This story by Charles Paullin was originally published August 12, 2018 in the New Britain Herald.
Students are getting real-world experience and added insight into what they’re studying in college through a program spearheaded by the University of Connecticut.
The Partnership in Innovation and Education (PIE) program, formerly solely just the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), held an innovation fellows research day at the UConn Health campus in Farmington, in which summer immersion activities were detailed.
“It’s really starting to create a lot of cross-connections among the different institutions of higher learning, which is the point,” said Dr. Catherine Dealy, of UConn Health, the director of the program.
As the UConn TIP program last year, it had 18 members, and paired UConn students with biotech startup companies to give them insight into the professional bioscience field.
But after Dealy contacted seven other colleges and universities in the area, including Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and Tunxis Community College, the PIE program was created and expanded to 79 members from those higher learning institutions. This included 24 students in this year’s installment of the TIP fellowship program that still existed.
“Every college and university I spoke to wanted to take part in this, and there’s a need for these kind of partnerships and there’s a desire to want to innovate and to want to be cutting edge,” said Dealy.
While maintaining the internship experience and having 24 instructional seminars throughout the 10-week program, it also added a component to have students work directly with professors for more of a strictly research experience.
“It’s a good opportunity for students, especially students who have never done research before because I had a hard time getting into other programs,” said Alexa Taylor, a Southington senior at University of St. Joseph studying biology. She worked at the Center for Vascular Biology to see how cells, including brain cells, connect and communicate with each other and transport “good things” or viruses.
“I learned a lot and I’m really glad that I had this opportunity,” said Lauren Lewicki, a sophomore at the University of St. Joseph from New Britain. She also worked at the Center for Vascular Biology, but studied using a virus to deliver genetic information to other cells. She created a mutation in the virus to not spread their viral portion, and instead only the genetic information.
“I think we need more programs like them,” said Justin Pranulis, a 27-year-old Bristol resident who is finishing his Master of Neuroscience program at the University of Hartford. Taking the route of being paired with a professor, he worked with Zeeshan Ahmed, assistant professor at UConn for genetics and genome studies. He studied how effective emerging DNA sequencing technologies are, which can be beneficial in diagnosing and treating how things are specifically affecting people.
The experience allowed him to get a crash course in DNA sequencing to add to his skill set, Pranulis said.
James Greene, a sophomore at Tunxis Community College looking to graduate in the spring and attend either CCSU or UConn for mechanical engineering next year, said the program helped him gain insight into the professional world. As a student not particularly interested in bioscience, he said the weekly meetings with the other interns to learn resume writing and with startups to learn the undertaking of beginning their business were beneficial to him during the summer internship opportunity.
Sarah Mahonski, who is in the second year of her Master in Biological Science program at CCSU, also liked the program for the student research collaboration and insight into the biotech start up industry. She studied, with UConn Assistant Professor Liping Xiao on how the FGF2 gene can determine if a brain is experiencing Alzheimer’s disease. She will be continuing in the fall as part of her course credit.
The program is funded with a $237,069 grant from Connecticut Innovations’ CTNext Initiative in Higher Education, which was matched by resources from the partnering universities, including mentors and directors, said Dealy. A component for business students to interact with entrepreneurs was also included, Dealy said.
State Senators Terry Gerratana, D-New Britain and Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and state Representative William Petit Jr., R-Plainville, attended the research day.
“The long-term goals are workforce retention and building bioscience and technology and commercialization discovery as one of the ways that the state can boost its economy,” said Dealy. “That’ll be hopefully Connecticut’s industry: bioscience.”