UConn Health News

UConn, JAX Confront Pain With First-In-State Consortium

illustration of older man holding back in pain


An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain — more than those affected by heart disease, cancer, and diabetes combined, according to The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. How best to manage that pain in the face of a nationwide opioid crisis is the question on many practitioners’ minds.

The Connecticut Pain Consortium — a translational pain research and education collaboration between UConn Health, the UConn schools of Medicine and Nursing, and The Jackson Laboratory — aims to help answer it.

Given the broad range of research interests and funding opportunities related to pain, the founders envision that centers across the University and nearly every UConn school and college — particularly the schools of Dental Medicine and Pharmacy — will join the consortium to build mutually beneficial collaborations. Experts from Yale University and hospitals including Connecticut Children’s Medical Center will also be involved.

“There is a clear need for more basic and translational research on human pain and pain management,” says the Consortium’s director, mathematician and computational biologist Reinhard Laubenbacher, a joint faculty member at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“And there is a critical unmet need for education and training of providers and patients. This is a great opportunity to deploy our capabilities in pain research and addiction together with our Connecticut partners in an exciting and much-needed statewide initiative.”

The Consortium, the first of its kind in the Connecticut medical community, will establish a portal for pain-related health care data and facilitate research collaborations that leverage state and national resources. It will aim to translate that research into cutting-edge pain management solutions and raise awareness of the many facets of pain, pain management, and potential related ramifications including opioid addiction. The Consortium will contribute to a curriculum on pain research and management for health care providers.

The launch is being funded by a $55,000 planning grant from the Mayday Fund, whose mission is to support projects that close the gap between knowledge and practice in the treatment of pain, to the UConn Foundation. The Consortium has also received support from the UConn Office of the Vice President for Research, the schools of Nursing and Medicine, and the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

“This new consortium builds upon strengths already existing in the School of Medicine, with an existing core of faculty focused on pain research,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of the School. “Thanks to this grant, we believe there will be numerous opportunities for advancement in the study and treatment of pain.”

New Neuroscience Chair Establishes UConn’s First Alzheimer’s Lab

a digital rendering of orange amyloid plaque on blue healthy neurons.

In this rendering, healthy neurons afflicted with amyloid plaques are colored orange. Studies suggest this plaque leads to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.


Internationally recognized neurodegenerative disease researcher Riqiang Yan, Ph.D., joined the UConn School of Medicine this spring as chair of the Department of Neuroscience. He has established the medical school’s first research laboratory dedicated to studying and discovering new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Prior to his appointment, Yan served as the Cleveland Clinic’s Morris R. and Ruth V. Graham Endowed Chair Professor and Vice Chair of Neurosciences and professor of molecular medicine at Case Western Reserve University. His five studies that focus on identifying the biological culprits behind Alzheimer’s disease are funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Yan’s studies build upon his co-discovery of the BACE-1 protein, the critical molecule that he revealed fuels the production of β-amyloid peptides, or plaque buildup, in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Studies suggest that these peptides are toxic and lead to cognitive decline in patients with Alzheimer’s.

Yan and his team are currently testing in mouse models the power and safety of several promising molecules to target BACE-1 and inhibit its biological function in order to prevent or stop further β-amyloid growth. Just before he arrived at UConn Health, Yan’s team published significant findings in the Journal of Experimental Medicine that showed that removing the BACE-1 enzyme in adult mice with Alzheimer’s reverses the plaque formation that inhibits cognitive function. The study was widely covered by national media.

In addition, Yan and his team are gaining greater insight into the important role reticulon 3 protein (RTN3) plays in the formation of dystrophic neurites in the brain, which can lead to memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly. The Yan lab is also exploring treatment that aims to enhance neurogenesis to replenish the loss of brain cells in patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“We welcome Dr. Yan to UConn School of Medicine and Connecticut, as he and his research programs are very highly respected by leaders and other scientists in the field,” says Dr. Bruce T. Liang, dean of UConn School of Medicine.

Yan’s recruitment brings with it a host of research collaboration opportunities across the School of Medicine and its departments of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry; with the UConn Center on Aging; with neurobiology and brain investigators at the University; as well as with the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine on UConn Health’s campus.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues at UConn to expand creative research in neurosciences,” says Yan, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at The Rockefeller University. “It is my passion and desire to mentor our talented UConn neuroscientists and staff and watch their lists of research, discoveries, and accomplishments grow even greater, along with more national recognition of their efforts.”

