September 2014

Wanted: Alumni Legal Eagles

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

2 min read

Recently, undergraduate access to legal preparation has grown exponentially. UConn students compete in regional competitions in both mock trial and moot court, and participate in a variety of undergraduate student groups focusing on legal issues such as Law Society and Lawyers Without Borders. Yet while many students are gaining valuable out-of-class experience, they are often still unsure about the pathways open to them after graduation.

The UConn Pre-Law Center is a resource for all UConn students and alumni who have an interest in legal professions. Dr. Edward F. Kammerer Jr., JD, Ph.D., a former public defender with a doctoral degree in public policy, leads workshops, events, and advising at the Pre-Law Center. He helps students decide if law school is the right step and guides them through the process of preparing the strongest applications possible.

The Pre-Law Center is eager for alumni with legal careers to reconnect and to provide greater dimension to students’ understanding of what is possible after graduation. Dr. Kammerer encourages alumni to get involved, “My role is to provide information,” he says. “Alumni put that information into real-world context.” The first step in getting involved is to share your stories through the Alumni Spotlight. Profiles are featured on the Pre-Law Center website (prelaw@uconn.edu) and in the newsletter.

Alumni are also invited to return to campus to speak at events such as “Lunch with Lawyers” or at a student organization meeting. “Bringing speakers to campus, especially those who share a UConn experience with our students, helps them explore their options after graduation and how they can use their UConn degree to best achieve their professional goals,” says Dr. Kammerer.

Networking is another great way alumni can help students. Join the UConn Pre-Law Center LinkedIn group or contact the Pre-Law Center directly to explore mentorship opportunities. To learn more about the UConn Pre-Law Center, visit prelaw.uconn.edu to get started.

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From the Classroom to Capitol Hill

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UConn Foundation

2 min read

During the summers after her freshman and junior years at UConn, Jaime Cheshire ’99 (CLAS) secured internships working on Connecticut Representative Nancy Johnson’s reelection campaign. She enjoyed the experience so much that when she graduated from UConn in 1999 with a degree in political science, Jaime moved to Washington, D.C., and went to work for Rep. Johnson full-time, eventually rising to become the Republican congresswoman’s legislative director. Jaime said she owes her love of public service to Rep. Johnson, whom she considers a mentor.

“I was inspired by her curiosity and passion for the issues,” Jaime recalls. “For me, it was seeing somebody doing it who was so effective and was such a clear voice for the people that she represented. And the fact that she is a female added to that.” Jaime also said that she liked how the real-world experience of working on Capitol Hill complemented her UConn political science classes. “The internships made it tangible for me, because I was studying all this theory in my coursework and then I was seeing it applied.”

Jaime Cheshire '99 (CLAS)
Jaime Cheshire ’99 (CLAS)

When Rep. Johnson retired in 2006, Jaime quickly found another position on the staff of Rep. Buck McKeon, a Republican from California. Shortly after she arrived, McKeon became the chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, and Jaime shifted her focus from domestic policy to military affairs. It was an area that had long interested her. “I was 24 on 9/11 and a lot of folks around that age were really, really impacted by what happened,” she says. “We realized that we couldn’t stick our head in the sand and ignore the world.”

With 62 members, the House Armed Services Committee is the largest in Congress, and its most important task each year is to draft the National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, including troop salaries. Thanks to an unusual sense of collegiality in the committee, Congress has managed to pass the committee’s bill for 51 straight years. “It’s a very — I don’t want to say old school — but a very bipartisan lawmaking place to be,” Jaime says. “Not only do we work collaboratively, but also we see the fruits of our labor, because we care about the troops, and it’s not something we can fail them on.” Although Rep. McKeon is not running for reelection this fall, Jaime hopes to remain as a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.

Jaime said that one of the most rewarding parts of her job is being able to help UConn undergraduates launch public service careers. She serves on the advisory board of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and each semester she meets with students in the Capitol Hill internship program to answer questions and offer advice. That advice? “Go find a lawmaker whom you admire and do whatever it takes to work for them, over a summer or after graduating. It can be very, very competitive in the first couple of years getting your first spot, but once you get your foot in the door it’s a tremendous experience.”

