Student-Athlete Strong: Ericka Randazzo

'Being a Husky teaches you how to be a better person – not just on campus, but for the rest of your life,' says Randazzo, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Professor Joseph LoTurco and a student in the Special Program in Medicine as well as an athlete on the Women's Track team. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
'Being a Husky teaches you how to be a better person – not just on campus, but for the rest of your life,' says Randazzo, an undergraduate researcher in the lab of Professor Joseph LoTurco and a student in the Special Program in Medicine as well as an athlete on the Women's Track team. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn’s student-athletes are often lauded for their on-field achievements, but there’s an equally important – often unseen – dimension to the student-athlete. UConn Today is publishing a series of profiles to highlight the academic prowess of these student-athletes. Follow along as we profile two athletes each month, and provide an inside look at the academic pursuits of these high-achieving student-athletes.

Ericka Randazzo ’19 (CLAS)

Hometown and high school: Norwalk, Connecticut, Westfield High School

Sport: Women’s Track & Field

Area of study: Physiology & Neurobiology, Special Program in Medicine

Anticipated graduation: May 2019

What has been your favorite class so far? Why?
My favorite class is a tie between EPSY 2810 “Creativity” and PNB 2274/2275 “Human Anatomy and Physiology.” I took the Creativity class my freshman year basically as a “filler” to meet gen-ed requirements. Coming into the class, I had no idea what to expect. The first day, Professor [Jonathan] Plucker asked us to define what creativity was, and after an hour discussion, I was more flustered and perplexed than I ever thought such a question could make me. The course challenged me in ways no other class had done before. It seems a lot of education these days is a game of swallow and spit – memorize as much information as possible and spit it all out on test day. This class was instead grounded on critical thinking, innovation, and – of course – creativity. We developed our own invention and created a prototype, discussed the limits and potential cultivation of creativity, and worked in groups to design a new and unique “creative” cuisine. The class helped me develop a new way of approaching problems, both in and out of school.

PNB 2274/2275 was a requirement for my PNB major. Anatomy and physiology are essentially the two subjects I’m most interested in, so coming into the class I was already very excited. The “whys” and “hows” of the functioning of the human body – and all other life forms for that matter – amaze me each and every day. UConn’s Enhanced Human Anatomy and Physiology course broadened and deepened what I already knew about the body and intensified my yearning to learn more. We approached topics from a variety of perspectives in class, and directly complemented subjects by covering them in hands-on lab activities and real-world applications. This greatly aided in solidifying my understanding and kept the course diverse and interesting. Professor [Geoffrey] Tanner himself also contributed to my enjoyment of the class. He was both a very energetic and amusing professor, and I looked forward to his lectures. I’m truly going to miss the course this year.

What is it like being a student researcher for the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences (IBACS)?
Being a student-researcher for IBACS is challenging, rewarding, and fun all at the same time. Many of the techniques I’ve learned over the past semester were very new to me coming in. I did extensive research on the mechanisms and intricacies of various techniques in order to understand how they worked in an overall effort to understand my results. Many times, my results weren’t as expected. I often struggled to obtain purified products in high concentrations. But after several trials and different approaches, I was able to attain the desired purified constructs. This success is highly rewarding – as is often true when great efforts are made to achieve it. IBACS has also given me great freedom to explore and investigate any topic that interests me; making research highly independent and fun. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities IBCAS has supplied me, and look forward to the years to come.

Did anything about working in the LoTurco research lab surprise you? Can you describe a project that you found exciting?
I was first surprised by how friendly, welcoming, and open the LoTurco lab was. The graduate students and other undergrads were very open to sharing and explaining their research. One graduate student scheduled time for me to observe an analysis using the microscopy lab’s TEM (Transmission Electron Microscope), and another let me observe her calcium imaging and stimulation in the brains of neonatal mice. I was also surprised by how willing they were to help me when I was unsure of exactly how to use a certain device, and how eager they were to discuss the topics of papers I had questions about.

