Author: Michael

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

When in Rome

Bryce (left) with friends at carnival in Venice

I am a rising senior at the University of Connecticut with an individualized major in Global Finance and Political Economy, which explores the relationships between the public and the private sector and their interactions in the anarchic global environment. I always knew that I wanted to take my studies abroad, and during the spring of my junior year I enrolled at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. I chose Rome because of my Italian-American background, the courses offered, and the unique opportunities that studying in the Italian capital has to offer.

While in Rome, I took courses in International Business, International Organizations, International Finance, and Italian Language. My instructors were as diverse as the classes they taught, which added to the richness of the experience. It was fascinating to learn about the European Union in one of its founding member countries. One interesting project that I completed was a research study on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and how their efforts are complementing the work of national governments to solve the world’s complex problems. In my International Business course, we completed weekly case studies on European companies to learn about their successes and failures upon expanding internationally. The course in International Finance examined monetary flows, exchange rate fluctuations and their impact on the interwoven global financial system. Learning the Italian language from a native speaker was a fantastic way to immerse more completely into the culture and allowed me to converse with native Italians on a deeper level.

Vatican City from St. Peter’s Basilica

Without the Individualized Major program, I may not have studied in Rome and would not have acquired all of the memories that I will cherish in the future. Throughout my four months in Italy, I made long-lasting friendships with the people with whom I shared the journey. Some highlights from my study abroad experience include: getting an audience with the Pope for Easter mass, hiking to the top of Mount Vesuvius (an active volcano near Naples), grabbing pizza with a cousin who lives in Rome, seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland with my family on spring break, walking through Paris in the snow, attending Spring Fest in Munich, Germany, sailing in the Adriatic Sea along the coast of Croatia, and hiking the five villages of Cinque Terre in northern Italy.

I am incredibly fortunate to have had this life changing experience and would do it again in a heartbeat. The lessons that I learned both inside and outside of the classroom will continue to benefit me as I enter my final year of college and eventually the workforce. If I had just one takeaway from my semester abroad it would be that no matter where you go in this world, there are certain principles that apply universally. Among these are the importance of staying curious, showing kindness to strangers, and having respect for your surroundings.

By Bryce Ciccaglione
IMJR: Global Finance and Political Economy

Alumna Report: Neuroscience

Four years ago, I graduated from UConn with a Bachelor of Science in Developmental Neuropsychology. My plan of study included courses ranging from molecular biology of the brain to child and family development. I participated in multiple research projects, including one at a clinical neuroscience laboratory, with Dr. Deb Fine, studying autism spectrum disorders, and, because I wanted to know more about the science behind the clinical diagnosis, one at a behavioral neuroscience laboratory. My final research project, in the laboratory of Dr. R. Holly Fitch, explored the neuroanatomical effects of a candidate dyslexia gene in female and male rats. I presented this work at both the Frontiers of Undergraduate Research and the Behavioral Neuroscience Seminar Series in 2014.

Beata working on data filtering and analysis

I am currently a graduate student in the neuroscience program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field, combining biology, chemistry, and psychology, and our program requires us to understand it from each of these perspectives. As an individualized major, I was already prepared for these topics! In my current work, I examine how positive and negative stimuli affect learning in an animal model. I am also responsible for teaching a wide range of classes from Physiology to Writing for Psychologists. I have presented my work at a conference organized by the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C. and have traveled to San Diego and Chicago for other conferences organized by them. One of my favorite activities in graduate school has been my work with Girls Inc., a program that, among many other things, endeavors to keep teenage girls interested in science. I run multiple neuroscience lab days throughout the year to reach out to these young scientists. I am focused on helping other young students to find their way in academia, as the individualized major helped me to do.

Beata in the lab doing tissue staining

Although graduate school is challenging in many ways, I truly feel that the individualized major prepared me for it. The process of doing laboratory research, writing a thesis, and presenting my work helped me to focus on the scientific questions that I will explore during my career. And having an individualized major was an integral part of my acceptance to the doctoral program. The self-designed course of study helped my application stand out among the traditional majors and it illustrated my commitment to the field beyond the laboratory and the classroom. I am not sure where I will be after graduate school, but I can be sure of one thing: I will be in the field of neuroscience. And it is all thanks to my time in the individualized major program at UConn.

By Beata Kaminska-Kordowska
IMJR: Developmental Neuropsychology

Photography and Health

Marissa at work with camera

When I started searching for a career path, the one thing I knew was my love for healthcare. I researched a number of different professions, from physician’s assistant to nurse to psychotherapist. But I also have an interest in photography, and, after discovering the field of art therapy, I decided that I would combine my dream of working in healthcare with my passion for the arts. Through the Individualized Major program, I created a major called Health and Wellness through Visual Arts, which merges courses in psychology and Human Development and Family Studies with photography courses in Fine Arts. I intend to use art therapy to help patients cope with their illnesses through creativity and expression.

This summer I interned at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by Paul Newman, which provides a safe and enjoyable environment for children who are living with chronic illness. For eight weeks my job was to capture the special moments these children have at camp and present them in a slideshow at the end of each week. In addition, I created a media program that gives campers a chance to make a project of their own.

