Connecticut High School Students Conducting Research at UConn Health

UConn Health’s programs are having an enormous impact on the youth of Connecticut, the future of science and the research and health care workforce. Learn how and meet some of this year's graduates of the High School Research Apprentice Program of the longstanding Health Career Opportunities Program.

Sophia Pidvysotski, a high school senior student at Miss Porter's, is one of the many successful research apprentices at UConn Health. She is gaining research experience in the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling, with associate professor Michael Blinov, Ph.D. (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health Photo)

This summer UConn Health’s High School Research Apprentice Program was back in action after being halted for several years because of COVID-19. The Health Career Opportunity Programs’ (HCOP) research apprentice program is graduating 14 talented high school students from across the state this July.

This summer Connecticut high school students are learning in the exciting heart research lab of Nilanjana Maulik, Ph.D. at UConn School of Medicine including Savannah Reid this summer.

For five weeks the high school students have been conducting real-life, exciting research projects inside the laboratories of UConn School of Medicine or UConn School of Dental Medicine researchers in Farmington and also even at Central Connecticut State University Department of Biomolecular Sciences.

Two of this summer’s many bright Research Apprentice Program high school students with a passion for medicine and science are Sophia Pidvysotski, 16, of Hartford and Savannah Reid, 17 of Manchester. In addition to launching their research career explorations at UConn Health,  Pidvysotski starts her senior year this fall at Miss Porter’s School while Reid starts 12th grade at Manchester High School.

Reid’s research mentor is Nilanjana Maulik, Ph.D., a professor of surgery and director of the Molecular Cardiology and Angiogenesis Laboratory at UConn School of Medicine. Her lab focuses on the rescue, repair, and regeneration of sick hearts.

“Savannah is a very bright and intelligent student. She is a quick learner,” says Maulik. “I wish her every success in life.”

Maulik adds: “The High School Student Research Apprentice Program, run by Dr. Marja Hurley, is unique. This program provides opportunities for young school students to get out of the classroom, gain awareness of the workplace culture of the research labs and enhance wet lab skills and techniques. It is providing young students confidence, positivity and mainly engagement with the team members which provide them a lot of confidence. It is a very important program for high school students.”

High school senior Sophia Pidvysotski with her research mentor Michael Blinov, Ph.D., who is helping her gain research experience in his lab for mathematical modeling of biological systems.

Pidvysotski’s summer research mentor is Michael Blinov, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling. Pidvysotski is gaining research experience in Blinov’s lab which focuses on mathematical modeling of biological systems which are useful to verify biological hypotheses, predict cellular behavior, and suggest scientific experiments.

“I love mentoring high school students and I love to see how they succeed,” says UConn Health Scientist Blinov. “UConn Health’s programs have an enormous impact on the future of science.”

“We thank the UConn Health and Central Connecticut State University faculty and staff for their support and continued encouragement and commitment to our students,” shared Dr. Marja Hurley, founder and director of the Health Career Opportunities Programs at UConn Health as well as UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Orthopedic Surgery.

Blinov adds: “These programs allow talented high school students to feel the taste of real science and be more prepared for future careers. I enjoyed working with Sophia this summer. Her project requires digging into the biological details of mathematical models in order to provide an appropriate description of the model and its results. It requires hard work and interest, and Sophia is up to this task.”

High School student Sophia Pidvysotski this summer at UConn Health (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health Photo).

Read the Q & A with Miss Porter’s School student Sophia Pidvysotski about her “amazing” summer experience in HCOP’s High School Research Apprentice Program and her hope to pursue a research career someday to “contribute to the greater good.”

Q: What inspired you to get involved in the research apprentice program?
A: I was inspired to get involved in the HCOP program because I am a highly curious person with a passion for science, medicine, and biology. Because of this, I wished to deepen my knowledge of these fields by working alongside talented peers and experts in these fields to create meaningful research. Having this opportunity to do real hands-on work perfectly aligned with my interests, gave me real-world experience, connected me with other students who love STEM just as much as I do, and helped me explore potential career paths for the future.

Q: What has been your favorite part of the program?
A: My favorite part of this program has been learning about fascinating topics in biology, as well as working in a field I had previously not known much about: cell modeling and analysis. This field is crucial because it allows us to understand cellular processes through their biochemical reactions. Models are used to make predictions and form hypotheses about how a system will behave under different conditions; essentially, it is a virtual form of experimentation. Dr. Blinov taught me a lot about cell modeling and analysis, as well as guided me throughout my research project, and I am very grateful to have had him as my mentor. Overall, this internship was definitely an amazing experience which gave me the opportunity to grow both as a person and as a scientist.

Q: Why are you curious about research?
A: Research is important to me because I have a strong love of learning. When I discover a subject that interests me, I dedicate a lot of time and effort to learn about it, simply because I love to learn. For example, when I first learned of a type of cancer called glioblastoma, I became fascinated with it and decided to research about it. I also talked to a variety of doctors to find out more about this cancer, and ultimately wrote a paper about it for my school’s newspaper. There are many enigma’s when it comes to the human body and biology, and research allows me to understand more of them. I also enjoy research because it can contribute to the greater good; once we form understanding, we can create treatments and cures.

