Alumni Spotlight

Craig O'Connor

Craig O'Connor, Ph.D.

Ph.D. Genetics and Genomics '08

Assistand Director
NYC Chief Medical Examiner
Department of Forensic Biology

 

I currently work for the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner in the Department of Forensic Biology, the largest DNA laboratory in United States.  I am an Assistant Director overseeing almost 200 analysts in the daily operations of the laboratory.  Analysts in the department are responsible for the examination of crime scene evidence from crimes such as homicides, rapes, assaults, property crimes, missing persons investigations, and the identification of human remains from mass disasters such as the 9/11 attack. During this examination, they are looking for the presence of biological materials such as blood, semen, saliva, and skin cells. Samples taken are then sent for DNA testing, interpretation, and formulating conclusions. Expert testimony in court is given after comprehensive reports are written. Part of my duties also include overseeing researching of new techniques and validating them for use on casework.

Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees from UConn have prepared me for these roles. As an undergraduate, I was able to take a variety of classes as a Physiology and Neurobiology major that piqued my interest in the sciences and gave me the ability to survey the many options offered by my degree. Upon graduation, I worked for a year as a Research Technician at the Yale University School of Medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. There I was able to participate in a number of biochemical projects and "dip my toe" in the world of research. From there I went back to UConn to work on my doctorate degree in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology earning a Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics in 2008.

My faculty advisor, Dr. Linda Strausbaugh, Emeritus, guided me in honing my skills and preparing me for a career in forensic biology. I was fortunate to be able to design my dissertation project focusing on forensic biology techniques, using cutting-edge technology and instruments, while also training on more traditional molecular biological concepts. All of the professors on my committee as well as in the department took pride in educating and preparing their students for whatever career choice they chose, and I am grateful to all of them.  UConn is a well renowned academic institution and produces the best and brightest in all industries.

Jeanne Whalen

Jeanne Whalen, MSc

BS in Molecular and Cell Biology 2014
MSc in Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics 2015

Scientist
Oncology Data Science department
Novartis

 

When I started at UCONN in 2010, I didn’t really care for biology. I was more interested in physics and chemistry. After taking Bio 1107 with Dr. Abbott as a requirement, I was hooked. I declared my major, MCB, at the end of that semester. Dr. Abbott was also the first person to introduce me to the field of bioinformatics. He told the class about a few of the applications and since I was already working towards a minor in math, I thought that this was probably a great fit for me. During my senior year, I was also able to work in the LoTurco lab as an assistant. I learned so much in this lab, including how to do experiments that I’d previously only read about and every graduate student was always willing to let me help, and answer all my questions about their work. 

Following graduation, I started to work in Dr. Jill Wegrzyn’s lab as a summer position. This is where I really learned about bioinformatics. I was able to stay in Dr. Wegryzyn’s lab and work on my master's thesis: “Assembly and Annotation of the Common Walnut (Juglans regia) transcriptome. Dr. Wegrzyn was a superb PI and provided me with all the tools and help necessary, but gave me freedom to learn on my own as well. I was able to learn about a lot of common bioinformatics tools and evaluate them for myself, something that I am still doing today. As an undergrad, I learned about many tools and methods in genetics and genomics, but in the MCB graduate program, I learned how to apply them. The small class sizes made it easy to learn and ask questions. The professors all seem genuine and invested in their students’ educations. Dr. Craig Nelson, in particular, challenged me to think more scientifically and ask better questions. I still work on this every day and use his method of reading scientific articles which have been an enormous help. 

I’m currently working as a scientist for Novartis in the Oncology Data Science department. We work on a variety of clinical trials for new cancer treatments, including immunotherapy. My role is primarily designing and analyzing pipelines, including RnaSeq and cell free DNA, and evaluating new tools for high-quality data analysis. Additionally, I work on building downstream analysis pipelines to help unpack large amounts data to make meaningful assertions. Additionally, I am working towards a Masters in Biotechnology and Nanotechnology through the Harvard Extension School because I am interested in early-stage drug development. 

