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.”
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.”