M.D./Ph.D. Program Blog

Congratulations to Class of 2021 MD/PhD Graduates!

June 7, 2021

MD/PhD graduates from UConn Health Class of 2021. Nick Wasko at Match Day (Left) and Maria Xu (Mid) with Russ Posner (Right) at graduation.

The UConn Health MD/PhD program would like to extend its congratulations and best wishes to our recent graduates Maria Xu, Nick Wasko, and Russ Posner as they transition into their residency programs. Their achievements are reflected in acceptances to top choice residency programs in Surgery at Duke University Medical Center (Xu), Neurology PSTP at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (Wasko), and Diagnostic Radiology at the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center (Posner). We are sure they will each continue to make a positive impact on their peers and communities as they have done at UConn Health.

MD/PhD Students Develop Platform to Study Heart Failure

December 7, 2020

Microscopic image of fluorescently labeled cardiomyocytes by the Hinson Laboratory.

We would like to congratulate MD/PhD candidates Anthony “Tony” Pettinato, Feria Ladha, and Rachel Cohn for their publication in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation. As members of the Hinson laboratory at Jax, students Pettinato, Ladha, and Cohn leverage powerful genetic research techniques to study cardiac dysfunction. Their paper “Development of a Cardiac Sarcomere Functional Genomics Platform to Enable Scalable Interrogation of Human TNNT2 Variants” provides a better understanding of how mutations in cardiac muscle proteins can lead to heart disease and failure. Beyond their study of the titular protein Troponin, these experiments illustrate a novel platform of single cell functional assays that can be used to study new drug candidates for heart disease or test patient-specific defects in a host of cardiac proteins.

For further information, see their full publication here

UConn Health’s Alexandra Goetjen Awarded By MD/PhD National Student Conference

September 14, 2020

Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen (far right) with two of her siblings.

The UConn Health MD/PhD training program would like to congratulate Alexandra “Allie” Goetjen for winning a Diversity Award from the 35th Annual MD/PhD National Student Conference. The award was given in recognition of Allie’s “commitment to diversity in science” as well as her “passion for scientific achievement”. Allie is a second time winner of this award, which she previously received in 2017. While she admits that “things [did] look a bit different” with the virtual format of this year’s conference, she remains elated to be recognized for her work and dedication at a national level. As a first generation college student and eldest of 3 siblings, she applied for this award to demonstrate to her family and others that “anything is possible despite the challenges we may face in life”.

Allie is in the 6th and final year of her graduate phase of training and conducts research with Dr. Jonathan Covault in the department of Psychiatry. Here, she is studying how mutations in the gene GABRA2 increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. As a testament to her scientific efforts, Allie was awarded a prestigious F30 predoctoral fellowship by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism for which she is “beyond grateful”. Outside of her laboratory work, she volunteers as a Counselor with the Crisis Text Line where she has served over 1,000 individuals in crisis situations. Allie also values her time as a student advisory board member for UConn Health’s Psychiatry Interest Group. After graduation, she aims to pursue a career as a physician scientist in the field of addiction psychiatry. In this role, she envisions leading a behavioral genetics lab and following her clinical passion of addiction counseling.

MD/PhD Student Spotlight: Bruce Rheaume

August 7, 2020

Bruce Rheaume Portrait
Bruce Rheaume Portrait

From strokes to spinal cord injuries, neuronal damage presents a significant burden of morbidity and mortality throughout the world. Though such neuronal damage has conventionally been viewed as irreversible, MD/PhD candidate Bruce Rheaume is working to shift this paradigm. Rheaume, a member of Ephraim Trakhtenberg’s lab in the department of neuroscience, uses a model of optic nerve damage to better understand the regenerative capacity of the nervous system. While investigating why certain neurons can heal after optic nerve injury while others do not, he identified and characterized novel cell populations in the eye using single cell technologies. This work, published in Nature Communications [1], serves as a basis for better understanding cellular diversity in the central nervous system while also pointing to new targets for regenerative therapies. As a testament to the importance of his work, this paper has been cited nearly 100 times since publication.

Bruce hopes to combine his unique perspectives from both laboratory and medical training to pursue a career as physician scientist specializing in neuro-ophthalmology or interventional neuroradiology. Here, he aims to continue his work addressing unmet needs in the fields of neurodegeneration and addiction medicine. Additionally, as one UConn Health’s “Biomedical Science Graduate Student Mentorship Award” winners for 2019, he hopes to continue advising and fostering the growth of budding clinicians and scientists.