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History Repeats Itself for Alum

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In February, when pro-Russian separatists took power in the Crimean region of Ukraine and voted to join the Russian Federation, Dan Fata ’94 (CLAS) experienced a keen sense of déjà vu. After all, he had been the U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia under the same pretext of protecting ethnic Russians. Like Ukraine, another former Soviet bloc country, Georgia was caught in a tug-of-war between NATO, which wanted to maintain the post-Cold War status quo, and Russia, which wanted to regain the territories it lost after the USSR collapsed in 1989.

“Back in 2008, the question was what to do with Georgia and Ukraine — should America extend NATO membership?” Dan recalls. “I was the lone senior holdout (in the Pentagon) saying yes, while everyone else said no. I thought we needed to put those countries on the path toward NATO membership, even if full membership didn’t come for another 10 years. They have to know there’s a place for them in the greater transatlantic space.”

Dan’s path to the Pentagon began at UConn, where he was mentored by political science professors Fred Turner and Garry Clifford, who died earlier this year. After an academically rocky first two years, he buckled down and earned a 3.95 GPA his junior and senior years, joined the department’s honors program, and won a major departmental award his senior year. “Those two guys motivated me more than pretty much anyone else in my life,” says Dan. “They got me to look inside myself and see if I could deliver, and energized me to open my mind.”

After graduating from UConn, Dan earned an MA in international relations from Boston University and moved to Washington, D.C., where he established a reputation as an expert in European affairs. After working at some leading think tanks and then on Capitol Hill, in 2005, President George W. Bush brought him into the Pentagon as part of a new Defense Department team led by-then Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and eventually Robert Gates. “Our instructions were, fix what the first term broke,” says Dan. “Our relations with Europe over Iraq were just in the toilet, and we had the French and the Germans against us at the UN. So we had to focus on getting back to basics.”

Dan spent the next three years working to repair America’s relationship with its Western European allies. Although difficult, that work paid off when NATO countries agreed to continue supporting America’s war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Dan’s only regret is that he couldn’t convince the Bush administration to provide more support to Eastern European countries. “If NATO had brought Ukraine into the fold at the time,” Dan says, “it might have prevented the current conflict.” Although he left the Pentagon in 2008 and recently joined Lockheed Martin as a vice president, Dan retains his emotional connection to the region.

“Our obligation is to ensure that the temptations that Moscow can offer Ukraine economically aren’t so attractive that they forget where they want to go,” he says. “Here’s a country, the majority of which wants to be a democracy, that has the same values we do. So it’s on us to do whatever we can to encourage that.”

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Tiny Heart Valve Has Big Potential for UConn Startup

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4 min read

An unlikely combination of biomedical engineering and meticulous sewing skills has led to an innovative heart valve replacement that could save countless lives.

Eric Sirois '14 Ph.D., CEO of startup company Dura Biotech, which has developed a novel heart valve replacement. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)
Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., CEO of startup company Dura Biotech, which has developed a novel heart valve replacement. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Its maker, Dura Biotech, is a UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) participant. Its CEO, Eric Sirois, received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at UConn earlier this year.

This summer, Sirois and his research team enjoyed a particularly eventful week, when the company received two major awards, each worth $400,000. One was from the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF); the second was a federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. The funding will enable the team to begin testing the product.

Since the company was founded in 2012, Dura Biotech has focused on potentially game-changing innovations in the field of heart valves. One is the LowPro Valve, a transcatheter aortic valve 40 percent smaller than anything on the market.

Because the catheter enters the femoral artery in the groin, patients don’t need to undergo open heart surgery, a procedure that takes several weeks of recovery time and can pose great risks for many patients.

Smaller is important

Catheters are traditionally measured in units known as French (one is equal to about one-third of a millimeter). Those on the market today are about 22 French.

“The next generation is about 18,” says Sirois, “and ours is 14.” And with the recent funding, part of which will pay for animal testing, Sirois is confident they can bring the size down to 12 French.

Smaller is important. It has been estimated that about 17,000 patients this year can’t have the procedure because their arteries are too small for currently available catheters.

“We’re targeting older people, but we’re thinking about using it for children, too, because many children are born with heart defects, but current valves are too large for them,” he says.