Q: What do you hope to do next after completing the research apprenticeship?
A: In college, I hope to acquire lots of shadowing and research experience in order to better acquaint myself with these environments and to expand my knowledge in biology. I am interested in pursuing a career in the healthcare field, particularly in either neurology or neurological research. I am particularly curious about how artificial intelligence can be used in these fields, such as in neuro-oncology, neuro-vascular diseases, traumatic brain injuries, and neurosurgery. I have a deep interest in this field, and hope to pursue it further in the future.

Q: What’s the best thing your research mentor at UConn taught you?
A: The most valuable thing that my research mentor taught me was to always remain curious and ask lots of questions. In Dr. Blinov’s lab, I worked on cell analysis and modeling; since I was working in a field that I had previously not known much about, it was important for me to continue asking questions and learning so that I could do well in my project. I have been working on curating models on Virtual Cell from published papers based on experimental and simulated data. These papers were often extremely dense with information, so I needed Dr. Blinov’s help at times in order to fully understand them. Since I was unfamiliar with the VCell platform, it was necessary for me to learn and adapt, as well as not be afraid to ask questions. Ultimately, I had become comfortable with working with the VCell software and I fully grasped a number of complex biological concepts.

Q: What is your message to other young students dreaming of gaining research experience?
A: If you are a curious, passionate, and dedicated student with a love for biology, I would highly recommend this program. Doing this hands-on internship has given me tremendous insight into both the research and medical fields, and has helped me build my communication, critical thinking, and analytical skills. Additionally, it has taught me how to be a better public speaker and how to create a research poster in order to present my work. My message to others who are dreaming of gaining experience in the research field is that it is never too early to start. When I was in my freshman and sophomore years in high school, I dreamed of doing hands-on research but thought I would have to wait until college to start. However, this had turned out to not be the case – when I found this program, I was delighted to know that I could get this experience during my high school years. As long as you stay diligent and motivated, an opportunity will always come your way.


High school senior Savannah Reid performing experiments at UConn School of Medicine this summer.

Read the Q & A with Manchester High School’s Savannah Reid about her love of science, her dream of going to medical school someday, and the “wonderful” and “hands-on” experiment experience she gained thanks to HCOP’s High School Research Apprentice Program.  

Q: What inspired you to choose the research apprentice program?
A: I choose to get involved in this program because it seemed like a great experience to have under my belt and I enjoy science. At the end of next year, I would like to graduate as a “science scholar” and in my school, the requirements to do that are to have 7 science credits as well as an independent study project and a presentation in a science symposium. This very much fit the criteria for that which is why I got involved in the first place, but also not many opportunities come around to work in a research lab with PhDs, doctors, residents, and post-docs so I couldn’t pass this one along. I’m very glad I did start here, cause in the short time I was involved in these studies, I learned so much and made some great connections.

Q: What has been your favorite part of the program?
A: My favorite part has been all the experiments I’ve gotten to observe and partake in. I’m learning post-doctoral studies at the age of 17 which is amazing and I’m gaining clinical experience in a place where I won’t get this opportunity elsewhere. Even though I sort of jumped into these previously ongoing studies, I was still given the opportunity to even do a handful of them myself. I’ve practiced different methods and techniques such as Western Blot analysis, echocardiograms, LAD ligation, protein estimation, tissue collection and processing and so much more.

Q: Why research?
A: I chose research because it’s sort of a side of the health field that you don’t hear about as much. Sure there are doctors, physicians, radiologists, and all of the above, but no one ever talks about the physical understanding of these things. Researchers in my eyes are sort of the behind-the-scenes and understanding of everything, they’re the reason all these treatments, therapies, antibiotics, and medicines exist in the first place. I just think research is a really cool direction to go in and later on in life after med school, most doctors have to take a year of research anyways, so I see this program as a good intro into it.

Q: What do you hope to do next after completing the research apprenticeship?
A: College/career wise I hope to get my bachelor’s degree in chemistry or biology and attend medical school. In the future, I want to become a surgeon, but the specialty is undecided since each one has so much to offer. In my senior year of high school though, I plan to take an EMT training course and pass the NREMT certification exam so hopefully, in college, I can practice and gain clinical experience in the medical field.

Q: What’s the best thing your research mentor taught you and what did you explore in their lab?
A: I would say the best thing my mentor has taught me would be presentation tips. Prior to this program, I had no fear of presenting however my technique could’ve used a bit of work. Dr. Maulik has helped me tweak my skill set and has given me valuable tips that I can carry on even into other presentations. In her lab, I explored the different methods and techniques used to explore angiogenesis in restricted regions of the heart after myocardial infarction. I learned how to use different instruments and softwares as well as an assortment of new protocols and terms I had never even heard of before attending here. Overall, I would say my experience here has been very beneficial and I learned so much more than just medical terms.

Q: What is your message to other young students dreaming of gaining research experience or going to medical school someday?
A: I would definitely recommend this program to others if you’re looking for an intro on how to gain experience and a look into the medical world. While here, I obviously not only worked in a lab, but I also learned from various people with different perspectives of the field. I gained insight on what life looks like after high school, the different steps towards medical school, what it actually entails, and even first-hand experience from practicing residents themselves. My experience here was truly wonderful and I would say if you’re looking for a way to get into research or just want a little snapshot into what it’s truly like I would definitely recommend this summer program!

The High School Research Apprentice Program at UConn Health is sponsored and funded by the Aetna Foundation, the Connecticut State Legislature Fund, John and Valerie Rowe Health Professions Scholars Program, The Hartford, the UConn Foundation, Friends of the Department of Health Career Opportunity Programs, and UConn Health.