Inaugural Class Graduates from the Young Innovative Investigator Program (YIIP)

YIIP graduation
Six young women graduated this May from the inaugural class of the Young Innovative Investigator Program (YIIP) at UConn with master degrees from UConn’s Graduate School.

This May, the inaugural class of the novel Young Innovative Investigator Program (YIIP) was celebrated for their advanced, two-year research studies and graduate level coursework that culminated in graduating with a Master of Science in Biomedical Science degree from UConn’s Graduate School.

YIIP is the brainchild of both Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Clinical and Translational Science (CICATS) at UConn, and Dr. Linda Barry, CICATS assistant director and chief operating officer.

The program, launched in 2014, provides academic training to underrepresented minority postgraduate students who are dedicated to pursuing careers as scientists and scholars in the biological and biomedical sciences. The program’s goal is to develop the next generation of innovative biomedical scientists and increase diversity among the pool of academic scientists. The program provides tools for scholars to conduct research, succeed in an academic environment, and become competitive candidates for medical or graduate school.

Six women were accepted into YIIP and were provided with supervised research in biomedical laboratories at UConn Health and completed graduate level coursework over the last two years. The YIIP Scholars completed a thesis defense of their research and earned a masters in Biomedical Science after successful completion of the second year at UConn.

The inaugural graduating class includes:

  • Melissa Carr-Reynolds
  • Nilse Dos Santos
  • La Shondra Ellis
  • Trisha Kwarko
  • Sandra Lopez
  • Akilah Plair

On May 16, each YIIP Scholar recapped their research thesis findings at a celebration held by CICATS.

“It’s very gratifying to see you all succeeded and I would like to thank our school of medicine faculty for mentoring these students,” said Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine. “I feel a personal link to the YIIP experience, a similar program prepared me before college and my medical program. I believe in a program like this.”

Connecticut’s U.S. Senator Chris Murphy recorded a special video message sharing his congratulatory remarks from Washington, D.C. with the graduating YIIP Scholars.

“Congratulations to all of you who have made it through this incredibly innovative program,” said Senator Murphy. “Quality of life in our country depends on your research discoveries. We are counting on you. Hopefully the program will be around for a long time, and you will be able to say ‘we were the first’.”

Hartford’s State Rep. Edwin Vargas, a member of the Connecticut Legislative Black & Puerto Rican Caucus, a financial supporter of the program, spoke to the YIIP Scholars adding: “We are very excited that Connecticut is leading in biomedical research. Those of you graduating today are on the cutting-edge.”

“Six talented young women of color took a chance to be part of this new program. They all have graduated and publically defended their theses,” said Barry. “Mentorship by UConn’s faculty was a key part of the program and thanks to them these students will be part of the next generation of Einsteins.”

“It is inspiring to watch these young innovators. Thank you to all who made this possible. Dr. Laurencin makes others great,” said Dr. Andy Agwunobi, CEO and executive director of health affairs at UConn Health.

“Thanks to Drs. Laurencin and Barry. The foundations that Dr. Laurencin has laid really makes a difference,” said Mun Choi, UConn’s Provost. “This program is about training the next generation who are going to be mentors. Many thanks to the many mentors who made this possible.”
“By applying to the YIIP program I decided to branch out,” said graduating YIIP Scholar Melissa Carr-Reynolds, a graduate of Spelman College (Georgia) with a B.S. in Biology. “The program was a lot of work, but worth it.”

“I decided I wanted to be a scientist at 4 years old. My aunt passed away from breast cancer,” said YIIP Scholar La Shondra Ellis, who graduated from Oakwood College (Alabama) with a B.S. in Biology Research. “Having this program has been a blessing and allowed me to pursue my dream.”

“I am pursuing what growth factors could contribute to human limb regeneration. Hopefully in future mouse models, we can simulate some of my findings to do this in humans,” said YIIP Scholar Sandra Lopez, a native of Colombia who received her B.S. in Biological Sciences from UConn and joined YIIP fresh out of UConn undergrad. “My plan is to go to dental school. The program helped me establish a lot of relationships and prepared me to take the dental school exam. I hope to someday incorporate research into my dental work.”

YIIP Scholar Trisha Kwarko was born in Bronx, NY, raised in Ghana in her early childhood, and has lived in Connecticut the last eight years. She is the first in her family to attend college. She attended UConn, graduating with a B.S. in Allied Health Sciences. After graduating from the YIIP program, she will attend the UConn School of Medicine as a new medical student in 2016. “Through the YIIP program, I have been able to pursue my research interests in geriatrics and aging through the biomedical research field.”

CICATS has concluded a competitive national application process for the next cohort of YIIP Scholars for the 2016-2017 academic year. Four students from different parts of the U.S. have been selected and notified of their acceptance.

“The ability to have a second class of YIIP Scholars is because of the incredible work of the inaugural class,” said Barry.

To learn more about YIIP visit: