Author: Michael

MPH and Me

I am Brielle Berkowitz, a senior in the Individualized Major Program studying Global Healthcare. When I came to IISP in 2018 I knew I intended to get my Masters of Public Health, but I really had nowhere to start. I knew a few things about SOPHAS (the application system), the GRE, and recommendation letters. It was difficult to know where to find advice. However, what really matters is your passion for public health.

Brielle at the Covid Center

The IMJR program was a great advantage to me because I designed my own major to reflect my passion for public health. I was able to choose my advisors who all had their MPH degrees and utilize them for advice on graduate schools and personal statements. My major gave me the flexibility to take a lot of public health courses as well as health insurance, anthropology, and human rights concentrations. My faculty advisors and Monica van Beusekom were a tremendous help in finding courses that reflected my major and what I would possibly take in graduate school.

Although getting experience in public health is difficult as an undergrad, there are many clubs and groups on campus to get you exposed. I went on a MEDLIFE program to Peru, where I volunteered in clinics. I also utilized the Education Abroad office to get an internship in London, which was cancelled when Covid-19 hit. Instead, I worked as a Covid Caring Partner and helped families make connections to those in the facility where I worked. I gained invaluable experience on care management and administrative work. There are opportunities everywhere you look, and demonstrating passion for public health as well as gaining experience is great when applying or seeing if you enjoy this field.

Graduate admissions offices recognized the value of my major. For example, due to my knowledge of the social determinants of health, I was better able to understand factors leading to the cervical cancer epidemic in Peru. The freedom and focus of class choice I had due to being in IMJR made me a well-rounded applicant as I was able to demonstrate a variety of skills. It is important to recognize how much you can gain from the individualized major and how to apply it in an admissions essay. I was able to say how my classes prepared me for the public health field and showed my passion for continuing the work I was doing.

For those interested in graduate work in public health, I wish you luck in applying to schools!

By Brielle Berkowitz
Global Healthcare

Transit Plan for Detroit

To meet his capstone requirement for his individualized major in Sustainable Urban Design, Aaron Johnson completed a project on Sauk Trail East and contributed the video below as part of his presentation for Frontiers Spring 2021, the exhibit of undergraduate student research.

Sauk Trail East is an urban mobility research and design study following a proposal for the world’s first public connected autonomous vehicle corridor (CAV-C). The intended route links Ann Arbor to the City of Detroit, whose residents have faced severe historic and ongoing issues surrounding transportation equity and access. This study examines CAV-C’s potential to relink Detroit communities via changes to land use, modal choice, and intermodal prioritization.

Aaron Johnson
Sustainable Urban Design

End of Life Care in Belgium

This past January, I traveled to Ghent, Belgium for a two-week interdisciplinary program on palliative and end of life care. This program was hosted by Artevelde University College Ghent and organized by the COHERE Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to collaboration in higher education to promote innovation, education, and best practices in the fields of health, social care, and rehabilitation.

Simone in Brussels

This interdisciplinary program consisted of students from seven European universities and the UConn School of Nursing. Students came from a wide range of disciplines, including nursing, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The program sought to educate students on the nuances of end of life and palliative care through active discussions about our respective countries’ healthcare policies and social climates surrounding end of life care, site visits and volunteering with patients, and presentations from experts in the many fields relevant to a patient’s medical experience at the end of life. During the program we also discussed many of the philosophical aspects of end of life care. One of the most powerful experiences of this program was listening to a panel of healthcare professionals debate the implications of euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium. This experience prompted me to further explore the philosophical arguments for and against the legalization of physician assisted suicide in the United States by writing a paper about it for Public Health and Policy in an Aging Society (PUBH 5475) this past Spring semester.

As an individualized major in Healthcare and Aging, my major encompasses a wide range of courses on aging, healthcare systems and policy, social determinants of health, and healthcare justice. I originally worried that my field of study was too niche and I wouldn’t be able to find an international program that met my interest in the intersection of healthcare and public policy. However, after hearing about a friend in the School of Nursing’s experience in Belgium, I knew that this program would be a great fit. I worked with the Education Abroad office to connect with the School of Nursing, and was accepted to participate in this program despite not being a nursing major. I encourage everyone considering an individualized major to seek out opportunities that may seem unconventional or are in a different department or school.

Although I had learned about international healthcare systems and policies in my courses, I was able to experience another country’s healthcare system and approaches to end of life care firsthand. I greatly appreciated the experience of discussing such an important topic with students from different backgrounds. Upon returning to the United States, this experience fostered my critical examination of the U.S. healthcare system in comparison to that of Belgium, both in my course work and later in each country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This experience emphasized the variety of approaches for handling medical issues between different countries and cultures. I left Belgium with a more global perspective on healthcare, and a strong desire to improve healthcare policy here in the U.S. Most importantly however, I relish the friendships I formed with my peers and the desire to pursue some form of postgraduate education abroad that came from this experience.

By Simone Fournier
IMJR: Healthcare and Aging

Predicting Outcomes of Soccer Games

“All my picks are locks, bro”
-Everyone who bets on sports

My first ever sports bet was Over 121.5 for the Virginia vs. Virginia Tech basketball game on February 18, 2019. Virginia scored a layup with 7 seconds left to win 64-58, meaning that my Over hit by half a point. Put another way, I was in hopeful agony for about 99.7% of the game before things just barely came together at the end. This is a fair metaphor for how my thesis, Predicting Outcomes of Soccer Games, ended up coming together.

For the majority of my time as an individualized Data Science major I thought that I would do a thesis on economics, the domain I chose for the major, but when the time came to choose a topic, I decided on soccer, my favorite sport. My thoughts then drifted to the most important question of any sports match: who will win? Draws occur rather frequently in soccer, so instead of a typical two-outcome classification problem, I was looking at a much more difficult three-outcome problem. Nevertheless, I found a Kaggle dataset with detailed statistics from the English Premier League and began to create a model that would predict the outcome of each league game.

English Premier League soccer

I made pretty good progress in a short period of time. After about six weeks of work, I presented my findings with a poster at the UConn Sports Analytics Symposium this past October. But I could hardly stop at just predicting winners – after all, even an octopus could do that. The natural next step was to use my model to make bets. So, I developed a comprehensive betting strategy using my model, in which I optimized for which outcomes to bet on and how much money to wager for each bet. This marked a key change in my process, in which I became more focused on decision-making when it came to bets as opposed to just trying to make the most accurate model. Decisions are what ultimately create impact, and the number I was most interested in was my account balance rather than the percentage of games predicted correctly.

My work culminated in a real-time betting experiment, in which I used my model and betting strategy to make actual bets over a four-month period using an initial balance of $200. This is the only true test of how any betting methodology performs. I am happy to say that I was relatively successful in this regard. After being in the red for the majority of the time, a strong showing in the final weekend of the experiment put the final balance at $223.40 for a slight profit. The sample size of 79 bets is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions, and I could go on and on about how poor my data was, but I learned a lot doing this thesis and I believe that I’ve set myself up for future success in this area.

by Jack Schooley
IMJR: Data Science

Esports Marketing

Entering UConn as a French Major, something felt…off…so I immediately began conversing with advisors in the IMJR Program to go over options. I took class upon class to figure out my niche, and it was only in the last year of my education that I found what I needed to study – and it wasn’t in the University catalog. “Social Branding and Visual Media”, the major that I designed, explores digital marketing and branding techniques to enact social change. This could seem a bit flowery and without real-world application, but I would challenge that it’s the exact opposite. With a focus on effective and realistic application and a backbone in research and real-world context, the major’s design opened doors for me that I would otherwise have not even known existed.

In March 2019, I was a granted a remote position as the Head Post-Producer and Cultural Liaison for the largest all-female esports organization in Canada: “Team Sailor Scouts.” The organization is well-known in the Québec Esports community for its aptitude, inclusion, and level of professionalism. It caters to fans of all class and creed, but mainly to the noted minority in the world of competitive video games: women. Although young women make up 66% of the casual gaming industry, fewer than 2% of signed professional players are women. Additionally, women face abuse on a day-to-day basis within their respective games, the majority reporting having encountered racist, sexist, and homophobic comments regularly.

