Awards & Honors Event
Wednesday, March 29, 2023
5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
UConn Alumni Center
We all know that the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR) is a special place. At CAHNR, we recognize the importance of recognizing the outstanding and distinguished alumni, faculty, staff, and supporters whose hard work keeps our College going. CAHNR is pleased to partner with the Alumni Board to celebrate these phenomenal individuals. Special thanks to the members of the UConn CAHNR Alumni Board (UCAHNRA) and the members of the Committee for Excellence for identifying the exceptional 2023 awardees, and congratulations to all of our deserving recipients!
Awards of Excellence
Early Career Research Award
Roman Shrestha ’13, ‘17, Allied Health Sciences
As an early career researcher, Dr. Roman Shrestha, assistant professor of allied health sciences, has already distinguished himself as a leader and innovator in the field of HIV prevention research.
Dr. Shrestha’s collaborative approach to research reaches across the University, country, and globe with community partners as close as New Haven and as far as Malaysia and Nepal. Dr. Shrestha’s work focuses on high-risk populations with complex needs when it comes to HIV prevention, such as those with substance use disorders and sexual minorities. Dr. Shrestha is working on the cutting edge of research technology by incorporating mHealth strategies to facilitate easier access to health promoting interventions, including access and adherence to preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP), outside of traditional health care systems.
After only three years at UConn, Dr. Shrestha is running a fully funded research program. He has served as principal investigator on five NIH-funded projects and two others funded by industry sponsors. He has also published dozens of papers in this short time.
Excellence in Research Award
Yangchao Luo, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Yangchao Luo, associate professor of nutritional sciences, has established and developed a productive research program focused on innovations in food safety and nanotechnology.
One of Dr. Luo’s most prominent research successes has been his development of edible nanoparticles that can replace partially hydrogenated oil as a safe, healthier preservative in food products. Through his work on nanotechnology, Dr. Luo is also investigating strategies to mitigate microbial food safety risks in locally grown produce. He has partnered with a biopharmaceutical company to develop nanoscale liposomes capable of delivering therapeutics to treat liver cancer. Dr. Luo’s work also supports sustainability efforts. He developed a low-cost process to convert lobster and crab shells, which normally end up in landfills, into food packaging.
Dr. Luo also serves as one of the faculty leaders of the Bridging the Gap Program, which provides hands-on research experience for underserved students at UConn and community colleges.
Graduate Student Research and Creativity Award
Kevin Li ‘19 ‘22, Natural Resources and the Environment
As a master’s student in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, Mr. Kevin Li has begun a promising research career in ecohydrology at UConn.
Mr. Li has demonstrated an ability to develop and execute novel research ideas. His research focuses on how trees respond to the changes in the composition of forest plant communities due to climate change. Mr. Li studies a process known as root water uptake which plays a critical role in how trees survive droughts.
Mr. Li completed two experiments with Eastern Hemlock and is currently conducting a third experiment in the UConn Forest. Mr. Li developed new computer model structures for hydrologic modeling. Mr. Li has submitted two articles to peer-reviewed journals and presented his research at international science conferences. He has also published two publicly available ecohydrological datasets.
Graduate Student Research and Creativity Award
Colleen Mistler ’14, ’21, ’23, Allied Health Sciences
Ms. Colleen Mistler is a PhD student in the Department of Allied Health Sciences who has distinguished herself as an accomplished researcher at this early stage of her career.
Ms. Mistler participated in an NIH-sponsored training program through a pre-doctoral grant that allowed her to develop skills for conducting cutting-edge research on the social process of HIV/AIDS. She has since used these skills to lead preliminary studies on tailoring evidence-based intervention strategies for the population of opioid-dependent adults. To date, Ms. Mistler has published more than 20 manuscripts and conducted three studies focusing on a population of patients and providers at a drug treatment facility in New Haven, Connecticut.
Ms. Mistler developed an intervention manual to help train undergraduate students to participate in research studies for her dissertation. Ms. Mistler is an active leader within the department and beyond, serving as a CAHNR Graduate Council representative, and co-host for the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting and Expo.
Kinsman CAHNR Excellence in Teaching Award
Michael Puglisi ‘08, Nutritional Sciences
Assistant Extension professor Dr. Michael Puglisi is an invested and engaging teacher in the Department of Nutritional Sciences who brings his diverse professional background into the classroom to enhance students’ learning.
