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

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



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 Candidates Katie Discipio and Grace Kwon win F30 Awards

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!

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: https://www.psoriasis.org/research/skin-microbiome-inverse-psoriasis

Congratulations Jenn!