Author: Bertolino, Samantha

Meet JLLA Senior Ashmi Durairaj


Ashmi Durairaj is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Biomedical Engineering. She obtained her Master’s in Healthcare Administration from Anna University India and was awarded a university First Holder honor.


Since childhood, Durairaj has been fascinated by the growth of technology and medicine. When it comes to the field of Biomedical Engineering, she strongly believes that the skills and knowledge gained will help her to develop solutions for ongoing global health issues. 


Durairaj has interned at CURA Healthcare, Cosmos Medical Systems, Madras Medical Mission (MMM Hospital), Apollo Hospitals and Universal Medical Instruments (UNI-EM). These opportunities enhanced her comprehensive servicing, assembling and troubleshooting skills on various medical devices and surgical robots. 


As a Ph.D. candidate, Durairaj completed a research study on biomaterials utilized in the production of prosthesis. 3D printing technology allowed her to develop a prosthetic for women post-mastectomy. 


Durairaj is planning to continue her work in the biomedical industry as a Research and Development Engineer. Outside of school she enjoys playing musical instruments, and can speak five languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and English.

Meet JLLA Senior David Etim


David Etim is a PhD candidate in Computer Science and Engineering. His experiences in industry and under the United States Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security have fortified a set of data analysis and technical research skills. 


Etim’s interest in computer science and engineering started early on. By the fifth grade, he could design a website, take a computer apart and piece it back together. Every summer until high school he would attend the Science, Engineering, Mathematics and Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) at Winston-Salem State University. 


He obtained his Bachelor’s degree at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical (A&T) State University, where he studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, and completed his Master’s degree in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Connecticut. 


Etim has acquired a wealth of experience through varied internship opportunities across the following organizations:


The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Energy Exemplar LLC, National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd).


These internship experiences have allowed him to implement and expand his knowledge of coding, software engineering, and data analysis, amongst other technical skills.   


Etim also works as a part-time Federal Program Manager at the NNSA, where he oversees the Verification & Validation (V&V) subprogram, the Predictive Science Academic Alliance Program (PSAAP), as well as Advanced Machine Learning and Large-Scale Calculation initiatives within the NNSA Advanced Simulation & Computing (ASC) Program.


In his current doctoral research, Etim examines data extraction techniques and their applicability to various domains, specifically within health care for Electronic Health Records (EHRs). The data is analyzed and surveyed to retrieve relevant information from sources in a specific pattern.  


Etim’s objective in conducting data extraction for EHRs is to enhance the diagnosis process for patients with various health conditions. This data consists of the patient’s vital signs (heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, etc.) as well as their regular caloric intake, consumption of food and supplement usage. 


This information is extracted through a specific technique—Natural Language Processing, (NLP)—which uses the software to categorize and predict patterns in speech or text. This is used to guide treatment plans of prospective patients.


Etim hopes to continue his industry work but plans to eventually re-enter academia as a professor with the goal of obtaining tenure. Whether he’s working with students or on his doctoral research, Etim aims to be the best leader he can potentially be.


Etim currently serves as Parliamentarian on the John Lof Leadership Academy (JLLA) Executive Board where he ensures that the official bylaws are being followed in all procedural actions by JLLA Members.

Meet JLLA Senior Albert Tulli IV

Albert Tulli IV is a Graduate Student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Connecticut. 


As a third year doctoral candidate, Tulli’s research investigates 3D cell cultures in liquid crystalline polymeric materials. 


He works with liquid crystalline polymers (LCPs), a material commercially used in electrical displays, for the benefit of controlling the orientational alignment on a molecular level. 


Tulli is looking to apply this technology to tissue engineering and 3D cell culture as a whole. He utilizes extracellular matrix (ECM), along with the LCPs, to synthetically replicate certain environmental factors. Through these changes, he can determine how cells behave in different conditions.


Before that, Tulli interned for Pfizer, where he worked on small molecule formulation development and drug product design. His project has unique potential in pediatric applications as well as older patient ranges. 


Going forward, he plans to remain in the field of pharmaceuticals, but hopes to shift his focus to biological systems. His preference is to work with biologics and potentially keep a focus on three-dimensional culture or tissue engineering


As John Lof Leadership Academy’s current President, Tulli organizes weekly E-board meetings, as well as events and workshops held throughout the semester. He supervises members of the E-board and maintains correspondence with outside speakers, organizations and faculty.

Meet JLLA Senior Allison Surian


Allison Surian is a second-year Biomedical Engineering Masters Candidate specializing in nanomedicine. 


She obtained her Bachelors in Biology and Chemistry at Roger Williams University, while minoring in Mathematics. At that time, she worked in the Aquatic Diagnostic Lab, where she developed a new assay for detecting a parasite in oysters. 


Surian also has experience as a vet technician at the New England Equine Practice, where she was surprised to learn how vast the discrepancies are between medicine involvement in humans and animals. She hopes to someday work within veterinary pharmaceuticals to combat this. 


