University Scholars Pursue Rigorous Academic Path

Students in the University Scholars program design academic projects beyond a typical plan of study.

At first glance, there’s nothing that makes Meaghan Roy-O’Reilly, Sarah Harris, or Jim Gaffney stand out in a crowd. The three, all UConn juniors, resemble other undergraduates on campus in their looks and demeanor. What sets them apart is that these three students are working toward achieving UConn’s highest academic distinction – University Scholar.

The prestigious academic program offers talented students the opportunity to create their own academic projects that go beyond a typical plan of study. Applicants must impress a selection committee comprising faculty members from a wide variety of disciplines with the originality of their University Scholar proposals, their demonstrated academic ability, and strong recommendations from faculty. This year’s cadre of 29 students represents one of the largest numbers of applicants accepted into the program since its inception more than 60 years ago.

Lynne Goodstein, director of the honors program and associate vice provost for enrichment, says successful applicants tend to be curious and interested in being exposed to new ideas, often going beyond their comfort zones.

She says that although many University Scholars are also honors students, the program is open to students from across the University: “Great students from anywhere in the University are welcome and encouraged to consider applying.”

Meaghan Roy-O’Reilly – Combining Disciplines

<p>Meaghan Roy-O'Rielly, University Scholar, works in the lab. Photo by Lauren Cunningham</p>
Meaghan Roy-O'Reilly, University Scholar, at work in the lab. Photo by Lauren Cunningham

Meaghan Roy-O’Reilly comes from Willington and is a graduate of E.O. Smith High School. With a love of literature and creative writing, she always thought she’d be an English major in college. But a basic genetics course during her final semester in high school awakened a nascent interest in science.

Once she started at UConn, a course in immunology taught by molecular and cell biology professor Michael Lynes, and a subsequent invitation to work in his laboratory, caused her to reevaluate her career goals.

Her University Scholar project involves studying the effects of the absence of an immunomodulatory protein, metallothionein (MT), on the hyperproliferation of lymphocytes. In her research, she will use an antioxidant treatment to moderate the heightened immune response exhibited by an MT knockout strain of mice, with the expectation that this may prove useful in developing therapies against autoimmune disease.

“When I got more and more into the sciences I discovered incredible things and I wanted to find a creative way I could explain these things to my friends and family” says Roy-O’Reilly. “I found I wanted to write poetry about [what I was learning].”

So that she can continue to develop her varied talents, her coursework will include certification in creative writing as well as a concurrent master’s degree in cellular and developmental biology to go along with her bachelor’s in molecular and cellular biology. Part of her University Scholar project will be exploring creative non-fiction as a means of showcasing what she’s learned in the laboratory.

Roy-O’Reilly’s goal following graduation from UConn is to enter a combined MD/Ph.D. program that will allow her to pursue her dual interests. “I’d love to be able to combine my love of science with my love of writing,” she says. “It’s something I feel very passionate about.”

Sarah Harris – Single-Minded Determination

<p>Sarah Harris, University Scholar and Education, history and psychology triple major, in Homer Babbidge Library. Photo by Lauren Cunningham</p>
University Scholar Sarah Harris, an education and history/psychology major, in Homer Babbidge Library. Photo by Lauren Cunningham

While many students use their first years in college to explore their options before deciding on a major, Sarah Harris is an exception. “I’m a little unusual because I’ve known that I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was three years old,” she says. “I did a lot of research even in middle and high school, and I learned about the Neag School of Education and its five-year integrated bachelor’s/master’s program. When I applied to UConn and was accepted into the Honors Program, there wasn’t any question in my mind. I knew this was where I wanted to go.”

Being in the Honors Program is not a prerequisite for acceptance as a University Scholar, but it just so happens that Harris’s honors curriculum was the catalyst behind her decision to apply. As a freshman, she volunteered at a homeless shelter in Willimantic to fulfill a requirement in an honors course. It was an eye-opening experience.

“I come from a small town and graduated from a small high school,” says Harris, a native of Portland, Conn. “Of course we have a homeless population – virtually every town does – but we don’t have homeless shelters, so this was really new to me.”

A dual-degree major in secondary social studies education and history/psychology (CLAS), she was already focused on a teaching career, but her exposure to youngsters dealing with the challenges of homelessness gave her a new perspective.

Her University Scholar project will involve examining the content and quality of the preparation that public school teachers receive as they encounter homeless children in their classrooms. Her goal is to create a resource guide for teachers that will help them better identify and support the special needs of these students.

“I’m planning on working in the teacher preparation program in my final semester next year,” she says, “and I’d love to develop something for them that deals with this issue. I’m also hoping to spend time working in the State of Connecticut’s Office of the Child Advocate. I’d love to collaborate with them and get their input on what needs to be done.”

Upon graduation, Harris plans to teach social studies at the secondary school level.

Jim Gaffney – A Well-Rounded Scholar

<p>Jim Gaffney. Photo provided by Jim Gaffney</p>
University Scholar Jim Gaffney, an animal science major and aspiring veterinarian. Photo provided by Jim Gaffney

One of the first things evident about Jim Gaffney is that he leaves little to chance. “I wanted to be a University Scholar,” he says, “because I want to prepare myself for veterinary school. You need to have all the necessary sciences to get in, but you also have to be well rounded. As a University Scholar, I get to plan my final three semesters with that specific goal in mind.”

An animal science major in the College of Agriculture & Natural Resources, Gaffney’s project as a University Scholar is an outgrowth of his work with his academic advisor, Dr. Kumar Venkitanarayanan. Gaffney observes that antibiotic resistance is a major public health concern for both humans and animals, and his project focuses on the potential for certain plant essential oils to inactivate the multi-drug resistant bacterium Acinetobacter baumannii.

A primary goal of his research is to investigate the use of plant-derived compounds as an adjunct or alternative to conventional antibiotics in the treatment of multi-drug resistant bacteria.

Gaffney enjoys solving problems related to animal health, but one of the things that attracted him to the veterinary field is the opportunity to work with people. “For me, being a veterinarian is not just about animals, it’s also about people,” he says. “When I worked in the Kellogg Dairy Center here on campus, one of my favorite things was talking to visitors and answering questions.”

He notes a big part of being a veterinarian is being able to explain to people how the disease process works and what they can expect with their animals. “I worked for a small animal practitioner when I was in high school,” he says, “and she really opened my eyes to the importance of communicating with clients.”

Gaffney, who grew up in Weston, is already thinking about pursuing large animal veterinary practice, although he has not ruled out a research career.

Planning Ahead

While the formal application process begins in the fall of the junior year, students interested in the University Scholar program are advised to begin planning during the second semester of their sophomore year. This provides time to consider what type of individualized project they might like to undertake, to discuss goals with faculty members who may agree to be advisors, and to attend the University Scholar informational meeting organized by the Honors Program each spring.