Month: July 2019

MD/PhD Students Attend Colorado Physician-Scientist Conference

Three UConn Health MD/PhD students recently attended the 34th Annual MD/PhD National Student Conference at Copper Mountain, CO.

6th year MD/PhD Candidate Grace Kwon presenting her research on long noncoding RNAs in asthma.

Each summer, the UConn Health MD/PhD program sends a group of students to the 3-day conference that is exclusive to dual-degree MD/PhD students. The conference features student presentations, career development workshops, and keynote seminars from distinguished speakers.


This year’s keynote speakers included Nobel prize winner Dr. Peter Agre from Johns Hopkins University, accomplished neuroscientist Dr. Huda Akil from the University of Michigan, Acting Director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Dr. Douglas Lowy, leading oncologist Dr. Padmanee Sharma from MD Anderson Cancer Center, and UConn Health’s own Dr. Cato Laurencin.

6th year MD/PhD Candidate Michael Chung presenting his research on Prader-Willi Syndrome

“Hearing from someone like Dr. Peter Agre was a great opportunity. Listening to his breadth of work on aquaporins was absorbing, but it was also inspiring to hear about all of the trainees Dr. Agre mentored – he told a story about each individual and their work. It’s not common for a speaker to consistently mention all the individuals that led to seminal discoveries, and it was clear he was just as proud of the trainees he’s mentored as much as the resulting scientific discoveries.” Said Michael Chung, a GS4 (6th-year total) student in the program.



Along with scientific keynotes, the conference hosted residency program directors from across the country to speak with MD/PhD students about research opportunities during post-graduate clinical training. In particular, questions were answered of physician scientist training programs (PSTPs), unique training programs designed for recent medical graduates who are interested in a physician-scientist career. Many MD/PhD students go on to match into these residency programs.

5th year MD/PhD Candidate Victor Wang presenting his research.

“I found the PSTP Residency Planning Showcase to be particularly valuable. It provided a unique opportunity to meet with programs I was interested in to better understand what the programs had to offer as well as the qualifications they were looking for in an applicant. It was a very useful planning tool to map out the remainder of my MD and PhD education, even if that process is still a way off.”, noted Victor Wang, a GS3 (5th-year total) student in the program.



The well-organized conference is a fantastic opportunity to meet other dual-degree students across the country, and also allowed for some time to enjoy the Colorado outdoors.

MD/PhD Students enjoying the CO outdoors
Left to Right: MD/PhD Candidates Victor Wang (GS3), Grace Kwon (GS4), and Michael Chung (GS4).

MD/PhD Candidate Allie Goetjen Wins F30 Award

The UConn MD/PhD Program would like (almost two years belatedly) to congratulate Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen, a 7th year student in the program, on her receipt of a F30 Pre-Doctoral Fellowship from the NIH.

Her grant, titled “GABRA2 genetic variants and chromosome conformation in induced pluripotent stem cell-derived neural cells” aims to advance our ability to understand and treat alcohol use disorder.

Here is a lay summary from the grant (we’re not all neurogenetecists):

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic neuropsychiatric disorder with limited treatment options currently available. High prevalence of this disorder in the U.S. population presents a significant financial, emotional, and physical burden on patients, their families, and society. Early detection of individuals at increased genetic risk for developing AUD could lead to more-individualized treatment options.​


MD/PhD Candidate Allie Goetjen presenting her research at the 2019 Research Society on Alcoholism national conference in Minneapolis.

NIH F30s are highly competitive fellowships for MD/PhD students awarded on the merit of the research proposal, the candidate in question, their faculty mentor, and their institutional environment.

We asked Allie to comment on her accomplishment:

This project is possible due to the patience, kindness, and mentorship I have received from Dr. Jonathan Covault. In addition, the expertise of the members of my thesis committee is invaluable. I thank Drs. Richard Lieberman and Maegan Watson for pioneering the use of iPSC-derived neural cultures in the Covault laboratory for the study of genetic and epigenetic mechanisms associated with increased risk of developing AUD. I am grateful for Kaitlin Clinton’s tireless guidance and patience along the length of this project, during the many times I have had questions when trying new techniques, gotten physically lost while trying to find something in the building, or was in need of the support of a friend when an experiment did not work the way we had expected it to. I am humbled to have the opportunity to work with the Alcohol Research Center at UConn Health. Lastly, I am grateful for the challenges, people, and places I have encountered up to this point on my journey to obtaining my dual doctorate degrees, as each has shaped me into the person I am today, and will continue to shape me into a physician-scientist eager to join the fields of academic medicine, genetics, and addiction psychiatry.

