Congratulations MCB 2022 University Scholars

Open to undergraduate students from all of the University's schools and colleges, the University Scholar Program allows students to design and pursue an in-depth research or creative project and to craft a learning plan that supports their interests and academic goals during their final three semesters. Each student is mentored by an advisory committee of three faculty.

Michelle Antony

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Individualized: Community Health
Project Title: Determining Growth Factor Properties Required to Promote Articular Cartilage Healing
Committee: Caroline Dealy, Craniofacial Sciences, UCHC; Rachel O’Neill, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Debarchana Ghosh, Geography.

Project Summary: Cartilage cells have limited capacity for self-repair and cartilage damage incurred during injury often progresses to post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA), a form of cartilage degeneration that causes severe, incurable disability in otherwise young and active individuals. My project will explore molecular signaling mechanisms in cartilage healing and narrow the field of candidate growth factors that can activate self-repair by cartilage cells. By identifying growth factors with therapeutic regenerative potential, treatments for patients who have suffered damage to their joints can be optimized.

Michelle Antony is a Molecular and Cell Biology and Individualized: Community Health major from Monroe, CT. On campus, she is a peer research ambassador at the OUR, a student-athlete tutor, and involved in UConn’s genetic engineering club, iGEM. Outside of school, she enjoys working as a CNA, hiking, and visiting the national parks. Following graduation, she hopes to attend medical school

Poorna Balakumar

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Individualized: Asian Arts, Culture, and Feminism
Project Title: Gender and Transnationalism in Kuchipudi Dance
Committee: Matthew Cohen, Dramatic Arts; Bandana Purkayastha, Sociology; Elizabeth Kline, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Lindsay Cummings, Dramatic Arts.

Project Summary: Since ancient times, dance and drama have been an important part of Indian society and culture; however, the study of Indian dance has always existed only in the aesthetic realm rather than in the context of historical, economic and political discourse. The ethnography of Indian dance as an embodied, gendered form of performance provides important insight into the politics of racialization, transnationalism and gender. During my final three semesters, I intend to explore different representations of gender in Indian theatre and performance, focusing on the revival of classical Indian dance forms in the 20th century and the transnational experience of first-generation women learning classical Indian dance under the male gaze.

Poorna Balakumar is an Honors student and Presidential Scholar in the Special Program in Medicine majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology, Pathobiology, and IMJR: Asian Arts, Culture and Feminism, with a minor in Healthcare Management and Insurance Studies. She is the captain of UConn Thunderaas, a competitive Indian dance team on campus, and has been learning nearly all styles of dance since she was three. She hopes not only to attend medical school, but also to teach dance to others someday.

Ashiti Damania

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Validation of RGC Subtype Markers Across Development to Understand Axon Regeneration
Committee: Feliks Trakhtenberg, Neuroscience, UCHC; Leighton Core, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Akiko Nishiyama, Physiology and Neurobiology.

Project Summary: The inability for central nervous system (CNS) neurons to regenerate after damage is problematic for patients suffering from CNS injuries. Mouse retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), a type of cell in the eye whose axons form the optic nerve, have been established as a model for studying axon regeneration. Recent research has identified many RGC subtypes based on differences in gene expression profiles. This project aims to investigate the role of RGC subtype gene expression on RGC regenerative capacity after CNS injury. The research can provide insight into creating gene therapies to treat optic neuropathies and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Ashiti Damania is an Honors Student and STEM Scholar from Trumball, CT majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and minoring in Neuroscience and Physiology and Neurobiology. She is involved with the national honor society in neuroscience (Nu Rho Psi) and Community Outreach. She plans to pursue a career in medicine.

Rayna Esch

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Role of Perimuscular Connective Tissue Injury and Repair in FOP
Committee: David Goldhamer, Molecular and Cell Biology; John Redden, Physiology and Neurobiology; and David Knecht, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: Fibrodysplaisia Ossificans Progressive (FOP) is a rare congenital disease in humans characterized by a biological phenomenon known as heterotopic ossification in which bone forms within skeletal muscle and associated connective tissue, including muscle fascia, a thin connective tissue layer that surrounds the muscle. A specific cell type, known as Fibrogenic/Adipogenic Progenitors (FAPs), is the primary contributor to heterotopic bone formation in FOP. The ossified lesions are often the result of mutant FAP signaling and differentiation following injury to muscle or connective tissue. Rayna will be studying the distinct role that fascial injury plays in the process of heterotopic ossification.

Rayna Esch is a Molecular and Cell Biology major and Human Development and Family Sciences minor from Wallingford, CT. She is a presidential scholar, vice president of Knit for NICU, and involved in the UConn Alzheimer’s Association. Upon graduation, she hopes to attend medical school.