Dr. Puglisi infuses his lectures with examples from his work as a researcher and former director of the WIC program, allowing students to connect content with everyday life. Dr. Puglisi’s enthusiastic instruction motivates students to succeed in his class. Dr. Puglisi provides students with experiential learning opportunities through his involvement as the director of the NIFA Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.
Dr. Puglisi participated in the Third Bridge Program, mentoring four student fellows from underrepresented populations in his lab. He has also mentored undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, supporting them in their research exploring aspects of community nutrition and equity, and nutrition education.
Graduate Student Teaching Award
Aviana Rosen ‘14, ‘21, ‘23, Allied Health Sciences
Ms. Aviana Rosen, a PhD candidate in health promotion sciences, is a dedicated and engaging teacher who prioritizes student success in the classroom.
Ms. Rosen develops interactive presentations that make the information she teaches more understandable and effective for students. Ms. Rosen’s teaching supports students in developing their ability to communicate in writing. Ms. Rosen is an agile instructor who readily adapts materials to meet student needs, consistently putting their learning first. Ms. Rosen has ensured she is approachable and available to students. Ms. Rosen fosters personal connections with the students she mentors and teaches, making them comfortable in the classroom or laboratory.
As a researcher, Ms. Rosen has collaborated on several research projects, published in peer-reviewed journals, and has presented her work at conferences and through guest lectures.
CAHNR Justice, Equity, Antiracism, and Inclusion Award
Cristina Colón-Semenza, Kinesiology
Assistant professor of Kinesiology, Dr. Cristina Colón-Semenza’s longtime commitment to social justice as a researcher has only grown over the course of her career.
Dr. Colón-Semenza's research focuses on improving health care access and quality of care in underserved populations. A hallmark of Dr. Colón-Semenza's research has been her investment in establishing trusting, collaborative relationships with the community and developing interventions that have a sustainable impact beyond the scope of any one study. Dr. Colón-Semenza is currently engaged in developing support systems for Hispanic/Latinx people with Parkinson’s Disease after identifying barriers to and facilitators of exercise and physical activity in this population. This meaningful clinical intervention has been supported through multiple internal and extramural grants.
Dr. Colón-Semenza has also worked on outreach initiatives to raise awareness of the physical therapy profession among underrepresented high school students. She has delivered multiple lectures and courses focused on trauma-informed care and health care equity, inspiring others to adopt her commitment to these values.
Excellence in Engagement and Outreach Award
Robert Huggins ‘07 ‘14, Kinesiology
Dr. Robert Huggins, assistant research professor of kinesiology, works across the areas of engagement, outreach, research, and education to support the Korey Stringer Institute’s (KSI) mission to prevent death in sport.
Dr. Huggins works with medical professionals and schools across the country and national governing bodies to promote the work he and other KSI researchers perform. Dr. Huggins is a dynamic and engaging advocate for the necessity of potentially life-saving athletic training services in secondary schools. He manages a real-time database that tracks valuable information about athletic trainer services in U.S. high schools, providing the foundational information necessary to improve access to these services.
Dr. Huggins has taken a grassroots approach to his advocacy for high school sport safety, working with parents and athletic directors to place athletic trainers in high schools. He has also effectively advocated for policies on the state and national levels to institute legislation requiring these services to be part of school sports programs.
CES Grant for Innovative Programming in Extension
Tessa L. Getchis and Michael Gilman, Extension
Senior Extension educator Ms. Tessa Getchis and Aquaculture Extension assistant Mr. Michael Gilman have received this grant to create videos for a training program for prospective shellfish farmers in Connecticut.
Through this project, the researchers will develop professional videos and photographs of key farming practices and interviews with experts in the fields of aquaculture policy, shellfish biology, human and animal health, and seafood safety. These videos will enhance the learning experience of those enrolled in the existing in-person training course for prospective shellfish farmers in the state. The videos will also create the basis for a future online modality, which Mr. Gilman and Ms. Getchis are planning to launch in 2024. This effort will also ensure the course’s resources stay up to date with new practices, policies, and initiatives in the state’s shellfish sector.