He adds: “We all have a hope that in 5 to 10 years, with academia collaborating with pharmaceutical companies, we will indeed have an effective drug to finally treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

There has not been an FDA-approved drug to try to treat the disease since 2002, Yan says. “It’s our big hope, and we will continue to try hard at UConn to discover and test a new, effective drug therapy to make this hope a reality to help those struggling with Alzheimer’s and ease the burden of future patients and their families.”

Enhancing Delivery of Care with UConn HealthOne

UConn Health ONE - one place. One Record. One Reason. You.


UConn Health’s new integrated electronic health record (EHR), UConn HealthOne, launched this spring, making patient records easily accessible to all members of care teams and to the patient.

HealthOne represents a technological, clinical, and operational transformation aimed at enhancing the patient experience. At its heart is an EHR platform, powered by health care software company Epic, that facilitates collaboration, knowledge-driven care coordination, and continuous improvement.

The integrated EHR takes most paper — and the turnaround times associated with paper — out of the clinical process, making provider notes available in real time and lab and test results available quickly. For providers, that means a seamless flow of information following the patient throughout their encounter not only with UConn Health but also with other health care systems through HealthOne’s interoperable Care Everywhere tool. All members of a care team, including referring physicians, will have access to the same up-to-date patient information at the same time.

Patients using HealthOne get more efficient care and can access their test results and other health information at any time. Through myHealthOne, the new, secure online portal, patients can access tools they can use to message their care team, request prescription refills, and manage appointments.

A Dental Dean’s Legacy

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil reflects with pride on his 12 years as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine and looks forward with optimism at where the School will go from here.

“Looking back, it has been quite humbling to be the dean of a dental school with such a great national reputation and part of such a distinguished university,” says MacNeil, who soon plans to take a sabbatical but will return as a faculty member. “It has been a phenomenal experience and a privilege to work with the talented faculty, staff, and students here.”

MacNeil joined the Dental School as a graduate student in 1986 after six years in private practice. He took his first role on the School’s leadership team, as associate dean, in 1998 and was named dean in 2007.

Since then, he has shepherded the School through three perfect accreditation reviews and seen it rise in the ranks to number 11 in funding from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. The School was awarded the prestigious William J. Gies Award for Achievement in 2016, and MacNeil helped establish the cross-campus Biomedical Engineering Department in partnership with the UConn schools of Medicine and Engineering.

MacNeil also maximized Bioscience Connecticut funding to transform the physical infrastructure of the School with renovated academic areas, simulation training centers, state-of-the-art dental clinics, and advanced technology.

We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care.

“The physical renewal we have accomplished here lifts a heavy burden off the next generation of faculty and school leaders,” MacNeil says. “The focus can now be on attracting high-caliber people and supporting the talented people we already have to keep our school on the leading edge.”

MacNeil believes the School has a bright future. He foresees further growth in interprofessional training for students and residents and envisions a greater emphasis on how dentists can be part of patients’ broader primary care teams.

“We are the perfect place for such experimentation because of our integrated structure and our academic interests,” he says. “We should be the school testing new approaches and new models, being the leaders in this new world of collaborative health care. The key is looking beyond roadblocks and limitations and seeing the many opportunities that surround us and maximizing them.”

MacNeil will dedicate his sabbatical to his chairman of the board duties for the American Dental Education Association, which has more than 20,000 members across 76 U.S. and Canadian dental schools. MacNeil says he hopes to advance discussions on topics including reforming national dental licensure, encouraging student interest in academic careers, and expanding international dental education dialogue. The issues he’s most passionate about are innovating methods of assessing dental students and researching the benefits of integrating oral health care with primary medical care, efforts he says could have profound implications for dental education.

“My endpoint goal as dean was to leave the School in a better state than when I took office,” says MacNeil. “I am confident that has been accomplished. We are stronger than ever before, and I know we will keep pushing the boundaries of dental medicine to accomplish even more.”

Dr. R. Lamont Monty MacNeil

Dr. R. Lamont “Monty” MacNeil will end his 12-year tenure as dean of the UConn School of Dental Medicine in August and remain on the faculty. MacNeil has been on the School’s leadership team for 20 years.


UConn has announced that on Aug. 31 Dr. Sharon M. Gordon will become the next dental school dean and first woman to serve in the role. Gordon, a distinguished educator, clinician, and scientist, hails from East Carolina University’s School of Dental Medicine where she serves as associate dean for innovation and discovery and chair of the Department of Foundational Sciences

Training Aims to Draw Young Women Into Orthopedics Careers

Program Spotlight

female physician points to spine model


Last fall, 40 female Connecticut high school students and more than a dozen female medical students got hands-on skills training in orthopedic surgery at UConn Health.

