Author: O'Donnell, Allison

JLLA Inducts Third Cohort of Scholars

JLLA’s first meeting of the academic year; Photo by Mikayla Moody


The University of Connecticut’s John Lof Leadership Academy has inducted sixteen new members into its third cohort of scholars. Over the next two years, they will develop their leadership and professional skills with an individualized curriculum


Through a “for us, by us” philosophy, John Lof Scholars aim to develop themselves through focused training, specialized workshops, and active learning through outreach and enterprise on and off the UConn campus.


New Scholars had the opportunity to network with their fellow members at their first General Body Meeting, where they also learned more about incentives and growth opportunities within the academy. 


The curriculum is commencing with student-led workshops on Leadership Values, Identifying the Individual Leader and Strengths and Values. Since last Spring, JLLA has been quantifying the effectiveness of the curriculum through a leadership evaluation tool. 


Mind Garden’s multifactor leadership questionnaire (MLQ), provides a holistic assessment of individual leadership through assessments. This tool will help scholars create individualized action plans to achieve transformational leaders and quantify the success of the group’s curriculum.

Meet Tori Danis

Tori Danis is a second year PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering who conducts research in The McCutcheon Lab on 3D printed membranes for water treatment. She has responded to COVID-19 by administering NIOSH certified testing on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) materials.


As a member of the feedback skills committee, Danis says having the ability to help others grow with constructive feedback has helped her in her role as Teacher’s Assistant. The past year she has been a TA for a Senior Chemical Engineering lab, where she mentors two undergraduate students. Danis says mentoring others is one of her favorite aspects of her research.  


Danis’ time as a TA and JLLA member has made her realize she wants to pursue a career in academia and educate future engineers. Currently, Danis serves on JLLA’s E-Board as the activities director.


This fall Danis received the General Electric (GE) Graduate Fellowship allowing her to continue being a TA in a senior level chemical engineering course. She says both have been valuable in developing skills for a career in teaching future engineers, which she has been “passionate about since tutoring incoming undergraduate engineers for the BRIDGE program and 8th grade students interested in STEM through the  Pre-Engineering Program (PEP).”


Outside of JLLA, Danis is involved in the Chemical Engineering community at UConn. She is a member of ChEGSA (Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Association) which hosts professional and social events for the chemical engineering department . Danis has also joined the department’s Racial Justice & Equity Committee, to develop specific actions to take within the department toward anti-racism.


Meet Erik Ammermann

Erik Ammermann is a second year chemical and biomolecular engineering PhD candidate as well as president of the John Lof Leadership Academy. Ammermann has been conducting research on Alzheimer’s disease through protein engineering under Dr Yongku Cho at Cho Research Group


After being accepted to the University of Connecticut for graduate school, Ammermann toured the school and met JLLA members. The academy’s student-led approach is what appealed to him in addition to the “networking opportunity between different engineering disciplines, not just chemical engineering.”


Now serving as JLLA’s second president, Ammermann reflected on the opportunity to serve as a leader among  other strong leaders: “ I would say the biggest thing I am learning is that being President is giving me a better sense of when to step up and take charge of something versus letting someone else take the lead, since I can be very hands-on at times,” said Ammermann. “Also, I feel like it is making me a better, more active listener as I try to account for all perspectives before making decisions.”


During his time as an undergraduate researcher Ammermann observed that “technical skills and research abilities will only get you so far, but in order to advance your career you need interpersonal abilities and communication skills.”


His experience with John Lof thus far has helped him fine-tune those transferable skills and translate them into other aspects of his life. Outside of the classroom, Ammermann was heavily involved in the Penn State Dance Marathon (THON), a charitable student-run organization that helps children and families impacted by childhood cancer.


JLLA Applications Now Open

The John Lof Leadership Academy will be led by an elected student council, and aims to:

  1. Develop leadership and professional skills
  2. Organize and facilitate social, academic, and professional activities that help Academy members develop these skills
  3. Promote and support the academic and future professional success of graduate students in SoE; and
  4. Engage communities inside and outside the School to promote, and provide mentoring and support where appropriate


New members are currently being inducted and must complete an application. Applications are reviewed by a committee and John Lof Leadership Academy advisors. Please click HERE for more information regarding the application process.


Video Transcript:

Mikayla Moody: Hi there, my name is Mikayla Moody, and I am a second year PhD student in biomedical engineering.


Randi Mendes:Hi, my name is Randi Mendes and I’m PhD student in Environmental Engineering. I was a part of the 2018 through 2020 cohort, where I was president. And I’m also founder of JLLA Leadership Academy.


Pierre Dens Fils: Hello, my name is Pierre Dens Fils, and I’m a rising 3rd year PhD student in the Civil Engineering Department, with a concentration in structural engineering.


Donyeil Hoy Jr.: My name is Donyeil Hoy Jr. I am a sixth year PhD candidate in the biomedical engineering department.