Emily at the 18th annual LAN ETS, capturing footage for Team Sailor Scouts.

For Team Sailor Scouts, I have created digital assets for our social media pages, advocated for further positive inclusion of women in gaming spaces and the ever-growing industry of esports. We have worked with organizations such as Ubisoft, RDS, Esports Central, Oshko Computers, and the Québec Breast Cancer Foundation to raise awareness and funds for the cause. We have given lectures at schools all over Canada, speaking to both male and female students about erasing stigmas against video games and presenting them as a viable career path regardless of gender. At the moment, I am using intercultural communication skills learned throughout the course of my time in the IMJR program to bring Team Sailor Scouts’ message to the United States, where we hope to expand our presence. Creating digital materials, using methods from my coursework, and framing them in a way that could best reach our audience to create change, we’ve successfully increased our voice and honed it to be loud, clear, and perfectly pitched.

I could not have asked for a better opportunity to have presented itself; finding work that matches not only my two majors, but also one of my favorite hobbies and my personal values, is a very rare opportunity. The one most important piece of advice I can give anyone seeking to enroll in the Individualized Major Program (or even beyond) is to follow your passions, because, at the end of the day, if what you’re doing doesn’t make you happy, then why do it?

By Emily Côté
IMJR: Social Branding and Visual Media

Food, Sustainability, and Study in Italy

I graduated in May 2019 from the University of Connecticut with a B.A. in “Food, Culture, & Sustainable Society” (individualized) and Human Rights. My individualized major focused on the relationships people have with food, and how to use that knowledge to make our food system more sustainable. My courses were drawn primarily from the departments of sociology, geography, and anthropology.

Although UConn has many courses with which I could build a strong academic program, I wanted to expand the scope of my studies beyond the United States. I looked into semester-long study abroad, and quickly found that Italy could be the perfect destination. UConn Education Abroad offered programs to Florence and Perugia, both of which had food-related coursework. After meeting with Valerie Nightingale, a study abroad advisor, I soon realized The Umbra Institute in Perugia would be the best fit. The Food and Sustainability Studies Program (FSSP) is specifically oriented the topics of my individualized major, and includes immersive class field trips and community engagement courses. I was also drawn by the city of Perugia itself, where I would be able to immerse myself linguistically and meet other university students.

While in Perugia, I took Italian, Water Essentials, The History and Culture of Food in Italy, Sustainability and Food Production in Italy, and Anthropology of Food. Although I did know some Italian (and a lot of Spanish) before visiting, the mandatory Italian course helped me gain more confidence speaking independently. Water Essentials was a multidisciplinary course focused on the intersections of water with society, the environment, gender, and politics. The remaining courses I took were directly part of the Food and Sustainability Studies certificate program. The History and Culture of Italy focused on taste, “Italian-ness”, and what Americans know to be “Italian”. Our history course also included a variety of field trips to places like Florence, Parma and Modena. These field trips gave us unique opportunities to see one of the oldest pharmacies in Florence, some of the first cookbooks in Italy, production of prosciutto, parmesan cheese, and balsamic vinegar. Sustainability and Food Production in Italy is a community engagement course which allowed us to gain experience volunteering at two different urban gardens. One of these gardens was a mental health residency which practiced horticultural therapy. Anthropology of Food centered around a mini-ethnography project in Perugia where we dined at local restaurants while making observations about their presentations of local and traditional menus. After this course, I co-authored an academic paper with Dr. Elisa Ascione, and a couple other students in the program, which is currently under review. The manuscript we submitted is titled, “Nostalgia on the Menu: Study Abroad Students Exploring the Past in Italian Restaurants”. It is a collection of writing based on ethnographic observations of five Perugian restaurants. The goal was to describe what “local” and “traditional” means to these establishments through an analysis of their decor, menus, websites, and interviews.

In my opinion, the FSSP is one of the strongest parts of The Umbra Institute. Through that program, I gained connections to accomplished faculty, experience volunteering at food-related non profit organizations, and was able to visit many parts of Italy. I also made great friends, as the Fall section of the program was quite small. One of my friends even traveled with me to take the GRE in Rome! My experience as a study abroad student made me a competitive candidate for graduate school, among many other opportunities, and continues to inform my academic career now.

