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New summer research program offers
undergraduates novel vacation option
July 19, 1999

f Oleana Slobodyanyuk, Amy West and Timothy Davis were to be assigned the traditional "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" essay when the fall semester starts, the three UConn students could easily beg out of the assignment on the grounds that they didn't have a summer vacation.

Instead, they spent the summer researching, respectively, parental perceptions of the importance of APTA-approved competencies for school physical therapists; effects of early peer rejection on social adjustment in preadolescent girls; and solid waste processing for long-term space flight applications.

Besides, when fall rolls around they'll each have a much larger paper to write - a final report on their research efforts. That's because Slobodyanyuk, West and Davis are among a group of undergraduate s who received grants as part of UConn's first Undergraduate Summer Research program. There are only 15 of them and the competition for their summer jobs was intense.

More than 40 undergraduates applied to become part of the novel program. "Choosing the recipients was challenging," says Gerald Gianutsos, an associate professor of pharmacy, who headed the selection committee. "The proposals covered an extraordinary range of disciplines and ideas. We were very impressed with the quality of the applications."

For many of the grant recipients, the program has meant the difference between spending the summer advancing their academic and professional goals or looking for a restaurant or landscaping job. "If this grant hadn't been available I would have been forced to find a summer job that would have taken time away from my research," says University Scholar Kerry Drozdowicz.

Instead, Drozdowicz, from Orange, is studying "The Mediating Effect of Illusion of Control on the Relationship between Personal Liberty Beliefs and Voting on Quality of Life Laws" under the guidance of Steven Mellor, an assistant professor of psychology.

"My work is about the personal perceptions that affect how people vote on issues such as car phone bans, motorcycle helmet laws and teen smoking bans," explains the psychology major, who plans to attend graduate school before exploring careers in academia and politics. "Hopefully, this research will help us to better understand the function of egocentrism in these kinds of decisions. If we can understand the thought process, it can help people on either side of an issue to shape the way they present the issue to the public."

Matthew Schaller, of Hebron, is exploring "The Effect of Zinc Removal on Thyroid Hormone Induction of Gene Expression in Cultured Pituitary Tumor Cells" in Professor Hedley Freake's laboratory.

"People who are deprived of zinc don't grow," says Schaller, an honors student who became interested in nutritional biochemistry as a freshman, when he landed a work-study job in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. "My work this summer has to do with the thyroid hormone T3 and how it impacts growth of tumor cells in the absence of zinc."

Schaller expects to use the results of his research in his honors thesis and hopes to co-author an article with a graduate student who is also working in Freake's lab.

"I was delighted when I got this opportunity," Schaller says. "I get to spend the summer doing something I really like. This is so cool!"

"Clearly, this is a program that many undergraduates welcome," says Michael Cutlip, director of the Honors Program. "We're very pleased with the first-year response to this program."

The program offers participants many advantages, Cutlip says. "For many of the participants, this is their first opportunity to work in an independent way under faculty guidance. They get to really spread their wings and in that sense it sets the stage for their future education. Often, undergraduates participating in a program like this get interested in research for the first time. A program like this can change the course of their career.

"Typically, the faculty member they are working with is nationally or internationally known. The students interact with these professors at least weekly. Often these professors become mentors. They can open doors for students and offer guidance about job prospects.

"Finally, these programs frequently lead to professional presentations and opportunities to represent the University and discover what it means to be professionally active.

"In every respect this program is a success."

Jacob del Campo, of Granby, agrees. Working in a lab with Hallie Krider, a professor of molecular and cell biology, del Campo has been studying the Kinesin gene in gypsy moths and its importance in meiosis, the division of cells.

Already this summer, del Campo who hopes to embark upon an academic career after graduate school, has cloned a gypsy moth gene. "I'm having a blast," he says, "and I'm learning so much," adding that the work he's doing this summer and will continue to do as a work-study student in the fall, has major implications for his graduate work.

"Often students don't realize they can find a really great summer experience if they search a little," says Cutlip. "This is one great summer experience that we hope to be able to expand in the future, with both UConn support and increased endowments."

Jim Smith