I’m fascinated by all aspects of the brain – especially its development, functioning, and regulation – so all the projects the lab is working on interested me. I was particularly interested in one student’s work with calcium imaging in the development of neonatal mice brains. The study involves the dissection and subsequent stimulation of mice brains, analyzing calcium signaling in response to various external stimuli. I intend to pursue a career in surgery, so the application of brain dissections and direct stimulation furthered my interest in the subject. I’m also very interested in my own project! Last spring, I investigated the functioning of various genes known to be involved in pediatric high grade gliomas using the new CRISPR-Cas 9 system to generate genetic constructs. I developed knock-out constructs to be inserted into the brains of neonatal mice. In the future, I plan to analyze how each of these genes and the combination of these genes impact the development of brain tumors.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a student-athlete?
Perhaps the biggest challenge I face as a student-athlete is managing my time. Balancing classes, practices, school work, a social life, and adequate sleep can be very difficult at times – especially when traveling. During the track seasons, we often compete every weekend, so Thursday and Friday classes are often missed and sometimes we return at 2 a.m. Monday morning. Keeping up with the missed work and exams and staying on top of class work while simultaneously focusing on the day’s races and competition can be very stressful. A track meet typically starts at 9 a.m. and runs until 6 or 7 in the evening. Trying to do schoolwork while also cheering on teammates and mentally prepping myself for my own race sometimes seems impossible; but being proactive, organized, and frequently communicating with professors is crucial to not falling behind.

Describe someone you met on campus who has had a remarkable influence on you.
Not trying to be cliché here, but my coach – J.J. Clark, has already had an immense impact on my future. When I first met Coach Clark I was intimidated and didn’t understand his bantering. Over the past two years however, his bantering has taught me more about running, myself and life than I ever would have expected. Distance running is very much a mental sport – learning how to maximize your potential and push yourself to new limits. Learning how to work through these mental battles with Coach Clark has not only taught me how to be a better runner, but it has also taught me a lot about myself and how to tackle life. In a race, the job of the muscles is to perform, while the job of the mind is to cope with the perceived discomfort and stress. But the catch is that the muscles can only perform to the degree that the mind is able to cope. Thus, the better one is able to cope with the feelings of discomfort and distress, the better he or she is able to perform. While stress and discomfort are felt during a race when pushing your body to perform, they are also characteristic of numerous other activities. Coach Clark has helped me develop coping skills to deal with stress and troubles encountered both on and off the track. I see him as not only a track coach, but a life coach. He’s made me stronger as a person and I’m incredibly grateful for having the opportunity to meet and work with him.

Why did you choose to attend UConn?
In all honesty, I was initially against attending UConn. I live in Norwalk, and the fact that lots of people were saying “everyone from Connecticut goes to UConn” discouraged me from choosing the school. In the end, of all my college options, UConn made the most sense. I was accepted into the Special Program in Medicine – relieving much of the stress of getting into medical school – I loved the track team and Coach Clark, and financially UConn was a no-brainer. It seems as though the facts chose for me. While I entered UConn with some unwillingness, I almost instantly came to love the school. I love the campus, the welcoming atmosphere created by the students and faculty, and – of course – my team. To me, all aspects of UConn speak “family.” Storrs is not the middle of nowhere; it’s home.

What does it mean to you to be a Husky?
To me, being a Husky means being a part of a family and a legacy that will last forever. I often refer to my team as a “Husky family.” While we inevitably spend a large amount of time together, we also support and cheer for one another both on and off the track. Whether it’s a tough workout or a stressful exam or a family crisis, the team is always there to support one another. The “Husky family” extends beyond my team, however, to encompass my classmates, professors, and all of the UConn community. Regardless of the course, classmates are always willing to help others understand – working together to enhance understanding rather than competing. Professors and faculty are always willing to set aside time to answer questions, discuss topics, or even just chat about non-school-related subjects. Huskies travel in packs; and as Huskies, we work together and help one another. As the saying goes, “Students Today, Huskies Forever.” Being a Husky teaches you how to be a better person – not just on campus, but for the rest of your life.

Where are you headed after graduation?
After graduation, I plan to attend medical school in pursuit of a career in surgery. While I don’t know for certain what particular field of surgery I want to specialize in, the brain fascinates me and a career in neurosurgery is very appealing. Because I have a fifth year of eligibility in indoor and outdoor track, I’m considering doing research or a graduate program at UConn before going to medical school.