New Program Pairs Undergraduates with UConn Health Researchers

David Martinelli (standing), assistant professor of neuroscience, works with Rohit Makol '20 (ENG), an undergraduate in the UConn Health summer internship program. (Frank Barton/UConn Health Photo)
Forty UConn undergraduates in the Health Research Program worked with scientists at UConn Health this summer to explore different fields of medical research. Here Rohit Makol '20 (ENG), seated, works with David Martinelli, assistant professor of neuroscience at UConn Health, during his summer internship with the program. (Frank Barton/UConn Health Photo)

Seeking a summer research opportunity to follow his freshman year, honors student Rohit Makol ’20 (ENG) had choices.

He applied for summer positions with – and heard back from – several UConn Health faculty. He chose the lab of David Martinelli, assistant professor of neuroscience, with whose work, as it turns out, Makol has a very personal connection.

Martinelli is studying the auditory system, specifically the outer hair cells in the inner ear.

“I have always wanted to learn more about this because it applies to me directly,” says Makol, a biomedical engineering major. “I have bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which means that many of my cochlear hair cells are damaged.”

He has been working in the Martinelli lab since early June, spending much of his time working with mouse models as part of a larger effort to create a genetic tool to selectively manipulate outer hair cell afferent synapses, which carry a neuron’s message toward the central nervous system.

The research opportunity with Martinelli is part of the University’s Health Research Program, which debuted this year with the vision of providing health-related research opportunities to UConn undergraduates by pairing them with scientists in Farmington.

Rohit literally developed the assays and techniques that my lab will be using for years to come. — David Martinelli

“My experience this summer has been a real-life application of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” Makol says. “I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions this summer with some of the minor setbacks we have encountered in our experiments. I have learned the importance of being persistent, because it pays off in the long run. If it wasn’t for my stubbornness, dedication, and hard work this summer, I don’t think that this experience would have been as rewarding.”

One of those rewards was obtaining publishable results in the space of about 10 weeks.

“Rohit has been the best imaginable student to have in my lab,” Martinelli says. “He did not have the typical undergraduate lab experience, in which the student serves as an assistant to a project already in motion. As a new professor, I am starting projects from the ground up. Rohit literally developed the assays and techniques that my lab will be using for years to come.”

Makol is one of 40 undergraduate students who spent this summer as research assistants to UConn Health faculty. Like most of the others, he will continue that work as part of his fall course load.

“The Health Research Program is a great opportunity to explore different fields of medical research working alongside leading experts,” he says. “Dr. Martinelli’s interactive teaching approach has allowed me to learn a variety of things and skills in such a short amount of time.”

The Health Research Program started as a pilot in January, with 17 students matched with UConn Health faculty and spending six to nine hours a week in the lab in Farmington. When the semester ended, 16 stayed on to work full-time during the summer break (the 17th had another opportunity for the summer and is rejoining the program this fall). Students in the program over the summer receive a $4,000 stipend to cover living and travel expenses.

“We’re looking to create a structure that allows students to work with faculty mentors over an extended period of time, intensively in the summer and extending that into the academic year,” says Caroline McGuire, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research in Storrs, which oversees the program. “This complements other University initiatives and is part of UConn’s research excellence.”

The Health Research Program is jointly funded by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine.

“One of the things we’ve been really pleased with is the strong interest we’ve seen from UConn Health faculty across the schools and departments,” McGuire says. “We have a little niche in the overall territory of research programs that are happening up at UConn Health, and it’s been really great to see the collaboration between campuses.”

Students also have shown strong interest, indicated by the hundreds who’ve applied already. McGuire says the program also should serve as a recruitment tool for UConn Health by drawing prospective medical, dental, and graduate school students.

Another undergraduate who had been looking to spend the summer doing research is honors student Alexandra Grimaldi ’18 (CAHNR, CLAS), a dual-degree senior studying English and allied health sciences with a concentration in public health and health promotion. She is passionate about universal access to health care, and driven to improve the infrastructure of the American health care system.

This past spring, she learned of an opportunity in the UConn Health lab of Julie Robison in the UConn Center on Aging. She would assist with studying Money Follows the Person, a Medicaid program designed to help those in a long-term care facility return to the community. It was a full-time commitment with a stipend.

“I knew that this would be a perfect fit for me,” says Grimaldi, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health. “I am very interested in research related to health policy implementation and efficacy, which is exactly the kind of research that Dr. Robison is doing in the Center on Aging. I was really excited to do actual quantitative and qualitative research on exactly how effective this program is.”

When Grimaldi wasn’t interviewing people in the Money Follows the Person program to collect data for the research, she was helping implement and distribute surveys and coding the results.

“This program gave me the opportunity to work with incredible mentors in my field, increased my confidence in my potential for a career in health care research, and allowed me to see what that career would look like,” Grimaldi says. “It allowed me to really know that I’m on the right path to doing what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Like Makol, Grimaldi is returning to the lab in a part-time role this fall to continue her work. She says she hopes to apply what she’s learned to her senior thesis in the spring.