The UCONN community is absolutely astounding. My first job post grad school was with Peter Werth, who spoke at my graduation. He is the CEO of ChemWerth, a generic pharmaceutical company, and I was able to learn a lot about the business aspect of drug development. I later moved to Boston and although I didn’t know anyone, I met my closest friends here through the UCONN alumni Boston chapter. It’s never hard to find another alumni or UCONN fan here, especially now that Kemba Walker is on the Celtics!

 

JamieRice

Jamie Rice, Ph.D.

BS , Major PNB, Minor MCB, UConn 2001
Ph.D., MCB, UConn 2014

Principal Investigator
Silicon Therapeutics (STX)

 

I am currently a Principal Investigator at Silicon Therapeutics (STX) in the Seaport area of Boston. STX is a drug discovery startup focused on utilizing our revolutionary computational platform to model specific targets in the innate immune system where we have a unique advantage in structure based drug design. We have a diverse team that includes computer scientists, quantum physicists, medicinal chemists, biologists, and biophysicists all working together to tackle the unique challenges of drug discovery.

I was the first employee at STX and lead the discovery and early development of a first-in-class STING agonist for the treatment of metastatic cancer that is currently in the process of an IND submission. I am now the project lead on a new immune oncology target and, along with project management responsibilities, I act as the technical molecular and cell biology lead for my group. In this role, I design, validate, and implement assay workflows that profile the activity of compounds against our target of interest.  To this end, I rely on the training and experience gained from my UConn graduate work in the Lynes lab in the MCB department. Because many of our drug targets have not been explored previously, my role requires me to develop novel assays to measure target engagement and activity. As lead molecules get closer to the clinic, my role shifts to designing in vivo mode-of-action studies and refinement of the target product profile to identify patients who could potentially benefit.

STX now has more than 50 full-time employees and during this period of growth, my UConn colleagues have been invaluable. I have leveraged this network for advice on technical issues, references for consulting work, and directly hiring graduates including Eureka Zhao from the Zweifach Lab for an Investigator position in my group. I continue to interact with new and former UConn colleagues in and around the Boston / Cambridge area on a regular basis (there are many of us) and consider myself fortunate to have such an extensive and qualified network. I look forward to continuing to gain experience as a “drug hunter” in my current role as a PI and project leader and to use my background in immunology to uncover new ways to modulate the immune system to treat complex diseases.

 

Murugappan Sathappa

Murugappan Sathappa, Ph.D.

Ph.D. Biochemistry 

Research Scientist I
Center for the Development of Therapeutics (CDoT)
Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

 

Murugappan Sathappa is a research scientist I in the protein science and structural biology group in the Center for the Development of Therapeutics (CDoT) of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, where his major focus is the expression, purification and biophysical/biochemical characterization of challenging and novel protein targets. As an integral part of the team working to develop and design small molecule therapeutics, Sathappa is driving multiple projects utilizing his expertise for enabling structure-based drug design. The operational setting at the CDoT platform is a perfect blend between academia (where one can still publish) and pharmaceutical industry (learn the complexities of drug discovery).

Prior to joining the Broad Institute in March 2017, Sathappa obtained his M.S. and Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Connecticut. The graduate program (Structural Biology and Biophysics SB3) at the Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) department provided the right ecosystem for promoting critical thinking and the diverse research interests offered the ability to work on cutting-edge research. Specifically, during his Ph.D. work at the Alder Research Group, Sathappa utilized novel model membrane systems like membrane scaffolding proteins (MSP) and styrene maleic acid (SMA) copolymer-bound nanodiscs for studying mitochondrial membrane proteins in a native bilayer-like environment to gain insights into the physiology of the mitochondrial disorder Barth Syndrome. During the last year of doctoral studies, Sathappa was involved in an exciting project to understand the mechanism of action of a therapeutic drug for the treatment of mitochondrial disorders and potentially other diseases (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/735001v1). This interesting work at the Alder Lab was instrumental in steering his career path towards early-stage drug discovery.