Gigi Fusco : Hi, my name is Gigi Fusco and I’m going into my second year as a PhD student and civil engineering. Hello, my name is Mohammed and I am a PhD student studying biomedical engineering.


Mohammed Albayati: Hello, my name is Mohammed Albayati and I’m sitting your PhD candidate mechanical engineering.


Erik Ammermann: Hi, my name is Erik Ammerman and this Fall 2020 semester I’ll be a second year PhD student in Chemical and Bimolecular Engineering


Mohammed Albayati: I believe that graduate school is not only about publishing papers or getting a high GPA. Before joining JLLA. It was important opportunity to develop my leadership skills, and thank you JLLA for giving me this opportunity.


Pierre: I decided to join John Lof because I’m interested in creating positive long lasting change in and around my community.


I’jaaz Muhammad: It also gave me the experience to actually practice, what is being taught in the academy. It gave me experience with leadership and critiques, and improved my leadership.


Randi Mendes: One of the reasons why I was so interested in creating John Lof Leadership Academy was because I wanted to allow forum for students to be able to develop leadership in the way that they wanted to be leaders. I didn’t want it to be a cookie cutter process, where we all had to look identical in order to be considered true leaders. I wanted to be able to allow each person to grow as an individual. And so, it was really important to me to continue that basis with the development of John Lof Leadership Academy and because of that I’ve been able to work with some amazing leaders in the field of engineering as well as learn a lot from them.


Erik Ammermann: So I initially join the John Lof Leadership Academy thinking it would be good to show leadership on my resume. I very quickly realized this organization is a lot more than that. Not only do I feel like I am actually developing real, tangible leadership skills through the different workshops throughout the year, but I am getting to do that with prominent members from the school of engineering- all the way up to the dean himself. As well as some of the best student leaders UConn has to offer.


Tori Danis: Being in John Lof this past year I’ve really enjoyed getting to know this group of students across UConn and collaborating with each other to develop our individual leadership styles, we engage in discussions and workshops to hear different perspectives on problems that we face as mentors such as needing to resolve conflict and inspire change in our community


Donyeil Hoy Jr.: It was an experience for me, particularly because I was able to learn how to put my own leadership style into words, as well as to apply my leadership style in different categories and learning techniques. However, the most meaningful experiences for me have actually come more recently, given the current climate of our society with Black Lives Matter and Xenophobic policies of the current governmental administration, as well as dealing with a global pandemic. I’ve got to see a lot of my peer leaders step up in many unique ways in order to challenge the systems that are affecting a lot of us at this current moment. And I got to participate in a lot of things as well, that have allowed me to put a lot of strategies up learn directly into use. Given the unfortunate circumstances.


Gigi Fusco: The most valuable thing that I’ve learned in JLLA so far is voicing my opinion for a really long time I was very quiet, and generally has really helped me realize that it’s important to speak up, and it’s given me the confidence to be able to do so.

And something that I’m looking forward to my second year is working on public speaking, because that’s something that I have a long way to go in and I really need to work on.


Mikayla Moody: Sometimes I feel like I have a hard time being myself when I have to give any sort of presentation, but one of the guests that were there, one of the people that were there to help us improve our public speaking, told us that you have to learn how to be yourself when your public speaking because it’ll make it more natural and it won’t make it as hard when you have to do it, and I’ve taken that to heart. From here on out, being more honest about myself in being more open, when I’m feeling nervous and how I want to say things, so that’s been very helpful. The JLLA experience has definitely been valuable to me and I’m excited for the opportunities that will come in this next year.


Meet Donyeil Hoy

Donyeil Hoy is a Ph.D. candidate in UConn’s Biomedical Engineering department and a Graduate Research Assistant in the Self-Assembling Functional Nanomaterials Lab under Mu-Ping Nieh, Ph.D..


Hoy’s accomplishments have been recognized by the university as well as a national program. He is a recipient of the prestigious UConn’s Giolas Harriott Fellowship in addition to the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.


Outside of JLLA, Hoy is a demonstrated leader, as a member of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and former parliamentarian in the Graduate Student Senate (GSS). He says inclusivity and diversity are integral aspects of his leadership style.


“One of the reasons joined [JLLA] is that leadership skills are not always prioritized within the engineering community, so we need a space to develop ourselves.”


During his tenure as a student, Hoy says he has met individuals whose skills are endemic to their field, and not transferable. JLLA’s approach is more holistic in that the curriculum is designed to be transferable to any industry or role.


“It is a shame when you see knowledgeable people who fail to mentor students and effectively share their abilities,” says Hoy. “We are more prepared as leaders after going through the JLLA curriculum.”


Some of Hoy’s other talents outside of engineering include gardening, cooking and writing. He especially enjoys being able to incorporate these skills by growing produce he can cook with.