  1. Rheaume, B. A., Jereen, A., Bolisetty, M., Sajid, M. S., Yang, Y., Renna, K., … & Trakhtenberg, E. F. (2018). Single cell transcriptome profiling of retinal ganglion cells identifies cellular subtypes. Nature communications, 9(1), 1-17.

MD/PhD Student Jennifer Chung Wins F30 to Study Human Microbiome

July 7, 2020

MD/PhD Candidate Jennifer Chung wearing lab coat and goggles in the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine smiling, working in an anaerobic chamber
MD/PhD Candidate Jennifer Chung working in an anaerobic chamber.

We would like to congratulate Jennifer Chung for winning a prestigious F30 award funded by the National Cancer Institute. Her project “Uncovering interactions of the gut microbiome with the immune system in the context of immune checkpoint inhibitors” presents an interdisciplinary approach to cancer biology that complements her efforts in the departments of genetics and immunology. In the lab, Jenn has been working to unravel the complex roles that the human microbiome plays in both health and disease. In particular, she is aiming to use this grant opportunity to investigate why cutting edge immune checkpoint inhibitor therapies seem to fail in many cancer patients and how gut microbes may dictate these variable response rates. Furthermore, she hopes that this funding opportunity will lay the foundations for her future career as a cancer specialist in the field of dermatology.

Jenn is currently in her 6th year with the program. Outside of her dedicated work in both lab and clinic she enjoys cooking gourmet foods, traveling, and recently began playing the guitar. Jenn would like to thank Maria Xu, Joe Ryan, Michael Chung, Grace Kwon, and Allie Goetjen as well as the greater MD/PhD community at UConn Health for the advice and support she received in applying for this award.

MD PhD Students Win American Heart Association Fellowships

January 6, 2020



The UConn MD/PhD program would like to congratulate Kristin Tokarski and Feria Ladha for winning prestigious predoctoral fellowship grants from the American Heart Association.

Headshot of Kristin Tokarski smiling about her award swearing a blue plaid shirt
Kristin Tokarski (MD/PhD G3)


Kristin is in her 3rd year of graduate training in the department of cell biology. As a member of Dr. Kimberly Dodge’s lab she is studying the potential role of A-Kinase Anchoring Proteins (mAKAPs) in the regulation of cardiomyocyte apoptosis. Her experiments seek to offer insight regarding the role of these proteins in cardiac cell death associated with myocardial infarction and pharmacologic cardiotoxicity. Kristin is excited about her award and how it can help her achieve her goal of serving pediatric populations as a cardiovascular clinical geneticist. Speaking with Kristin, she mentioned that she “dreams of being at the forefront of advancing medicine” and that this grant is “very rewarding and shows me that I can do it”. Kristin would also like to thank her mentor Dr. Dodge for the support she provided to bring the grant to fruition.



Feria Ladha in full laboratory gear pipetting at her bench
Feria Ladha (MD/PhD G3) conducting her PhD research in cardiology at JAX-GM.



Feria is in her 3rd year of the graduate phase in the department of Genetics and Developmental Biology. As a member of Dr. Travis Hinson’s laboratory she is working to elucidate the role of novel RNA binding proteins in cardiomyocytes. Her grant “Understanding the role of RNA binding proteins identified at the cardiac sarcomere using bio ID proximity labeling” seeks to use highly specific bio-tagging techniques to explore the potential roles of these proteins in cardiac metabolism. Feria aims to use her training to pursue a career as a pediatric physician scientist with a particular emphasis on mitochondrial disease processes. Feria would like to thank her PI Dr. Hinson as well as Dr. Brenton Graveley for their guidance in the grant application process.


MD/PhD Student Spotlight: Gianluca Arianna, G2

December 17, 2019

Gianluca Arianna smiling, seated in front of biophysics equipment
Gianluca Arianna, G2

MD/PhD Spotlight Series by Nathan Gasek

Welcome to the UConn Health MD/PhD student spotlight! Our program abounds with exciting achievements and even more exciting people. This week, I had a chance to talk with Gianluca Arianna, a G2 student in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry (MBB). Gianluca’s research in Dmitry Korzhnev’s lab uses a structural biology approach to investigate how cells replicate in the context of DNA damage. Specifically, he is researching DNA damage tolerance pathways, which are implicated in tumorigenesis and may provide key insights to future chemotherapeutics. He became involved in this research as it appealed to both his chemistry background and his medical interest in cancer therapy. The MBB program was particularly appealing to him as it provided “a strong sense of family.” With regard to his research, he is particularly thrilled to have written the specific aims for his preliminary exam, mentioning that “it’s exciting to have something from your own mind come to fruition [which is] the reason why I enjoy science so much in the first place. There’s so much creative control over your experience.”

In addition to his graduate work, Gianluca is maintaining his medical chops through the Clinical Longitudinal Immersion in the Community (CLiC) program and shadowing UCHC providers. With CLiC he is able to hone his clinical skills at an internal medicine clinic throughout his graduate phase. Outside of school he enjoys playing piano, learning guitar, and has recently taken up an interest in archery.

For future applicants, he voiced that “There is a lot of opportunity here. [From] clinical experiences to education opportunities, faculty are approachable for anything from research and shadowing to curriculum design.” When asked about his favorite aspect of UConn’s MD/PhD program, Gianluca pointed to the collaboration, support, and camaraderie. From the program directors to fellow students, he notes that “Your success is important to your peers”.

At the end of our talk he also offered advice to student’s in the earlier phases of the program. “You need to approach your career with some degree of planning and some degree of risk. Have an action plan, but realize that you’ll always learn something new. You’ll end up in new situations you might not have anticipated in the first place [but] don’t take things too seriously and enjoy your experience.”



MD/PhD Alum Returns to Discuss Physician Scientist Training and Career

UConn MD/PhD Class of 2013 alumnus Eric Gaier and Ophthalmologist at Harvard Medical School returned to give Alumni rounds at UConn’s weekly MD/PhD Research club. (Or “Nerd Club”, as he says it used to be called).

Headshot of Eric Gaier wearing a dark suit, red tie, and lavender shirt
Eric Gaier MD, PhD, UConn MD/PhD Class of 2013, Ophthalmologist, Harvard Medical School

Following his graduation from UConn’s dual degree program, Dr. Gaier began his Ophthalmology residency at the preeminent Mass Eye and Ear through Harvard Medical School. With his training, he was able to secure highly competitive fellowships in both Neuro-Ophthalmology and Pediatric Ophthalmology/Adult Strabismus through Boston Children’s Hospital. Currently, Dr. Gaier complements his clinical work with NIH K08 funded basic and translational research investigating how principles of synaptic plasticity can be used to elucidate therapeutic strategies in the treatment of amblyopia. His research has led him to patent a novel approach and medical device for treating pediatric amblyopia and he currently serves as a scientific advisor with the company Luminopia. Beyond this, he engages in several teaching roles at Harvard Medical School spanning from resident education to undergraduate and graduate student research mentorship.

During his visit Dr. Gaier had lunch with current MD/PhD trainees, explored additions made to the program since his graduation, and gave a seminar reflecting on his own time in medical school. In discussion, he noted how his continuity clinic experience, now called “CLiC”, provided him with exposure, motivation, and training that set him on a successful career in Neuro-Ophthalmology. Furthermore, he highlighted the myriad of opportunities UConn’s physician scientist training program provided him, and urged every student to explore all that the institution has to offer.

Article by Nathan Gasek

MD/PhD Candidate Grace Kwon Advocates for Science on Capital Hill

October 3, 2019

This article is a republication of an article written by Jil Staszewski, Policy & Advocacy Manager, ASHG on the ASHG blog. You can view the original article here.

September 18-19 marked the 2019 Rally for Medical Research, hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). Three hundred scientists, physicians, patients, and activists met with their elected officials on Capitol Hill, calling for an increase of at least $2.5 billion in NIH funding in Fiscal Year (FY) 2020.

Emily Davenport, PhD, of Pennsylvania; and Grace Kwon, BS, of Connecticut, both members of the Training & Development Committee, participated in this event, sharing their stories with seven congressional offices to make a case for this increase in funding.

ASHG: How was your overall first experience advocating on the Hill?

Grace Kwon with Senator Christopher Murphy’s (D-CT) staffer

Grace Kwon: Participating in the Rally for Medical Research was a wonderful experience. It put into perspective the wide-ranging impact both basic and clinical research can have across the country, at an individual and community level.

The opportunity to directly advocate for increased NIH funding to Congressional offices was a unique experience that a graduate student might think wouldn’t have a large impact. However, as the only constituent from the state of Connecticut I was able to give personal examples of how NIH funding has made an impact on my training thus far. As a student, I was also able to directly speak about the impact that a sustained increase in NIH funding would have on my future career.

Emily Davenport meets Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA)

Emily Davenport: I had a great time advocating for NIH funding with the Rally for Medical Research. I was able to meet with elected officials and/or staff from both of the Senators and three of the representatives from my state, along with other researchers, patients, and advocates. Every conversation was different. The perspectives of everyone in the room emphasized the broad reach NIH funding has, including not only improving health, but for science careers, job creation, and education.

ASHG: Why is it important for scientists to meet with their members of Congress?

Emily: Science takes time and science careers can be unstable. As working scientists, we are all too aware of those facts, but they aren’t always clear to our representatives. It’s incredibly useful for members of Congress to meet with researchers to understand just how long it takes to go from having an idea, to securing funding, to performing the research, and then potentially translating that research into something clinically useful.

Having stable and predictable funding is the only way that can happen. Representatives see first-hand what their support is capable of generating by hearing examples of the research discoveries happening in their home districts.

Grace: The fact that the Rally for Medical Research brought a wide-ranging group of individuals is a testament to the impact that NIH funding has in the United States. Scientists bring one unique perspective that will help Congressional leaders understand how increasing NIH funding provides both short- and long-term benefits. Important innovations like cancer immunotherapies, genetic testing, and vaccines started in the laboratory.

There is also an underlying notion that science and research is inaccessible to the general public. This is false! Science is for and impacts everyone. It is a scientist’s responsibility to make their research understandable to those outside of the field and provide a broader context for their research focus.

ASHG: What are some ways your colleagues and fellow ASHG members can get involved in advocacy?

Grace Kwon, BS (left) and Emily Davenport, PhD (right) with a displayed quote from ASHG President-Elect, Anthony Wynshaw-Boris, MD, PhD at Wednesday’s reception

Grace: Reach out to your state’s Congressional leaders! ASHG has many opportunities listed on their webpage, where you can also send a letter to your state’s Senators. Institutions often have an office dedicated to working on legislation focused on science-related issues, such as research funding – I would reach out to them for any opportunities they have available. If you are a trainee or student, you can form a student group or organization focused on advocating for a specific cause if your institution does not already have one.

Emily: Advocacy comes in all shapes and sizes. You can do as little as take 10 minutes to call or email your representatives about an issue that’s important to you, or go as far as applying to do a policy fellowship to be directly involved on a daily basis. One great way to start getting involved is “taking the pledge” and becoming an ASHG Advocate. You’ll get monthly email updates with up-to-date action alerts, genetics policy news, and relevant policy-related events.

Original article can be viewed at the ASHG Blog here.

MD/PhD Candidates Katie Discipio and Grace Kwon win F30 Awards

September 26, 2019

The UConn MD/PhD Program would like to congratulate Katie Discipio and Grace Kwon on their receipt of F30 Fellowships from the NIH! Katie DiScipio (Advisor: Sandra Weller, PhD) and Grace Kwon (Advisor: Adam Williams, PhD) are both GS4 (6th-year total) students in the MD/PhD program.


Katie and Grace have recently been funded F30 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) from the NIH. F30 NRSA awards are competitive grants awarded by the NIH to enhance the research and clinical training of dual-degree MD/PhD students.

6th year MD/PhD Candidates Katie Discipio (Left) and Grace Kwon (Right) in their natural habitat.

Katie DiScipio received F30 support from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for her project titled “Understanding the protein-protein interactions important for the initiation of HSV-1 DNA synthesis” Her doctoral research is focused on structure-function relationships of herpes simplex virus (HSV) and their role in contributing to HSV replication.


Grace Kwon received F30 support from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) for her project titled “Investigating the function of a highly expressed lncRNA in airway epithelium”. Her doctoral research is focused on the role of long noncoding RNAs in the pathophysiology of allergic asthma, specifically looking at bronchial epithelial cells.


We wish them the best of luck in the completion of their research endeavors. Congrats Katie and Grace!