By Abby Katz
IMJR: Food, Culture, and Sustainable Society

Adventures in Wollongong

This past Spring, as a second semester junior at the University of Connecticut, I studied abroad at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do, and combining that with my newly created individualized major, Global Health and the Environment, was icing on the cake.

Abigail (left) and her sister in Sydney
My major focuses on human health, environmental health, and how they interact. One of the classes I took while abroad, Sociology of Food and Nutrition, seemed made just for me. It pieced together many different elements of my major and emphasized the connections between our health and the environment around us. With lectures on agriculture, sustainability, food culture, and other related topics, I was inundated with information in the best way possible. The class discussion allowed for exchange of ideas between students of different cultures, religions, and national origins. I spent a good portion of time on a group project delving into the effects of climate change on communities, which directly relates to what I am studying and gave me the space to explore it on a deeper level.

While in Australia, I contacted a few non-profit organizations and participated in some of their community beach and park clean-up events. Not only did I help out in Wollongong and Sydney, but I also attended community awareness events on plastic pollution and political action. I heard speakers from the United Nations and made connections with people and companies that have led to volunteer opportunities here at home. Forming these relationships would not have been possible without my individualized major; it served as a springboard that allowed me to reach out and introduce myself.

Studying abroad in Australia also meant learning the slang, indulging in Australian coffee, meeting people from all over the globe, spraining my ankle, seeing dolphins, and studying at an incredible institution where I got to know my professors and challenged myself both academically and personally.

Coming back I was more excited for my senior year of college than I ever thought I could be. I arrived home with a clearer purpose, more confidence, independence, and knowledge than I had before. My time abroad expanded my horizons in ways that only real life experience can, and for that I will be forever grateful.

If you’re feeling nervous about studying abroad, that’s okay. I was nervous too. Do it despite your fear of the unknowns. Grasp the opportunity to grow, learn, and have fun. The world is out there waiting for you. Go introduce yourself!

By: Abigail Roth
Individualized Major: Global Health and the Environment

Capstone Thesis: Missile Defense

“I support development and deployment of a limited national missile defense. Few, if any of our duties surpass our obligation to provide for the common defense of our nation.”
-Former U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman

Emilyn Tuomala, an Honors Scholar who graduated in May 2019, completed an individualized major entitled International Security. All Honors students must write a senior thesis, and Emilyn chose missile defense as her topic. The thesis was supervised by Evan Perkoski from Political Science and its official title is “Determining Defense: Bureaucracy, Threat and Missile Defense.” Below is a short synopsis of Emilyn’s work.

Emilyn presents at Frontiers

As I began exploring careers I realized I was not as interested in political science theory as I was in national security and defense. By creating an individualized major in International Security I was able to compare concepts from political theory classes with defense and national security decisions on topics like missile defense procurement, modernization of the nuclear weapons program and strategies for military deployment. The unique learning structure offered by the individualized major program gave me the skills that ultimately led to my internship with the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, which further solidified my interest in missile defense as a thesis topic.

When President Ronald Reagan introduced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) policy idea in 1983, dubbed “Star Wars”, he faced staunch criticism from scientists and policymakers alike, all of whom doubted the idea of intercepting Russian missiles and other weapons by shooting lasers from space satellites. While the technology did not exist at the time, the critics of the program did agree with the need to defend the U.S. against Russian nuclear weapons. Fast forward more than 30 years, where over 25 countries now possess missile defense capabilities and sales of such systems continue to increase.

What changed between 1981 to now? What caused interest in the U.S. missile defense systems to change over time, starting as an impossible idea and now a multi-billion dollar reality? The common belief is that national security decisions and technological choices are rationally determined in response to external threats. Is it possible that technological defense decisions are shaped by bureaucracy and political ideology as well? Was funding poured into SDI due to pressure from Russian threats? From U.S. policymakers with close ties to defense contractors? I measure interest in missile defense through the amount of money allocated to these projects, evaluating how it has changed since Ronald Reagan first announced the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. To assess why it changes over time, I evaluate congressional and presidential politics, national security strategy reports, and other documents to determine the relative influence of each. While I find that the decision-making process underlying missile defense is obscure and often opaque, both threat and ideology shape interest in these systems.