Surian’s current research aims to treat diseases like cancer and osteoarthritis through a specialized form of gene delivery. She is working to develop a vehicle which would efficiently deliver drugs to tissues with little vasculature. 


This vehicle should penetrate spheroids of cancer cells, delivering chemotherapeutic drugs directly to cancerous tissue. In this way, healthy cells would remain virtually unaffected, mitigating the harsh side effects of cancer treatment. 


In other words, the broad range of Surian’s research involves gene delivery within hard-to-reach tissue. We call the vehicle behind it all “Janus Base Nanotubes.” 


As Public Relations Director on John Lof’s E-board, Surian has had the opportunity to connect with many different people from a diverse set of backgrounds. 


She recently chaired the Teamwork workshop, where she led all “different types of people, with different schedules and priorities.” When reflecting on this, she remarked, “it was so exciting to see it come to fruition.”



The Last Summer Workshop: Teamwork


On Wednesday August 4, 2021, John Lof hosted its last official summer workshop, “Teamwork.” 


Led by Allison Surian and Utsav Awasthi, this workshop aimed to identify the skills required for a functional, cohesive group of working individuals. They identified teamwork as “the process of working collaboratively, to build a feeling of oneness.”


The opening icebreaker had members introducing their research “to a martian.” The goal of this exercise was to promote thorough and careful communication, so that students may be able to break apart complicated material, and create something more digestible to team members. 


The next activity brought visual communication to the forefront through a virtual game of pictionary. An artist was chosen to draw each round, while teammates had sixty seconds to correctly identify the image at hand. Without words or gestures, this activity promoted communication through an entirely singular medium. 


The last activity of the evening, trivia, required that members work as teams in order to answer riddles and engineering-based questions. This encouraged students to share their ideas and knowledge for a more rounded and dependable answer. 


This workshop placed great emphasis on collaboration through accountability, communication and commitment. It showed teamwork to be an effective part of leadership, and that constructive leaders must be able to work with their team.


Members responsible for putting this event together include Albert Tulli IV, Bala Swaminathan, David Etim, Devin McConnell, Tasneem Ahmadullah, Allison Surian and Utsav Awasthi.



Nuances of Being A Leader Workshop Recap


The Academy’s most recent workshop, “Nuances of Being a Leader,” took place on Wednesday, July 7th. 


This event was curated to openly discuss and understand the subtleties of leadership which are often overlooked or given little consideration to when developing skills. 


The seminar was designed to involve more interpersonal scenarios and outside-of-the-box thinking that wouldn’t be considered inherently “obvious.” 


As a result, the five key talking points included: Following, Speaking Skills, Inspiring Self-Motivation, Listening and The Impact of Failure and Success. 


These points were identified through a range of activities, which involved Charades, a ‘Codeword’ exercise, Role-Playing and Taboo. 

The interactive portion of the meeting bred four important takeaways all leaders should know: 1. When to Take a Step Back, 2. How to Communicate One-on-One, 3. How to Listen, and 4. How to Effectively Pass on Skills.  

Members responsible for putting this event together are Michael Reisert, Tori Danis, Pierre Fils, Uche Anene, I’jazz Muhammad, Sanyukta Patil, Mohamadreza Arab Baferani, Dana Hamed, Kyle Wade, Haarith Vohra, and Ibtihal Alahmadi.

Some Important Announcements from the 6/16 General Body Meeting


Major updates were announced at the most recent General Body Meeting, which took place virtually on Wednesday, June 16th.


It opened with the introduction of new E-Board members for 2022. The titleholders are as follows: 


Albert Tulli IV President, Bala Swaminathan Vice President, Allison Surian Public Relations Director, Utsav Awasthi Finance Director, Tasneem Ahmaddullah Activities Director, David Etim Parliamentarian, Devin McConnell Social Media Director.  


The next portion of the meeting gave focus to upcoming summer workshops. These seminars are student-led, meaning that contributors must design the event from start to finish. 


In preparing for this, students must submit a thorough proposal, which includes an agenda, interactive portion, speakers, resources and takeaways.


The workshops are to include: Nuances of being a Leader on July 7th, Cultural Competency on July 21st, and Teamwork on August 4th.

Meet JLLA Senior Uchenna Anene


Uchenna Anene is a final-year PhD candidate in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Her background is multidisciplinary, with an added focus in Chemistry, Biology and Materials Science. 


Her current research uses computational methods based on quantum mechanics and machine learning to model different material properties at the atomic level, such as adsorption and adhesion. These are used to guide and accelerate the design and development of new materials. 


Such facilitates design strategies of metal-organic framework STAM-17-OEt for gas adsorption, as well as an understanding of the properties needed for strong epoxy-copper adhesion to prevent delamination on electronic devices.


Ultimately, Anene’s research implements computational studies to guide new scientific discoveries that improve our health and the way we live.


Outside of research, Anene is active in several communities, including the American Chemical Society (ACS), NOBCChE, Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center (EDOC), and the Learning Community Innovation Zone (LCIZ) Makerspace. The latter provides hands-on learning that assists in creative ideas, problem-solving and prototyping. 