The program, which more than 250 high school students applied to, aimed to boost young women’s interest in medicine and science fields including orthopedic surgery. Currently, only 6.1 percent of fully accredited, practicing orthopedic surgeons are female.

The training, held in October 2017, ranged from suturing to simulated surgery training with pins and saws and was facilitated by UConn Health orthopedic surgeon Dr. Katherine J. Coyner. She organized the event as part of the Perry Initiative, a national nonprofit that originated in San Francisco in 2009 with the mission of inspiring young women to become leaders in orthopedic surgery and engineering.

As a member of the Initiative’s board of directors, Coyner believes early exposure to these exciting, hands-on careers is key to boosting diversity and introducing fresh eyes and new perspectives into life-changing fields such as orthopedic surgery. The Perry Initiative is named in honor of Dr. Jacquelin Perry, one of the first 10 women orthopedic surgeons in the country.

“It was really exciting to see the girls so interested and engaged,” Coyner says. “We had a lot of volunteers who spanned different disciplines, so these students got all the perspectives. And with the exposure from this mentoring program, they might see orthopedic surgery as a potential career path.”

Attendee Katelyn Miller from Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford says, “I appreciated the offer [from the orthopedic surgeons] to let me shadow them to see if this is what I really want to do. This made me excited to go to school for a really long time.”

Participating first-year medical student Julia Plourde chose UConn School of Medicine for its orthopedics program.

“The Perry Initiative program really demonstrated the positive environment that orthopedics has, especially the mentorship available to foster the growth of women in orthopedics,” Plourde says. “The exposure that the program provided to me certainly sealed the deal for me to continue on my path to orthopedics.”

The Power of Our Women

By Lauren Woods

Photography by Peter Morenus

Dr. Molly Brewer, Dr. Marja Hurley, Dr. Cheryl Oncken, and Dr. Laurinda Jaffe are among the women leading UConn Health’s departments.

At UConn Health, dedication to the achievements of women in medicine and science dates back to our founding in 1968. Efforts to achieve gender parity in our student body and among faculty and staff and their positions as leaders have grown over the decades.

Dr. Molly Brewer, Dr. Marja Hurley, Dr. Cheryl Oncken, and Dr. Laurinda Jaffe are among the women leading UConn Health’s departments.


In 2017, the number of women enrolled in American medical schools surpassed the number of men for the first time, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. And, UConn’s schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine were part of that demographic shift.

There are now more female than male students enrolled — 207 female medical students comprise 50.7 percent of the student body, while 94 female students make up 52.5 percent of the dental school’s student body.

Although the first class admitted to the UConn School of Medicine in 1968 was all men, the faculty has included women from the start. Over the years, the number and roles of women at UConn Health have grown significantly since four accomplished women stood among the founding faculty.

“Since UConn Health’s inception, highly accomplished and dedicated women have always driven UConn Health’s success in research, education, and the patient care mission,” says UConn Health CEO Dr. Andy Agwunobi. “These amazing professionals, and those who join us every day, are key to our past and future success.”

Today, 73 percent, or 4,098, of the total employees who fuel UConn Health’s clinical care, research, and education initiatives are female. Across the enterprise, 895 women hold faculty or community faculty appointments and 217 women are full-time UConn Health faculty. There are nearly 800 female nurses.

Among the women leading the charge are department chairs on the front lines of advancing medicine and cutting-edge research: Dr. Molly Brewer in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Cheryl Oncken in Medicine, Dr. Melinda Sanders in Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Dr. Laurinda Jaffe in Cell Biology, and Dr. Sandra Weller in Molecular Biology. Many others serve as associate deans.

I have been able to achieve everything that I’ve wanted to at UConn Health, from becoming a leader to teaching and my efforts to enhance our student curriculum.

Dr. Marja Hurley, the School of Medicine’s associate dean for health career opportunity programs, was the first woman of color to attend UConn’s medical school in 1972 and one of eight female students in the class.

In addition to a stellar career as an NIH-funded physician-scientist conducting research on the molecular basis of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, Hurley has dedicated the past three decades at UConn Health to advocating for women and other underrepresented groups in medicine and science. Through health career opportunity programs including the Doctors Academy, High School Mini Medical/Dental School Program, and the Summer Research Fellowship Program, Hurley also works to expand the interest of high school and college-aged women and men in science and medicine.

“It’s been a pleasure to spend my education, training, and career here at UConn and to help diversify the schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine with more underrepresented groups, including women,” says Hurley.

