson about clutter

Tools for Healthy Living, a curriculum about healthy homes and food safety, has been accepted as a national peer-reviewed curriculum by the National 4-H Council. The curriculum, designed for students in grades four through six who are in after-school 4-H programs, was developed by UConn Extension as part of a five-year Sustainable Community Project grant from USDA’s CYFAR (Children, Youth, and Families at Risk) program.

To implement this curriculum, a trained facilitator helps students explore the principles of a healthy home and learn how they can help to make their own homes and their communities healthier. According to federal housing, environmental, and public health authorities, a healthy home is clean, dry, safe, in good repair, with fresh air, and free of pests and dangerous chemicals.

In addition to explaining the principles of a healthy home, the curriculum introduces students to the following environmental health and food safety topics:

  • Lead poisoning
  • Asthma triggers
  • Mold and moisture
  • Pests and pesticides
  • Smoking
  • Clutter
  • Bacteria in food
  • Food safety and food temperature
  • Food safety and cleanliness

Students also learn how to act as advocates for a healthy home.

For more information about the “Tools for Healthy Living” curriculum contact Sharon Gray (

By Joan Bothell

Image of the week

American Society of Animal Science Fellow Award

Dr. Steven Zinn, Department Head and Professor, was honored with the American Society of Animal Science Fellow Award in Administration at the ASAS/ADSA Joint Annual Meeting. The Fellow Awards are given to individuals “who have rendered very distinguished service to the animal industry and/or to the American Society of Animal Science and had continuous membership in the Society for a minimum of twenty-five years. Photo taken by Samantha Walker.

Historical image of the week

Bad Fences On Route 195

Automobile with driver heading south on what is now Route 195 (Storrs Road). Road is dirt with wooden fences on either side, some in disrepair. Stones walls shown on both sides of the road. Two houses on right, church on left. By Jerauld A. Manter. From the Dodd collection.

Meet staff member Jennifer Simoniello

Jennifer Simoniello

Jennifer Simoniello

Tell us your job title and main responsibilities. How long have you worked here?

I am an administrative coordinator and assist the head of the Department of Animal Science Department. I oversee the marketing and advertising for the department, plan and promote our events and coordinate many special projects. I also manage the main office, which consists of two staff members and four to five undergrads. I also provide support to faculty and students regarding all academic issues, recruitment, scholarships and academic reporting for the department. I’ve been here for 27 years and still enjoy my position very much.

Name one aspect of your work that you really like.

I like the independence so I can create and manage projects and events in the long and short term. I also really enjoy working with the Animal Science students; I interact with them a lot due to all of our department events (Freshmen Welcome and Little I). I also have students that work in the main office, and their roles are becoming more important in the day-to-day operation of our department. They do things like putting together materials for our events or recruitment efforts, help with keeping our departmental library and computer lab going, run daily deposits especially during horse riding lessons each semester, help maintain the website and advertise our weekly seminar series. Their help is invaluable to us.

Have you ever had another job at UConn?

I came to the Department of Animal Science back in 1988 after working at Travelers Insurance in East Hartford. I was hired as a clerk typist, then a secretary, and now I’m the administrative coordinator. I’ve never worked anywhere else on campus except in our department.

Did your favorite class in high school/college prepare you for what you do now? (more…)