This achievement comes after an upward struggle against serious personal hardships that just could not keep Allie down. As you can tell from her commentary, her personal strength, diligence, and perseverance are surpassed only by her humility. Allie will return to the clinic this year, and aims to pursue a career as an academic psychiatrist.

Congratulations, Allie!


MD/PhD Candidate Tony Pettinato Awarded AHA Fellowship

Congratulations to MD/PhD student Anthony “Tony” Pettinato, who has received the American Heart Association (AHA) Predoctoral Fellowship Award! Tony is doing his PhD research under the mentorship of Travis Hinson at JAX-GM.

MD/PhD Candidate Anthony “Tony” Pettinato in the Hinson lab at Jax-GM.

The purpose of this award​​ is to “To enhance the integrated research and clinical training of promising students who are matriculated in predoctoral or clinical health professional degree training programs and who intend careers as scientists, physician-scientists or other clinician-scientists, or related careers aimed at improving global cardiovascular health.”

This AHA Fellowship Award will provide funding for two years of Tony’s research efforts, as well as additional financial support for travel and equipment.

His award was also featured by The Jackson Laboratory.


Congrats again to Tony!

MD/PhD Candidate Jennifer Chung Wins National Psoriasis Fellowship


The MD/PhD Program would like (belatedly) to congratulate Jennifer “Jenn” Chung, a 5th year student in the program, for her 2018  fellowship award from the National Psoriasis Foundation. The  National Psoriasis Foundation Psoriatic Disease Research Fellowship is designed  provides support to eligible institutions to develop and enhance the opportunities for physicians training for research careers in dermatology, rheumatology, pediatric dermatology, and pediatric rheumatology. The award is primarily awarded to post-graduate trainees, making her achievement even more exceptional.


Jenn won the fellowship for her project “Skin Microbiome of Inverse Psoriasis“. From her grant:

Lay Summary: Psoriasis is a common skin disease that can be disfiguring and disabling, but the root cause is still unknown. Inverse psoriasis is a form of the disease that only affects the skin folds of the body, where moisture is high. It causes painful, shiny, red rashes in very sensitive areas like the genitals, groin and underneath the breasts. Past studies have identified particular microbes that live within these skin folds. Collectively, the genes of these microbes are called the skin microbiome. We believe that the skin microbiome at the skin fold sites may have something to do with what causes inverse psoriasis. Currently, there have been no studies on the skin microbiome and inverse psoriasis. Therefore, we plan to be the first to identify and characterize the skin microbiome in people who have inverse psoriasis. In this effort, we hope to better understand psoriasis and ultimately provide substantial improvement to the quality of life for these patients.  

For more information about the project, you can visit:

Congratulations Jenn!

MD/PhD Candidates Tony and Feria Get Married!

MD/PhD Group Shot at Tonia and Feria's Wedding.
Left to right: Laura Doherty (DMD/PhD GS3), Victor Wang (MD/PhD GS3), Laura Urbanski ((MD/PhD GS3), Gianluca Arianna (MD/PhD GS2), Peter Larson (Author, MD/PhD GS3), Kristin Tokarski (MD/PhD GS3), and the happy couple Feria Ladha (MD/PhD GS3) and Tony Pettinato (MD/PhD GS3).

The UConn MD/PhD program would very warmly like to congratulate  Feria Ladha and Tony Pettinato, two 5th year MD/PhD candidates on their marriage this Saturday, July 20th!

Tony and Feria
5th year MD/PhD Candidates Feria Ladha and Anthony Pettinato taking their vows together.

Feria and Tony met in August 2015, at the beginning of their first year in the program. During her speech, Feria’s sister and Maid of Honor credited Jennifer Chung, another member of the program from their year, for nudging them into romance. By October the two were officially dating, and they eventually both joined the same cardiology laboratory of physician-scientist Travis Hinson (Dual appointment at UConn Health and Jax-GM). Where they  wnt on to pass their qualifying exams together and have some of the most productive years of graduate research the program has seen.