Meet Armin Rad

Armin Rad on Sept. 14, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Armin Rad received his Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Connecticut this past December and is now enrolled in UConn’sMaster of Engineering in Global Entrepreneurshipprogram.


As a former executive board member for the first cohort, Rad said that helping develop the program showed him that “there are no similar academies within the university”. Rad says he was excited by the notion of JLLA’s program when it was founded in 2018, because the curriculum is so unique and accounts for that gap within the engineering education.


Experience is the only practical application to build these skills and become a confident leader. JLLA’s workshops on leadership philosophy and conflict resolution translate into his role as co-founder and CEO of Encapsulate LLC.


“I take my role [as CEO and co-founder] very seriously and am dedicated to advancing my skills for the betterment of my company,” said Rad. “Even though I was trained in Engineering for about 10 years, I never was exposed to the leadership aspect of engineering that is necessary for the industry.”


Now that Rad has a solid foundation of leadership skills, he says he would like to continue working on Encapsulate. Eventually, he would also like to work in academia to give back to knowledge he has acquired. 

John Lof Scholars starting conversations about the Black American experience


An integral aspect of the John Lof Scholars curriculum is creating culturally competent visionaries by means of “engaging communities inside and outside the School to promote, and provide mentoring and support where appropriate.”

This mission is executed in a “for us, by us” philosophy, in which John Lof Scholars develop through focused training, specialized workshops, and active learning through outreach and enterprise on and off the UConn campus. 

In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, all members were invited to learn about the Black American experience by engaging with books, podcasts, and documentaries. A compilation of resources was also created for everyone to engage with at their own pace. 

Within JLLA, we have always worked towards creating a space of honest and open communication where our members can come together to learn, fail, and grow,” said JLLA President Randi Mendes. “This poses a unique opportunity to learn from one another and have these hard but necessary conversations.”

The first meeting was an open forum with guided questions on the first episode of 1619,” a New York Times audio series hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“It is important that us white people do our part to learn about our fellow peers’ experience,” Anna Marie LaChance says . “This is their life and history, education is the only way to assure we don’t reproduce the same problems. Holding ourselves accountable is a life-long commitment- we are only just beginning.”

JLLA Vice President Stephany Santos emphasized that “we must work together to create a new normal that is forward.”


Meet Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan is a third-year Ph.D. student in Electrical Engineering and also received his bachelor’s from the University of Connecticut. He currently researches fabrication semiconductor devices in a microfabrication lab.


Khan moved to the US when he was nine-years old from Pakistan. He connects with his Pakistani roots by learning languages endemic to the middle eastern region: Urdu, Dari, Hindi, Farsi and English.


Being multilingual enables Khan to connect with others, just as JLLA helps him connect and work with other engineers.


“It’s refreshing to have other people’s point of views on how you should proceed with a particular problem or how to navigate the world of graduate school.”


Having a space dedicated to personal growth is essential for becoming an exceptional leader. Khan says that helping develop JLLA’s program was a practical application of leadership abilities.


“I feel like it’s going to continue evolving and continue changing into something even better than what it is now, because it’s all a learning process.”

Meet Roman Mays

Roman Mays is a third-year Ph.D. candidate and GEM fellow in Electrical Engineering with a master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania.


As a Senator in the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) and executive board member in the Student Association of Graduate Engineers (SAGE), Mays is a demonstrated leader within his community.


Mays was inducted into the first cohort of JLLA members and says that the first year was dedicated to developing a strong organization.


“It was upon us to build the program and figure out what we wanted to get out of it. So, we created a space where we can better the prowess of leadership within the members of this community.”


Now that he has experienced two years of curriculum, Mays says that practicing different leadership styles have prepared him for his career.


“You get to see other people from different disciplines of engineering with different leadership qualities, and you learn from the leadership qualities through workshops,” said Mays. “You get to see what’s effective, what’s not effective and you get to then better yourself, not only as a person, but as a leader going into graduate studies and into the workforce.”

Meet Farnoosh Saeedinejad

Farnoosh Saeedinejad is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering from Iran. Her first language is Farsi, so Saeedinejad knew her choice to pursue a doctoral degree would be an opportunity to develop and challenge herself.


Currently, Saeedinejad researches effective drug delivery methods in the Self-Assembled Functional Nanomaterials Labunder Dr. Mu-Ping Nieh. She is also an Orientation Representative with International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS).


Saeedinejad wants to pursue a career in industry when she graduates, because she wants to see the impact of her work. In order to better prepare for her career and develop a network in her new country, she joined JLLA’s first cohort in 2018.


“When I first heard about JLLA, I thought that it was a good opportunity to get out of my comfort zone,” said Saeedinejad. “Having gone through the curriculum, I can say I learned about myself and how I interact best with others.”


JLLA gave Saeedinejad the space for growth and a safe environment to learn through practicing and attending workshops.


“I don’t see myself as a natural leader, but acknowledging that and pushing myself to work towards that goal made a huge difference.”