Marissa (left) and her colleague Sarah Luft

My experience at camp brought with it self-realization and a deeper insight into my career goals. The universal feeling of euphoria was contagious and made me want to be the best version of myself. I learned a lot working alongside people who are very different from me, people who sincerely cared how my day was going, who wanted to learn more about me, and who were thankful for their roles at camp. It would have been easy to get caught up in rules and scheduling, forgetting to be in the moment, but I managed to balance responsibility and fun (what we refer to at camp as “raising a little hell”). I learned how to create simple entertainment out of little things and how to communicate in an empathetic way with children and adults who were having a tough time.

This experience has given me a purpose: to do work that transforms peoples’ lives. I look forward to taking these lessons into more environments, applying what I’ve learned, and learning even more in the process.

By Marissa Aldieri
IMJR: Health and Wellness through Visual Arts

Alumna Report: Serious Fun

Four years ago I stood on the third floor of Rowe, unsure of what I wanted to dedicate the next three years to learning about. I’d spent my first year at UConn exploring disciplines—and just when I’d hoped it would clarify my choices, it did the opposite. Instead, I was intrigued by the different lenses sociology, psychology, English literature, human development, and anthropology applied to the same subjects. How did family systems theory, Faulkner’s and Morrison’s fictional characters, and social determinants of well-being overlap? How did they differ? With these questions in mind I set out to study Cultural Influence on Youth Development.

My individualized major focused on the ways cultural narratives, circumstance, and media shape human development. I left UConn understanding the power of narrative – its ability to affect everything from which sneaker we buy to what we remember most easily, and, of course, our values and worldview. Stories, language, and people, and their intersection, were at the heart of it. Now, as a young professional in digital marketing, these three remain at the core of my work.

Through the Newman’s Own Foundation Fellowship I landed at SeriousFun Children’s Network, a global community of 30 camps and programs serving children living with serious illnesses and their families free of charge. At the Network support center, I manage social media channels and develop content. In short, I craft and tell stories about the life-changing work done at camp. A few years ago, I’d never imagined that content marketing, not seemingly like English literature, would be rooted in meaningful storytelling and relationship building, but by image and post rather than character and chapter. I’ve come to appreciate the layers of psychology and strategy that go into creating effective digital communications.

Sarah at the SeriousFun Support Center

My time at SeriousFun continues to deepen my understanding of youth development as well. From my experience as a volunteer at SeriousFun camps in Michigan, North Carolina, and Connecticut, such as The Hole in The Wall Gang Camp, I can tell you that camp really is life-changing. The effects of health challenges on kids and their families can be serious and far-reaching. Fear, stigma, and isolation strain identity, work-life balance, relationships with others, and family dynamics, taking a toll on overall health. Under such trying circumstances, camp serves as a haven. In its fully-accessible and all-inclusive glory, it is a place to reclaim joy, restore confidence, renew hope, and rediscover possibility. Shared laughter and free play is some powerful stuff!

When I designed my major, I didn’t know where it would take me or just how much my daily work would relate! Now two years out of school, I’m still not sure what the future will hold. But I’ve realized that’s par for the course. Thankfully, I am more confident about a few things. And that’s just how important looking between disciplines, reaching across silos, and staying curious can be. I’m grateful everyday for the interdisciplinary perspectives I gained through my major. I think there are few things as applicable as those perspectives—no matter your profession—in today’s world.

By Sarah Luft
IMJR: Cultural Influence on Youth Development

A New Growth: Majors in CAHNR

Until recently, the vast majority of individualized majors have been in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). The last few years, however, have seen a new growth in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR), largely driven by students’ interest in sustainable agriculture and applied health sciences. Majors devoted to health usually include courses in allied health, nutritional science, and kinesiology; those devoted to sustainable agriculture usually include courses in agriculture and resource economics, natural resources and the environment, and plant science. The new growth in majors in CAHNR mirrors a broader trend that we have seen in students’ interest in the well being of humans and the planet, either directly, through the health professions, or indirectly, by promoting sustainable systems in agriculture, manufacturing, and energy production.

Recent major titles in CAHNR that reflect this new growth include:

  • Health, Nutrition, and Wellness
  • Aquaculture and Fisheries
  • Community Health
  • Livestock Management and Policy
  • Nutrition and Exercise Physiology
  • Sustainable Agriculture and Global Development

A good example of this trend is recent graduate Tierney Lawlor (’17), whose major, Sustainable Farm and Ranch Management, included courses such as Principles of Animal Genetics, Environmental Soil Science, and Business Management. Tierney’s long-term goal is to operate her own farm, and to that end she has done some internships that have allowed her to work with cattle. For more on her story, please see the recent UConn Magazine article on farming in which Tierney was featured.

Horsebarn Hill
A dairy cow on Horsebarn Hill.

If our most recent round of applications, which included a record high six majors in CAHNR, is any indication, we expect that this new growth will continue for the foreseeable future. We look forward to working with more students in health and agriculture and are excited to see what type of imaginative majors they create!