By Emilyn Tuomala
IMJR: International Security

Alumnus Report: Health Policy

Aaron at the Senate office building

Pursuing an individualized major was one of the best decisions I made during my time at UConn. With my major, Health Policy, I set out to explore the connection between public and private policy and human health, relying upon a whole host of disciplines from economics and management to human rights and psychology. It was an enriching experience. It taught me to look at problems and their potential solutions in a multidimensional fashion and pushed me to consider many different perspectives — an important skill that is especially relevant today.

Fast forward three years and I am now bringing my Health Policy degree to bear as a Masters student at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Similar to the Individualized Major Program, the Mailman School emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach to the study and practice of public health. My department, Sociomedical Sciences, is especially strong at this; it weaves together history, ethics, economics, and politics to understand the public health issues of our time. One of my favorite courses thus far has focused on the ethics of public health. Each class involved an open discussion about the political and ethical dimensions of public health policy, such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages or mandating helmets for motorcyclists. Coming into that course, I was grateful to have taken my health policy coursework at UConn, where I learned (among other things) to identify the values that underlie policy decisions.

A highlight of my Columbia experience has been participating in the Health Justice Advocacy Clinic at the Columbia Law School. We were a group of law and public health students that set out to research lead hazards in public and private housing and to effect meaningful and lasting policy reform. My team worked with advocates in Ohio to pass local ordinances to strengthen pre-rental risk assessment requirements for private homes and apartments in Cleveland and Ohio at large. We are happy to report that just this week, Cleveland passed its first pre-rental lead hazard inspection ordinance. In addition, we sought to pass national legislation, The Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act, that would close loopholes in HUD’s inspection requirements for their public and publicly assisted housing programs (e.g., House Choice Vouchers, Section 8). Currently, families in certain housing programs are not guaranteed the same protections from lead poisoning as those afforded in other federally funded housing programs. We sought to fix that, and are proud to say that our bill has been introduced in both the US Senate and House of Representatives!

From global health and human rights to social policy and healthcare management, my individualized major provided me with a foundation to take on these exciting new experiences.

By Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy

Diversity in YA Fiction: a great IDEA

I have always loved reading. The books I read growing up have had a profound influence on how I now view the world. But these books failed me, and many other adolescents, in one crucial way: they were written from the same Western, hetero-normative perspective. In a world as wonderfully diverse as ours, it seems tragic that it took me until high school to find stories that spoke beyond this limited view. Through the individualized Major program, I created a major entitled “Young Adult Fiction: Identity and Diversity” to address this issue. I intend to write and promote books that fill the gap in young adult (YA) literature. This past summer I took one of my first steps toward this goal and wrote my own YA post-apocalypse novel.

I was able to accomplish this with the help of the IDEA Grant program, which funds a range of student designed projects. I chose to focus on post-apocalyptic literature because we are experiencing a flood of stories with this theme, and there is a pattern emerging that I find troubling. First, there is an extreme lack of diversity. The “sole survivors” tend to be from Western culture, which implies that all other cultures are simply gone. Second, they often reestablish society based on traditional values, which reinforce stereotypical gender roles and heterosexual relationships. Rarely do these books address the complexity of individual identities. I set out to write a book that would address these issues. It’s still firmly a YA novel, despite the complex ideas I incorporated. My goal was to introduce readers to new perspectives and start discussions of relevant problems they can see in the real world.

I learned a lot in those two summer months, writing 80,000 words (roughly 320 pages) and reading post-apocalyptic stories with non-Western world views. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and I now have a deeper understanding of the difficulties authors face in incorporating such complex themes into something written primarily for entertainment. On the other hand, I also know that it is possible, and that it’s difficulty can’t be an excuse to keep the status quo.

I look forward to continuing my major and my book, which I plan to publish around the same time I graduate. I’m excited to see what other learning opportunities come my way in the two years I have left at the University of Connecticut. Above all, I am thankful for all the help, guidance, and support I received on this project. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you all.

By Amelia Bowman
IMJR: Young Adult Fiction: Identity and Diversity