As a LCIZ Makerspace Fellow, Anene works with the undergraduate Maker Specialists to develop workshops that include soap making, laser cutting, sewing, constructing heat pads, masks, and wiring electronics. She enjoys working with undergraduates to “bring them into the space,” and “get them excited about being curious.”


She co-chaired the LCIZ 2021 Women in Making: Global Making Forum, which highlighted the successes and challenges of the Women Maker movement. The forum identified barriers and discussed best practices through an array of panel discussion and skill-building workshops.


She co-developed a seminar for the 2021 Women’s Advance Conference that touched upon the same topics.


Anene has also had a hand in the development and instruction of a course for underrepresented women in STEM, ‘BOSS LADI.’ This acronym is short for ‘Building Our Sistas’ Strength, Leveraging Adversity, Diversity and Intellect.’ 


The course aims to increase retention and ensure the overall success of UConn’s female STEM students by providing the tools necessary to help them develop positive STEM identities, excel as student-leaders and transition to graduate school.


Anene enjoys participating in projects designed to implement positive change and increase awareness of the barriers faced by women. In engaging the UConn community with guest speakers and panel discussions, Anene has helped to provide strategies that overcome these barriers.


Throughout the course of her academic career, Anene has been the recipient of several accolades. One of the more memorable, however, is the George Sideris Student Travel Award that she received during her master’s program at Long Island University to attend the ACS national conference.


This allowed her the opportunity to interact with other scientists from various backgrounds, and gave her the confidence to start applying to PhD programs. 


Last summer, Anene completed an internship with the pharma company Merck, where she utilized computational modeling to determine drug candidates for COVID-19. This computational background blends nicely into Anene’s most recent internship opportunity with Genentech, which applies similar tools to build drug metabolism and pharmacokinetic models. 


As a second-year member of John Lof, Anene has developed greatly as a student-researcher. She maintains that the Academy has helped her to “gather the resources necessary to grow and empower.” She says, “I know how to be effective in whatever I do.”


Meet JLLA Senior Mikayla Moody



Mikayla Moody is a third year PhD student at the University of Connecticut, where she currently engages with biomaterials in the field of biomedical engineering. 


Throughout her academic career, Moody has been the recipient of countless awards, fellowships and stipends. There’s a lot to be proud of. But some of these most memorable moments were never saved on paper. 


At her undergraduate graduation, Moody was selected by classmates to deliver a speech during the ceremony, and was later awarded ‘Most Distinguished Senior’ in the department of Materials Science and Engineering.


She describes of this experience, “It was a shock. I realized that I was capable of doing things I’d never thought possible before…and that maybe I wasn’t giving myself enough credit for all the work I’d done.” 


And work she does. Moody’s current research focus aims to understand how acidosis affects bones structurally and mechanically. This ‘secondary disease’ has been glossed over for some time now, despite its wide-reaching effect.


As a result, she has put together a treatment study of her own creation. By this, Moody plans to analyze the effectiveness of current treatment plans in increasing bone strength. Meaning, she hopes to quantify the effect of bicarbonate on our bones. 


In the future, Moody plans to enter into science policy and communications. She hopes to engage more with politicians and the general public, so as to “create more science-based decisions, and inform on public and climate health decisions.” 


“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, which I want to help with.” Moody’s experience in the lab translates to hospitals and other medical facilities, which can then be communicated to the public, allowing for a safer, stronger future. 


That being said, she didn’t always see herself working in public communication. John Lof strengthened her skills as a leader, helping Moody to make great connections and network with a variety of people and groups.


Now she’s John Lof’s first Social Media Director, where she spends a great deal of time raising awareness of the program, all while connecting with the community. 


She aims to make the Academy visible to communities outside of UConn, in hopes that other universities will develop similar programs for graduate engineers. 


JLLA Pep Rally Re-Cap



On Friday, April 30, President Erik Ammermann hosted the Academy’s virtual Pep Rally event. This meeting altogether featured seven parts; from an alumni powerpoint to the workshop lineup.


The first part of the meeting featured three alumni; Dr. Stephanie Santos, Dr. Randi Mendes and Anna Marie LaChance. These women shared their experiences in the Academy, while emphasizing the extensive leadership opportunities. 


Each prepared a set of informational background slides, describing their work, skills, interests and volunteer experiences. They also spent some time discussing the value of developing leadership skills. 


Dr. Mendes describes, “Without culturally competent visionaries that are able to communicate, collaborate, and create, there would be no progress in society.” 


She continues, “What the Academy strives to do…is to inform and inspire these next-generation leaders in academia, industry, and beyond.”


The later portion of the meeting explored the direction of upcoming workshop seminars, which are unofficially set to take place between late May and the end of July.


This preview included the following event titles: Teamwork, Nuances of Being a Leader, and Cultural Competency. The overall theme of these is leadership through adversity, with a focus on diverse backgrounds.