Alumnus Report: Ben Simmons-Telep

I am a proud graduate of the Individualized Major Program, and about four months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a successful stint at my current job to pursue a graduate degree. I have submitted applications to a number of Master’s Degree programs in International Development Studies, all of which focus on preparing students with the technical skills and context to solve global issues of human well-being. As I await my admissions decisions, I have found myself reflecting on the confluence of events that have led me down this particular career path.

After graduating high school, I moved to Lima, Peru as part of a student exchange program where I attended university classes, built a new community of friends, and became fluent in Spanish. During my time there, I was involved in several humanitarian aid projects which included working with local chapters of Rotary International to deliver hundreds of donated wheelchairs to remote Andean communities.

Ben with a friend
Ben with a friend

I returned home inspired, with a newfound commitment to humanitarian service and eager to create a project of my own that could help to alleviate the poverty and suffering that I had witnessed. I founded an aid project, which I called Project Peru. Over the course of two years, I raised over $8,000 to purchase school supplies, commodity baskets, and Christmas presents for over 300 families. Leveraging the network that I had formed in Peru, I worked closely with a number of local partners to distribute the supplies to rural Peruvian schools and orphanages during the holiday seasons of 2011 and 2012.

However, something was wrong. Despite the project’s objective success, I became disenchanted with its mission. I became aware of a dark side to humanitarian aid, characterized by oppressive power dynamics, class tensions, and patronage. In addition, the project’s impact was superficial, unsustainable and its whole premise lacked a strong empirical foundation. Gifting Christmas presents did not tangibly improve anyone’s condition and presumed a diagnosis that was not based on evidence. This realization led me down a line of questioning that ultimately shaped the trajectory of my career and studies during the ensuing years. I found myself asking questions such as, “How might I have used the money differently? Are there sustainable models for development that genuinely increase human well-being?”

In an effort to answer these questions, I turned to academics. At the University of Connecticut, I declared an individualized major in international relations with a focus on economic development and built an interdisciplinary curriculum designed to explore poverty through several diverse lenses, including anthropology, sociology, human rights, and microeconomics. I gravitated toward the structure provided by economic analysis and declared a second major in economics and a minor in human rights. My studies provided me with a solid foundation in economic analysis, but I struggled to reconcile classical economic theory with what I observed to be true with respect to the nature of human well-being – a condition that seemed to be less a function of consumption and income, and more a product of opportunities, freedoms, and communal relationships. This conflict was reflected in my senior capstone project which offered an interdisciplinary critique of economic interpretations of happiness.

Ben Simmons Telep at work
Ben at work

I became fascinated by the disruptive potential of social enterprise in the field of development, and after graduating I began working for a social enterprise start-up incubator. In my current role as Director of Programs, I have designed and implemented several successful high impact entrepreneurial programs, including a nationally awarded accelerator that has been associated with the creation of over 50 jobs and 3.5 million dollars of private investment.

I am pursuing a graduate degree in International Development Studies because I am ready to take the next step in my career. I believe that social innovation may play a major role in shaping the next chapter of global development, but in order to explore its application, I must first equip myself with a deep technical and theoretical understanding of current development practices and methodologies. As I reflect on my path over the past ten years, I am grateful to the IMJR program for providing me with both the support and latitude to pursue my interest in this field. The interdisciplinary approach was not only highly relevant to my professional experience after graduation, but it has provided me with a well-rounded academic foundation, and I am thrilled by the opportunity to continue my studies at the graduate level.

By Ben Simmons-Telep
IMJR: International Relations

Studies in Switzerland

My name is Aaron Plotke, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Nutritional Science and Health Policy (my IMJR). For the fall semester, I decided to study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. The program I am participating in focuses on Global Health and Development Policy. We are covering a wide range of topics from global governance systems and health to food security and international health regulations.

Aaron Plotke and colleagues
The students in the program. Aaron is in the back row, second from the right.

The program has been (and continues to be) an incredible academic and cultural experience. We are conducting multiple research projects from local case studies focusing on health issues in Switzerland and Morocco to a final month-long independent study project on a topic of our choosing. Geneva is home to many experts in global health and development who work for international organizations; we attend lectures by them, network with them, and interview them for our independent research projects. In addition, as part of the program’s goal of cultural immersion, three times a week we are taking classes in French, the primary language in Geneva. We have also taken a few short field trips to other cities in Switzerland, such as Bern to visit the Swiss Development and Cooperation Program, and a week-long excursion to Morocco. This was one of my favorite parts of the program. We lived with host families in the old city of Rabat (called Medinas) while hearing experts from local non-government organizations (NGOs). We were as integrated into the local culture as one week allowed. The first time we walked into my host families building, I found myself in the midst of a four-day celebration for their new born cousin, in which they immediately invited my roommate and me to join. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to Morocco.

As I reflect on my study abroad experience, I couldn’t have picked a better program to complement my majors in Nutritional Science and Health Policy. The School for International Training’s program in global health and development policy has expanded my knowledge into the global arena and has also given me a better idea of what my future career may look like. Studying the work of international and non-governmental organizations has certainly made an impact on what I will do after graduation. Networking with experts in the global health and development sectors may lead to internships and work opportunities in the future!

by Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy