Caitlin is in the Honors Program, which requires completing an honors thesis in research. In her freshman year, a meeting with her advisor, Dr. Hedley Freake, encouraged her to look for research opportunities as early as possible. Shortly after, she met with Dr. Christopher Blesso, who was new to UConn at the time. Caitlin began doing research in his lab the following semester.

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Caitlin Porter at the Fall Frontiers Poster Exhibition

Caitlin now enjoys seeing how nutrition works in the body at a deeper level. For the past year or so, Caitlin has been investigating macrophages, a type of cell involved in the inflammatory response. She uses macrophages to study the effects of sphingomyelin, a phospholipid, on inflammation. Caitlin is analyzing whether or not sphingomyelin could reduce the inflammatory response of macrophages in vitro.

What attracted you to UConn? I come from a small town and high school in New Hampshire. I liked that UConn was a bigger school and could offer opportunities in research and other areas. I also liked the atmosphere, sense of community and its proximity to home.

What is your major, and why did you choose it? I am a nutritional sciences major. I originally chose this major as a freshman because I liked both science and healthcare, and nutrition was particularly interesting to me. I remember reading that if you do what you love you will never work a day in your life. I thought, how cool would it be to go to school for something I am truly interested in rather than just picking something random?

Which one of your UConn activities, internships or jobs was the most memorable? Why? The research is most memorable because it has been such a huge part of my time here. I spend about ten hours per week doing research. Right now, I am working on a specific project for my honors thesis. When I started, I was helping graduate students with their projects because I was still learning how to operate in the lab. I have since gained more independence and started working on my own project. I never imagined that I would have this much opportunity to be so involved in research.

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Caitlin and Dr. Blesso in the research laboratory

Name two other experiences that have enriched your studies. I worked at a summer job for an organization known as Seacoast Eat Local in New Hampshire. I helped at farmers markets and wrote blog posts each week. People who receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can get money to use at farmers markets. Seacoast Eat Local would match the SNAP money up to a certain point. This was an incentive for people with SNAP benefits to come to farmers markets and buy local produce. It was great to interact with the people and to see them coming back every week.

Another summer job I had was through the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension with a program called Nutrition Connections. At this job, I worked with SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed) and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). I taught nutrition classes for low-income youth, adults and seniors. I also made YouTube videos for the Cooperative Extension YouTube channel where I would talk about the health benefits of different vegetables and do cooking demonstrations.

What was the biggest challenge in your UConn career? Learning how to balance my time was the biggest challenge for me. I take many difficult classes, but I still have other time commitments with my research. Still, having a social life is really important to me. It took me some time to figure out how to balance everything.

When do you expect to graduate? What then? I graduate in May. I have applied for the dietetic internships in the Boston area. After interning, my hope is to go into a PhD program where I could get involved with clinical research.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you? Because of my involvement in research here at UConn, I am a co-author on three peer-reviewed, published journal articles.

  1. Milk sphingomyelin improves lipid metabolism and alters gut microbiota in high fat diet-fed mice.
  2. Dietary sphingomyelin attenuates hepatic steatosis and adipose tissue inflammation in high-fat-diet-induced obese mice.
  3. Black elderberry extract attenuates inflammation and metabolic dysfunction in diet-induced obese mice.

By Michelle Sarta