Dura Biotech team
The Dura Biotech team, standing, from left: Adam Guerrette ’15 (BUS), Joseph Calderan ’14 MS, Rebecca Newman ’16 (ENG), Chris Fitzpatrick ’13 (ENG), Eric Sirois ’14 Ph.D., and seated, Andrea Mandragouras ’13 (ENG), and Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG). (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Sirois is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. While he was figuring out what he wanted to do in his civilian life, he learned that UConn had one of the leading biomedical engineering departments in the U.S. That appealed to him, and he came to the University in 2005.

“I like analyzing systems,” he says, “and I wanted to look at the body like a machine.”

During his graduate studies, he enrolled in the entrepreneur program, taught by Hadi Bozorgmanesh, professor of practice in the School of Engineering.

“I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I just figured that you have to go out into industry for 15 years or so first and then come back,” Sirois says. “But Hadi has a whole different way of looking at it: ‘Don’t put off for one minute what you can start right now.’ So, we founded the company and I haven’t looked back since.”

Bozorgmanesh is confident Sirois can lead the company to success. He notes that while Sirois is “totally focused” on making Dura Biotech a success, he also spends time helping other start-ups and inspiring undergraduate students to become entrepreneurs.

Adaptive strategy

When Sirois founded Dura Biotech in 2012 with Wei Sun, a former associate professor at UConn, the original idea wasn’t to make a smaller valve, but a longer-lasting one (hence the “Dura” in the company’s name). They created the Dura Heart Valve, a valve that lasts four times longer than valves currently on the market.

Last October, Sirois and his team took the Dura Heart Valve to the biggest transcatheter conference in the U.S. The company’s poster was voted among the best, but drumming up interest in the product itself wasn’t so easy.

“We talked to the doctors – and they all didn’t care,” Sirois says. “Everyone agreed that it was indeed more durable. But they also pointed out that most of their patients are old, so the valve’s extended life span wasn’t a big draw.”

For an extra dose of discouragement, an investor told them that clinical trials specifically testing for durability take up to eight years.

“And they’re super-expensive,” Sirois says. “Instead of $7 million, it would cost about $300 million. No one’s going to invest in that. We were heartbroken, but some people suggested that if you could make it thicker and last four times as long, why not make it thinner and last the same amount of time?”

So they got to work on that. The secret is in the “crimped delivery” design, in which part of the valve’s material – the leaflet – is made thinner. With less material in the way, the valve can crimp more narrowly. A patent is pending on the technology.

Sewing up the solution

Assembling the design requires sewing together three of the valve’s main components. Considering the size of the components and the precision required, this is no easy task.

Sirois, who had learned to sew uniforms in the military, tried making the valves himself. But they are tiny, and they have to be perfect.

Jaclyn Mazzerella '14 (ENG) works on the LowPro Valve.
Jaclyn Mazzerella ’14 (ENG) works on the LowPro Valve. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

So the team hired two lab technicians, Andrea Mandragouras and Jaclyn Mazzarella, who finally, after many, many attempts, perfected the necessary sewing technique.

The change in strategy paid off. Within three months, they had a prototype, a marketing strategy, and a marketing niche carved out. They soon won a $10,000 Entrepreneur Innovation Award from CT Next, and a $50,000 Third Bridge award from the quasi-state organization Connecticut Innovation. And now, they have an additional $800,000 in recent awards.

Sirois says the company hopes to raise seed investments of $2 to $3 million next year. He estimates that the company will need at least $10 million to get his device through regulatory approval in Europe.

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Couple Establishes Challenge Grant for Mentoring Program

Jennifer Doak-Mathewson
Jennifer Doak-Mathewson

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Linda and David Glickstein during a hike.
Linda and David Glickstein during a hike.

Linda and David Glickstein believe so strongly in the value of UConn’s Mentor Connection enrichment program for talented high schoolers, they established a challenge grant to encourage others to help support it.

The Glicksteins will match dollar-for-dollar any pledge up to $1,000 per donor for a total of $15,000. Their goal is to raise at least $30,000 for the program by next summer, when another cohort of talented teens arrive to work with faculty, graduate students, and research assistants on current research initiatives. Housed in the Neag School of Education’s Neag Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, Mentor Connection has brought students to campus from around the country and overseas. The program is offered to high school juniors or seniors ranked in the top 25 percent of their class with a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Applicants must demonstrate their commitment to academic excellence in order to be considered.