Currently, groups that are traditionally underrepresented in medicine and science comprise 22 percent of UConn Health’s student body.

“We have made tremendous progress,” she says.

As an American Association of Medical Colleges liaison, Hurley in 2011 launched a Group on Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS) chapter at UConn Health. Its mission is to connect women at the institution and promote their career success within the academic medical center by addressing issues such as salary and gender equity, recruitment and retention, awards and recognition, career advancement toward full professor, and work-life balance.

Recently, GWIMS member Kristyn Zajac, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Medicine, helped establish a “Mini Mentoring Program.” More than 70 senior faculty volunteered to serve as mentors to female junior faculty.

Dr. Ellen Nestler, internist and associate dean at UConn School of Medicine, was assigned to mentor Evelyn Neuber, Ph.D., an embryologist and clinical research coordinator at the UConn-affiliated Center for Advanced Reproductive Services.

“I was able to give her tips and tools on how to empower herself to lead and work more effectively with her new team members and management responsibilities in the laboratory,” Nestler says. “Women need mentors, and this new, unique program adds to a woman’s armamentarium.”

Says Neuber, “The mentoring program was really helpful. It was educational and also fun to meet with a fellow woman at work who has gone through similar work situations and to discuss the female experience relating to working in science and personal work-life balance.”

Melinda Sanders, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, joined UConn Health 26 years ago and was promoted to chair in 2010.

“I have been able to achieve everything that I’ve wanted to at UConn Health, from becoming a leader to teaching and my efforts to enhance our student curriculum,” she says.

Educating the new, more representative class is critical as they will be the next generation of providers.

“Here at UConn Health, we really do want to foster women and develop the careers of future generations of women in health and science,” she says.

New Clinic Provides Health Evaluations to Asylum Seekers

UConn fourth-year medical student Kaitlin Markoja talks with Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and Glenn Mitoma, director of UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

UConn fourth-year medical student Kaitlin Markoja talks with Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and Glenn Mitoma, director of UConn’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. PHR was honored on Nov. 2, 2017, with UConn’s 2017 Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights for its longtime global efforts to prevent human rights violations.


UConn School of Medicine students have launched the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative (UIRI) to aid individuals seeking asylum, providing medical and mental health evaluations to improve asylum seekers’ chances of being granted safe haven in the U.S.

The asylum advocacy effort is led by UConn medical school’s student chapter of the internationally renowned organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which recently joined forces with the school’s Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) student chapter.

Currently, the PHR-PSR student chapter is co-led by second-year medical students Anastasia Barros and Martina Sinopoli. Together, the group of more than 30 medical and dental students is committed to addressing patient health through policy, advocacy, and community outreach.

The UConn Health Asylum Clinic, located in UConn Health’s Outpatient Pavilion, builds on the success of UConn Law School’s student Asylum and Human Rights Clinic, founded in 2002. That clinic’s work has provided legal help to more than 120 people who fled political, religious, or other persecution.

[Exposure to refugee health needs] offers students a window into the global health arena and an opportunity to gain unique skills … that are transferrable to the care of virtually any patient.

The pro-bono forensic physical and psychiatric examinations provided at the clinic will help immigration attorneys prepare asylum affidavits, Sinopoli says.

“With proper medical and mental health evaluations and legal guidance, a refugee is 90 percent more likely to be granted asylum,” says Barros. “Helping increase the chances of these refugees remaining safe here in the U.S. will be the best reward possible for us medical students.”

PHR’s national chapter was instrumental in helping the students establish the Asylum Clinic. PHR trained students participating in the UIRI to perform the forensic evaluations, looking for signs of physical or mental persecution that asylum seekers may have experienced. The national and regional PHR chapters plan to refer asylum seekers in Connecticut to UConn Health.

Dr. Susan Levine is the medical director of the student-run UIRI and heads UConn Immigrant Health, an entity that includes an immigrant health clinic in general medicine, as well as a student and a resident curriculum in refugee health.

“Exposing trainees to immigrant and refugee health needs is incredibly rewarding,” says Levine. “It offers students a window into the global health arena and an opportunity to gain unique skills in eliciting complex determinants of health, skills that are transferrable to the care of virtually any patient.”

Hurricane Relief

UConn Docs Provide Medical Assistance in Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Dr. Robert Fuller says of the crisis in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.


In the wake of devastation from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, UConn Health physicians were among those who traveled to help with humanitarian and medical relief efforts. Dr. Robert Fuller, department chair and professor of emergency medicine at UConn Health (pictured, bottom), traveled with the International Medical Corps on a mission to assess the damage to, and identify gaps in, medical infrastructure for delivering care to the poor, and to find and coordinate resources to close that gap.

“Everyone is affected in a serious and ongoing way,” Fuller says. “It is impossible to see or do anything that is not changed by the storm.”

Dr. Natalie Moore, UConn Health’s first International Disaster Emergency Medicine Fellow and a UConn Master of Public Health candidate, went to the U.S. Virgin Islands after Hurricane Irma. She treated patients at a temporary triage clinic in St. John before working at a hospital in St. Croix, where she hunkered down for Hurricane Maria. It was the only hospital open in the area, as the hospital in St. Thomas was destroyed.

a fellow volunteer caring for a resident of St. John following Hurricane Irma.

UConn Health’s Dr. Natalie Moore shared this photo of a fellow volunteer caring for a resident of St. John following Hurricane Irma.

UConn Health's Dr. Robert Fuller, center, a volunteer with International Medical Corps in San Juan, discusses logistics with AmeriCares staff.

UConn Health's Dr. Robert Fuller, center, a volunteer with International Medical Corps in San Juan, discusses logistics with AmeriCares staff.

To Our Readers

UConn Health Journal magazines


Two years ago, we published the first UConn Health Journal with the goal of giving physicians, dentists, and the public insight into the groundbreaking research and life-changing clinical care happening at UConn Health. As an academic medical center, UConn Health makes the discoveries that shape the future of health care. Our scientists work to understand medicine’s biggest mysteries, design new therapies and treatments, and turn laboratory breakthroughs into advances in patient care.

As our team collaborates to produce each issue, I constantly find myself in awe of everything that drives UConn Health’s innovations. Our stories can be heavy on science or heavy on heart, sometimes in the same issue. This spring, the story “Aches, Age, and Influenza” told of how UConn scientists’ findings in mice may help us prevent influenza-related muscle deterioration in the elderly. In the same edition, we got to know 11-year-old Alyssa Temkin, who since birth has struggled with an unforgiving, deadly disease for which a new UConn doctor is closing in on a cure.

Most of the time, though, our stories walk the line between the two. Because when it comes down to it, these advancements are based on science. But by definition, medical discoveries always impact real people. The mission of UConn Health Journal, like that of the UConn Health enterprise, is to translate that research: What does it mean for you? For your patients? For your loved ones?

In this issue, we’re exploring one topic from several angles. The brain has for centuries fascinated and perplexed. The more we learn about it, the more we find there is left to discover. At UConn, those who work with the brain range from a neurologist with a ringside seat to the evolution of concussion treatment to a radiologist and medical physicist who harnessed 3-D printing technology to give surgeons a practice brain for complicated procedures.

And please, let us know what you think and what else you’d like to read about. Email me anytime at julie.bartucca@uconn.edu.

Thanks for reading,
Julie Bartucca
Editor, UConn Health Journal

Magnifying Nursing Excellence

nurses do rounds inside UConn Health


UConn Health has launched its journey to Magnet nursing excellence recognition by the American Nurses Credentialing Center of the American Association of Nursing (AAN).

“Magnet designation is the ultimate honor for a hospital’s high-quality nursing,” says Sue Ellen Goodrich, RN, nursing director of Professional Practice for UConn Health. “Research shows us that stellar nursing practice truly makes a difference in patient care and outcomes.”

To pave the road to Magnet status for its more than 1,200 nurses, UConn John Dempsey Hospital is raising patient safety, satisfaction, and evidence-based outcomes benchmarks to above the national average while increasing nurse satisfaction, retention, collaboration, research, and professional development opportunities.

Of the 5,564 hospitals in the U.S., only 6.6 percent are Magnet-designated, with 460 total Magnet hospitals worldwide.

The Magnet Recognition program, created in 1990, is based on 14 “Forces of Magnetism” characteristics grouped into five pillars: Transformational
Leadership; Structural Empowerment; Exemplary Professional Practice; New Knowledge, Innovation, and Improvements; and Empirical Outcomes.

To jump-start the Magnet journey, UConn Health has adopted a nursing professional practice model of compassion, integrity, collaboration, and innovation, with improvement initiatives aimed at preventing patient falls, central line–associated blood stream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and hospital-acquired pressure ulcers. UConn Health has also joined the national program NICHE (Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders).

“We look forward to building an even stronger foundation of nursing excellence while providing greater benefits to our patients and nurses,” says UConn Health Chief Nursing Officer Ann Marie Capo, RN, whose leadership and vision was pivotal to starting the Magnet process.