UConn 4-H Awards
UConn 4-H Alumni Award
Ms. Wendy Kennedy began her involvement with 4-H growing up in Litchfield County where she was an active member and junior leader in the Busy Farmers 4-H Dairy Club in Canaan. Ms. Kennedy’s children later became involved in 4-H as well. Ms. Kennedy has co-led the Busy Farmers 4-H Dairy Club for more than 20 years. Ms. Kennedy was the former director of the Litchfield County 4-H Fair and currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Litchfield County 4-H Foundation. In this capacity, Ms. Kennedy has taken on the responsibility of serving as the assistant treasurer and a member of the Finance Committee.
Ms. Kennedy’s long involvement in UConn 4-H has been marked by her dedication to supporting club members and ensuring the organization continues to run smoothly. Ms. Kennedy has made her club a welcoming environment for all members.
UConn 4-H Leadership Award
Jennifer ’94 and William Syme ’92, ‘97
Mrs. Jennifer Syme and Mr. William Syme have devoted countless hours to UConn 4-H throughout their lives. They served as Hartford County 4-H Club leaders for the Merry Mooers 4-H Club for many years.
Mr. and Mrs. Syme have helped develop and implement new programs and events for club members including a quiz bowl, an initiative spearheaded by Mr. Syme. Mrs. Syme has collaborated with youth members to tour local dairy farms and agribusiness operations. Mr. and Mrs. Syme offered the use of their own truck and coolers to support the 4-H Operation Community Impact project, greatly expanding the scope of the project to include additional food pantry deliveries.
Mr. and Mrs. Syme remain dedicated to fostering the development of youth members’ leadership skills. Their decades-long involvement in UConn 4-H has made a positive impact on generations of 4-H youth.
Meritorious Service to UConn 4-H Award
Peter Brzezicki ‘74
Mr. Peter Brzezicki has been involved in UConn 4-H since childhood. Mr. Brzezicki was a member of the Winding Brook 4-H Club and a camper at Hartford County 4-H Camp. He has maintained his involvement as a volunteer in Hartford County 4-H for the past 46 years.
Mr. Brzezicki has served in numerous capacities over the years including club leader, camp board member and officer, camp board advisor, Connecticut 4-H Advisory Committee member, and Hartford County 4-H Advisory member. Mr. Brzezicki lends his professional experience as a CPA to 4-H, serving as the assistant treasurer for the Hartford County 4-H Campy Board and assisting the Winding Brook 4-H Club with maintaining their financial books. Mr. Brzezicki also worked with the UConn Law School and State 4-H Office to create the CT 4-H Foundation and establish tax status for 4-H clubs in Connecticut.
Mr. Brzezicki has dedicated himself to the maintenance of these clubs and helped ensure their success for years to come.
UCAHNRA Outstanding Staff Award in memoriam
Nicole Gabelman ‘12, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture
Before her tragic passing in November 2022, Ms. Nicole Gabelman served as administrative assistant for the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture since 2016.
Ms. Gabelman was an integral part of the efficient operating of the PSLA Department. She dedicatedly supported all aspects of the department’s operations and was a valued member of the CAHNR community. Ms. Gabelman consistently supported faculty and exceeded expectations in her role. She is missed by all who had the pleasure of working with her at CAHNR.
UCAHNRA Outstanding Staff Award
Sara Tremblay ‘98, ‘06 ‘08, Natural Resources and the Environment
Ms. Sara Tremblay has provided valuable support to students and faculty in her position as academic advisor and program coordinator for Environmental Sciences and Environmental Studies.
Ms. Tremblay is a knowledgeable and compassionate advisor who ensures students have the resources and support they need to succeed. Ms. Tremblay has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to student wellness and will go to great lengths to maintain this commitment. Ms. Tremblay’s institutional knowledge makes her a valuable resource for students and faculty, guiding them through academic programs across the University. Ms. Tremblay has also contributed to CAHNR committees, further demonstrating her commitment to the College.
UCAHNRA Excellence in Teaching Award
Beth Lawrence, Natural Resources and the Environment
Assistant professor of Natural Resources and the Environment Dr. Beth Lawrence has had a positive and lasting impact on students since she arrived at UConn in 2014.
Dr. Lawrence redesigned an introductory environmental science course, creating inquiry-based active learning activities that provide students with a valuable foundation in the discipline. Dr. Lawrence plans her courses and individual lessons with care, always placing students at the center of her teaching activity. As a graduate educator, Dr. Lawrence brings students into the marshes of Connecticut to provide the hands-on learning they will need to conduct their own research.