“The program is designed to engage the students in more hands-on, investigative and creative activities rather than the more typical high school kind of learning that involves sitting, listening, taking the test and getting a grade,” says Joseph Renzulli, professor emeritus of educational psychology, who helped develop the program.

“Mentor Connection provides high school students with education that is usually far beyond what they have experienced and gives them something to aspire to,” says Linda Glickstein, who taught gifted students for many years in Pennsylvania and, with her husband, David, has supported the program for 15 years.

“The students get to meet like-minded kids they might not otherwise get to know and join a community where their academic ambitions are accepted and applauded,” says David Glickstein, who received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from UConn.

“We hope this challenge grant will encourage more people to support the Mentor Connection program,” says Linda Glickstein. “No donation is too small. Our hope is that the students who participated in the program will think about giving back at whatever level they can, and we can supplement their donation by matching it.”

The philanthropic support provided by the Glicksteins and others has helped ensure the program remains accessible to talented students who might not otherwise be able to afford it, says Heather Spottiswoode, a coordinator of the program. “It’s a residential program, which means the students are really immersed in the college experience, but it also means it costs a bit more. We rely on philanthropic support from the Glicksteins and other individuals and foundations to enhance the program’s diversity, which we think is an essential component of its success.”

More than 1,100 students have participated in the Mentor Connecticut program since it began in 1996, says Spottiswoode, who has been working to track participants and their perception of the influence of the Mentor Connection program on their academic and career accomplishments.

About 17 percent of Mentor Connection participants attended UConn for their undergraduate studies, and of those, about 150 participated in Mentor Connection with the help of a scholarship. Other universities attended by groups of seven or more Mentor Connection students include Boston College, Cornell, Dartmouth, John Hopkins, MIT, Stanford, and Yale.

“One of the missions of Mentor Connection is to expose the students to college and encourage them to go, but we are always especially pleased when they attend UConn.”

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Newman’s Own Award Supports UConn Veterans’ Program

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Newman's Own winner UConn EBV program
From left to right: Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; Tom Indoe, President & COO, Newman’s Own, Inc.; Mike Zacchea, LtCol USMC (Ret.), manager of the UConn EBV program.

UConn’s Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities has received a $37,500 grant from the Newman’s Own Award program to support its training for veterans in entrepreneurship and small business management, the UConn Foundation announced today.

The award is provided through a competition established by the Newman’s Own Foundation, the Fisher House Foundation, and the Military Times part of Gannett Government Media Corporation to reward programs that benefit service men and women and their families. The UConn Foundation applied for the grant on behalf of the EBV program and will receive the funds, which will then be distributed to the program.

At the awards ceremony Wednesday at the Pentagon, Tom Indoe, president and chief operating officer of Newman’s Own, said, “We have been collaborating since 1999 with a primary mission: recognize these incredibly innovative and selfless ideas that help improve the quality of life for the military community and help make dreams possible. Newman’s Own is proud to be part of this worthwhile endeavor.”

UConn’s EBV was one of eight programs selected from nearly 300 applications to receive a grant. Since it began in 1999, the annual competition has recognized 158 programs with awards totaling more than $1.1 million.

The UConn Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Disabilities provides disabled veterans with the knowledge, skills, and support to start and grow their own businesses and attain economic self-sufficiency. Since it began in 2010, UConn’s EBV program has helped more than 25 veterans open 27 businesses.

“The grant will provide significant support,” says Michael Zacchea, LtCol USMC (ret), who manages the program. “It’s enough to sponsor 2.5 veterans for the entire year-long program, but, more importantly, this grant will have a significant ‘ripple effect’ on our veterans and our state’s economy.”

Over the past four years, veteran businesses started through the UConn EBV have provided a 7-to-1 return on capital, says Zacchea. A typical UConn EBV business after four years has $150,000 – $200,000 in gross revenues and creates two jobs in addition to the principal. “By essentially covering the cost of 2.5 veterans for the year, I expect to see two businesses eventually, creating six jobs and about $300,000 – $400,000 in gross revenues annually,” he added.

The UConn is part of an eight-school consortium offering the EBV program nationwide.

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