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.


Albert Yu Completes Dissertation Defense

Albert Yu and program directors standing together smiling and eating cake.
MD/PhD Student Albert Yu (left) celebrating his successful dissertation defense with MD/PhD Program Director Carol Pilbeam MD PhD (middle) and Co-Director Kimberly Dodge-Kafka PhD (right)

Jun 29, 2018

The UConn MD/PhD Program would like to congratulate Albert Yu on his successful public dissertation for the Department of Cell Biology this past Friday. Albert did his PhD work in the lab of Lixia Yue. Seeking to identify new possible treatment targets in heart disease, Albert conducted a wide range of experiments to investigate the role of trp channels in fibrosis, a central element of many cardiac pathologies. He performed aortic surgeries on mice that would cause them to develop heart failure, and using this model demonstrated that the mice without the trp channel exhibited substantial resistance to the progression of heart disease. He then focused his experiments on studying how trp channels contributed to the pathophysiology using patch-clamp electrophysiology techniques. He also recently presented his work at this year’s Heart Rhythm Meeting in Boston. This research stands to guide the development of novel therapeutics in the prevention and treatment of cardiac fibrosis and heart failure.

Albert joined the Yue lab because of his interest in cardiology. Early in his time there, he received a graduate fellowship to support his studies from the American Heart Association (AHA). His advisor introduced him with the resounding laudations of a proud mother. She extolled his constant level-headedness, masterful dexterity in conducting electrophysiology experiments, and suggested these qualities would make him an excellent cardiologist or surgeon one day.

Wasting no time, Albert is starting his 3rd year clerkships this week. Although he has not yet decided on a specialty, Albert says that cardiology is still very much on the radar. For his longitudinal clinical practice, which MD/PhD students at UConn now get to continue during their PhD years, Albert is working with electrophysiologist Dr. Heiko Schmitt to get hands-on exposure to the sub-specialty. Like most of us here, Albert somehow manages to maintain a life outside of medicine, enjoying biking our local trails and visiting national parks. He is a friendly face to all the students in the program and we look forward to all his future triumphs.