Speaking on behalf of the family and all their friends present, Tony and Feria are two of the most exceptionally hard-working, well-humored, honest, intelligent, down-to-earth, and persevering people I know. They have been excellent friends to all of us in their cohort. But most importantly, they make each other exceedingly happy. We wish them a lifetime of endless love and fulfillment. Congratulations to the happy couple!

Maria Xu Defends PhD Dissertation

Maria Smiling at the Low Learning Center Podium
Maria Xu Defending her PhD Dissertation.

Today the UConn MD/PhD program would like to congratulate Maria Xu for completing her PhD Dissertation defense. Maria is a 5th year MD/PhD Candidate who will enter her third-year clinical rotations after completing her PhD work in three industrious years.

Maria’s thesis advisor Professor Anthony T. Vella PhD introduced Maria as an exceptionally hard-working student who quickly outpaced him in her understanding of her area of research.

Maria’s PhD work investigated the role of the immune system in atherosclerosis, the build-up of lipid plaques in our arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Maria sought to investigate what factors drive T-cell proliferation in atherosclerotic plaques. Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease exacerbated by systemic immune disturbances, and Maria brought to bear an impressive array of data she and her team produced to advance our understanding of the field.

Tony Vella (Left) standing with Maria Xu (Center) and Antoine Menoret (right)
Maria’s lab celebrating her successful defense.

At the end of her talk, Maria heartwarmingly summarized her journey through graduate school in immunology terms from a “Naïve” med student “stimulated” by the Immunology department courses and seminars who ultimately “infiltrated” the Vascular and Cell Biology department to study immune-cardiology, and is now a mature basic researcher ready to head back into the clinic.

Maria said that she is excited to go back to clinical medicine, keeping an open mind and looking forward to tying together research and medicine in the future.



Nick Wasko Completes Dissertation Defense

Nick Wasko standing charismatically in front of a podium with his first slide on the screen.
MD/PhD Candidate Nick Wasko Starting his Dissertation Defense with a Far Side comic

The UConn MD/PhD Program would like to congratulate Nicholas Wasko on his successful public dissertation for the Department of Immunology on April 24th. Nick did his PhD work in the lab of Dr. Robert Clark, whose research seeks to identify the role of the microbiome in regulating autoimmunity in multiple sclerosis. Seeking to identify new therapeutic pathways in MS, Nick studied the capacity of systemic exposure to low doses of microbiome-derived molecules to induce a state of “tolerance” in the immune system, and how that tolerance influences the brain’s ability to repair damaged myelin. He used the cuprizone model to induce myelin injuries in mice, then tolerized the mice with innate immune ligands to see if systemic tolerance improved their recovery. After identifying a significant improvement in myelin repair following tolerance induction, he then used immunostaining techniques to investigate which cell types in the brain played a role in improving recovery in the tolerized mice. He recently presented his work at this year’s Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ACTRIMS) meeting in Dallas, TX. This research provides a framework for developing systemic tolerance as a two-pronged therapeutic approach in MS, capable of inhibiting autoimmune activity (as demonstrated by a previous graduate of the MD/PhD program) while simultaneously facilitating repair of existing myelin damage.

Robert Clark sitting at the Low Learning podium with Nick standing to the side
Dr. Robert Clark proudly introducing Nick Wasko before his public defense.

Nick joined the Clark lab because of his longstanding interest in neurology and neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Clark’s immunology background provided a novel perspective on how neurodegeneration transpires, providing Nick with a new appreciation for the role of the immune system in neurologic diseases. His mentor extolled his commitment to his work and boundless curiosity and enthusiasm throughout his transition from neuroscience into immunology, and suggested his experience in both fields will make him uniquely prepared to tackle difficult questions in study of neurodegenerative diseases.



The weeks following Nick’s dissertation featured numerous milestones in his professional and personal life, including re-entry into clinical medicine, the submission of his thesis work for publication, and the introduction of a new rescue dog to his family. Greta, a 2 year old Weimaraner, will join Nick, his partner Kathleen, and their 12 year old Weimaraner Jasmine as they prepare to take on the challenges of the remaining two years of Nick’s medical education.