Dr. Lawrence is a generous educator who makes herself available to students to support their needs as individual learners. She continually connects students with opportunities and provides advice to help them advance in their own career goals. Dr. Lawrence is dedicated to creating an inclusive, welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds and interests.
UCAHNRA Distinguished Alumni Award
Brendon McDermott ‘09, Kinesiology
Dr. Brendon McDermott, associate professor of health and human performance and recreation at the University of Arkansas, has contributed to the field of exercise science and athletic training as a researcher, mentor, and teacher.
Dr. McDermott takes a student-centered approach to his passionate, enthusiastic teaching. Since graduating from UConn, Dr. McDermott has maintained productive connections with other alumni to continue advancing the study of heat-related illness. Dr. McDermott has authored more than 75 peer-reviewed publications. He also continues to work as a public advocate for the importance of heat safety at multiple levels.
Dr. McDermott serves on the Medical and Science Advisory Board for the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) at UConn. In this role, he helped establish treatment algorithms for mass participation events, like marathons, and contributed to improving and promoting the work of KSI.
Spirit of the Land Grant Award
Douglas Casa ‘97, Kinesiology
Dr. Douglas Casa exemplifies the values of UConn as a land grant university through his dedication to research and public policy in the area of preventing sudden death in sport and exertional heat illnesses. Dr. Casa is a professor in the Department of Kinesiology, director of Athletic Training Education, and CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute (KSI).
Dr. Casa has been a tremendously productive researcher with approximately 400 publications, seven books, and numerous public-facing communications. Dr. Casa is a world leader and respected expert in the field of sudden death and exertional heat illness. He has focused his research on the populations most vulnerable to these conditions: athletes, laborers, and war fighters. Dr. Casa has pioneered research with life-saving impacts for these populations. He is also a licensed athletic trainer who has successfully treated 378 heat strokes.
Dr. Casa is invested in translating his research into real-life benefits. Dr. Casa is a committed advocate on the state and national levels for the need to have athletic trainers in high school sports programs to promote the health and safety of these athletes. He has helped shape exercise science and athletic training education at UConn, having taught 24 courses, established core competencies for students, and developed new courses to allow students to succeed after UConn.
Spirit of the Land Grant Award
Dennis D’Amico, Animal Science
Associate professor of Animal Science Dr. Dennis D’Amico’s research, teaching, and extension activities embody UConn’s land grant mission.
Dr. D’Amico’s research focuses on creating innovative solutions to evolving issues surrounding dairy safety and quality. He has conducted numerous studies on the use of protective cultures to eliminate the risk of bacterial infection from dairy products. Dr. D’Amico’s research program has been funded by more than $2 million of internal and extramural grants.
As a teacher, Dr. D’Amico engages students in experiential learning, as they produce dairy products, as well as being a dedicated instructor in the more traditional classroom setting. Dr. D’Amico leads educational workshops and talks for UConn 4-H, FFA youth, dairy producers, and regulatory authorities on safe cheesemaking practices. Dr. D’Amico’s extension activities include organizing the first Artisan Cheese Food Safety Forum which led to the creation of an advisory board, online resources, and training courses. He has served on numerous other national organizations, lending his expertise to the continual development of a safe, high-quality dairy industry in the U.S.
Recognition of Longevity
Roman Shrestha ’13, ’17
Maria E Gyure ’01
Jessica Nicole Marsalisi ’17
Kimberly Morgan Syme ’98
Juliana Restrepo Marin
Donna H Liska
Heidi Lynn Herz
Neha Mishra ’14, ’18
Bruce E Blanchard ’90, ’94, ’06
Lauren E Wilson ’02
Amy Safran ’94
Kristen Rose Dostaler ’11, ’13
Heather Lee Peracchio ’05, ’08
Marlene H Kennedy
Christopher Neal Blesso ’12
Patrick M McIntosh ’08, ’14
Kevin Noonan ’05
Maryclaire Capetta ’03, ’04
Robert Polkowski ’02, ’12
Milton J Levin ’04
Jessica Lubell-Brand ’04, ’08
Michael M Copenhaver
Kara M Bonsack ’94
Paul R Bleimeyer
Isaac M Ortega
Valerie B Duffy ’92
Nancy C Balcom ’81
Denis A Coble