Paul Isaac

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Diagnostic Genetic Sciences
Project Title: To “B” or not to “B”: An Investigation of B and Sex Chromosomes in L. polyphemus and Their Role in the Immune Response
Committee: Rachel O’Neill, Molecular and Cell Biology; Denise Anamani, Allied Health Sciences; Jonathan Klassen, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Stacey Hanlon, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Summary: The pharmaceutical industry bleeds the North Atlantic horseshoe crab (L. polyphemus) to derive LAL, an important sterility test, from their blood. Unfortunately, these bleeding practices have led to a slow population decline. My research aims to characterize and establish foundational data about the L. polyphemus genome, specifically focusing on identifying the presence of B and sex chromosomes in L. polyphemus and observing changes in gene expression upon exposure to pathogens. The ultimate goal of this work is to end horseshoe crab bleeding practices by establishing robust information about the L. polyphemus genome that can be used to synthesize potent synthetic alternatives to LAL.

Paul Isaac is an Honors STEM scholar majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and Diagnostic Genetic Sciences with a Bioinformatics minor. Outside of lab, he is part of the STEM Scholar Executive Board, the Middle School Science Bowl Board, and Husky Hungama, UConn’s South Asian a capella group. After graduation, Paul hopes to attend medical school.


Alexandra Goldhamer

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology and Human Rights
Project Title: Exploring the Neural Circuits of Diet-Induced Obesity
Committee: Natalie Sciolino, Physiology and Neurobiology; Amy Howell, Chemistry; Kathryn Libal, Human Rights; and David Daggett, Molecular and Cell Biology.

Project Description: Dysregulation of norepinephrine (NE) signaling has been implicated in obesity’s pathogenesis. Drug therapies that currently exist have a broad range of negative side-effects, which underscores the importance of identifying specific NE neural circuits that can be targeted to inhibit hunger signals. My project focuses on the inhibitory projections from the locus coeruleus to the lateral hypothalamic area (LHA) that are underactive in the pathogenesis of diet-induced obesity (DIO). The goal of my project is to stimulate this circuit with the purpose of elucidating the specific hunger-promoting cell type(s) in the LHA that, when inhibited, attenuate DIO’s progression.

Alex Goldhamer is an Honors student studying Molecular & Cell Biology and Human Rights, with a minor in Mathematics. She is a mentor for BIOL 1107 and a Teaching Assistant for Cell Biology. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue graduate school and continue research in the field of neurobiology.

Sarah San Vicente

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Defining the Role of TIGIT as an Immune Checkpoint Inhibitor in Ovarian Cancer
Committee: Andrew Wiemer, Pharmaceutical Sciences; Patricia Rossi, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Xiuling Lu, Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Project Summary: While immunotherapy has been a successful breakthrough treatment option for many forms of cancer, ovarian cancer has yet to reach this level of success. Despite prior failures, the complex tumor microenvironment of ovarian cancer provides a multitude of targets for immunotherapeutic drug targeting. My project aims to determine the relationship between γδ T cells and the novel protein TIGIT in the context of ovarian cancer. I plan to define TIGIT as a potential immune checkpoint inhibitor through the use of anti-TIGIT blockades in cytokine recovery, cancer cell viability, and γδ T cell proliferation assays. If proven successful, this project could facilitate development of an anti-TIGIT immune checkpoint inhibitor drug for use in ovarian cancer.

Sarah San Vicente is an honors student pursuing a B.S. in Molecular and Cellular Biology with a minor in Psychology. She is a member of the Kidney Disease Screening & Awareness Program, as well as the Collegiate Health Service Corps. After graduation, Sarah plans to attend medical school, while later working as a physician-scientist.

Joshua Yu

Major: Molecular and Cell Biology
Project Title: Nanoparticle-Mediated Inhibition of Acute Myeloid Leukemia
Committee: Xiuling Lu, Pharmaceutical Sciences; David Knecht, Molecular and Cell Biology; and Theodore Rasmussen, Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Project Summary: Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) is a devastating form of cancer that affects everyone from the young to the elderly. The goal of this research project is to further understand the mechanism leading to superior efficacy of doxorubicin nanoparticle formulations in mice when compared to established chemotherapeutic drugs such as doxorubicin and the commercial liposomal doxorubicin product, Doxil® for treatment of AML. By understanding the accumulation of nanoparticles in vivo, nanocarrier formulations can be further optimized for in vivo effectiveness. In the future, my hope is that these treatments will prevent relapse of AML by addressing the foundational cause of cancer resistance and recurrence.

Joshua Yu is an honors student studying Molecular and Cellular Biology from Frederick, MD. At UConn, he is involved in the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program, the Symphonic Band, and the Peer Allies through Honors program. Following graduation, he plans to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree in pharmaceutical sciences.