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Liberal Arts

&Sciences Spring 2014

Mentor Boosts Student’s Career P.2

Alumnus Brings Green Technology to the Himalayas


hen Peter Werth III ’80 (CLAS) first visited Dolpa, Nepal—a northern district in the Himalayas—he became fascinated with the dramatic landscape and the people he encountered. He also witnessed firsthand the obstacles that prevented communities in this region from supporting a modern energy infrastructure and, in the long run, their own cultural heritage. “I was taken aback by Dolpa,” Werth recalls. “It is probably the most remote place in all of Nepal—if not the world—and it is absolutely energy starved.” Werth learned that the geography that had preserved the Dolpa culture for generations now threatened its continued existence. Dolpa schools lack electricity needed to teach advanced curricula, villagers said, causing students interested in higher levels of education to leave for nearby cities.

“In the cities, they are not taught about their own culture and their chances of returning home are very low,” says Werth. “Essentially it’s a snapshot in history that will disappear as young people leave unless we help keep that culture intact.” These discoveries motivated Werth to establish Himalaya Currents, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable energy and water projects in remote Himalayan villages, in 2011. Sustainable energy is the region’s best option, says Werth. Any energy system must have low environmental impact, due to local conservation efforts for threatened species like snow leopards; it must be durable enough to withstand extreme winters, rockslides, and earthquakes; and it must be selfsufficient enough that villagers can maintain it themselves. “Some of the places we visited

The Dean and Richard Dawkins P.3 First Female Physics Professor Reaches 45-year Milestone P.3

are up to a six-day walk from any main roads or transportation, and anywhere between 12,000 to 14,000 feet in altitude,” says Werth. “It’s a challenge, logistically, to get materials there and keep them running.” The organization’s first project was installing a custom-built energy system in Saldang, one of the region’s most remote villages. Werth contacted the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program, an initiative that supports engineering experiences for precollege students, which engaged 11 students from Hartford Public High School’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology. With support from the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the academy students designed and constructed a custom wind


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Mouth Fungus: It’s Good For You Using a novel genome-based approach, Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology Linda Strausbaugh and her team have identified the types of fungi that live in a healthy person’s mouth. The findings will help medical professionals understand, treat, and prevent oral infections found in patients with suppressed immune systems, like people undergoing therapy for cancer and the elderly. The infections make it hard to eat, take medications, and speak, and can spread to other parts of the body. “This is the first study to identify medically-important oral fungi on a large scale,” Strausbaugh notes.

Liberal Arts & Sciences


world project done, everything from designing, researching, manufacturing, and even marketing and logistics,” says Mallik. “I learned a lot on the project and I applied a lot that I learned at UConn, and vice versa.” After the system was successfully installed in Saldang, the Himalaya Currents team posed with students from the Shelri Drukdra Lower Middle School, along with a vintage UConn banner that Werth brought along for the journey. “I’ve always been a proud Husky, and I wanted the students in Saldang to know that there were two of us involved in this project,” said Werth. “People like to know where you’re from, and I always make a point to tell them that I’m from UConn.” Read more about Himalaya Currents at himalayacurrents. Top: Teacher from Shelri Drukdra Lower Middle School points out North America on a map; Bottom: Wind solar energy unit is installed in Saldang, Dolpa, Nepal

HIMALAYAS, from page 1

solar energy system, installed in 2013, used to power the Shelri Drukdra Lower Middle School. “It gave the students in Connecticut a real sense of purpose to learn about and help other students halfway around the world,” says Werth. Serving as a project supervisor and mentor to the academy students was Pravesh Mallik ’15, a UConn mathematics major and 2011 graduate of the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology. Mallik was raised in Biratnagar, Nepal until his family relocated to Hartford in 2008. “The assignment showed us what it takes to get a real2

Mentor Boosts Student’s Career In the summer of 2013, Rachel Laffitte ’16, a political science and business management major, decided to get a head start on building her resume. So she signed up for the CLAS Career Advisor Program, an initiative that matches students with alumni in their field of interest. Her match, James Kaiser

Rachel Laffitte ’16

’91, is managing director and co-owner of Kaiser Whitney Staffing in New Haven, Conn. From their first e-mail exchange, Laffitte could tell that Kaiser was invested in her future. “He really wanted to make a personable connection,” says Laffitte. “He made me feel comfortable about asking him for advice.” After weekly email exchanges during the fall, Laffitte landed an internship at Kaiser Whitney, working on client building and researching tax policies. Kaiser says Laffitte’s major talent is her willingness to stretch boundaries. “Rachel is very open-minded,” says Kaiser. “She was willing to take advantage of the connections available to her and learn something from them.” Each year, the CLAS Career Advisor Program matches approximately 100 students with alumni advisors, according to Caitlin Trinh, CLAS Director of Alumni Relations. “The program’s strength lies in its virtual nature,”says Trinh. “Our students are getting perspectives on the workplace from all over the country and even the world.” “I always see the sign, ‘Students Today, Huskies Forever,’ and I think that’s really true,” agrees Laffitte. “Even twenty years out of UConn, people still know about events on campus. People just stay with the school.”

Two from CLAS Named BOT Distinguished Professors Two CLAS faculty members have been named Board of Trustees Distinguished Professors, the University’s highest honor for faculty excellence in research, teaching, and service. Nancy Naples is a professor of sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies as well as director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at the University. Economics professor Kathleen Segerson is an internationally recognized leader in the field of environmental and natural resource economics, law, and applied microeconomics.

Students Triumph on the National Stage This spring, political science undergraduate Molly Rockett won a prestigious national Harry S. Truman Fellowship for public service. The award is given to students who show exceptional promise in serving the public good. Rockett is the first to earn this distinction at UConn since 2011. Three graduate students also won National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships: Andrew Frank and Emma Shelley from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Emily Seelen from the Department of Marine Sciences. The highly-competitive fellowship program provides three years of funding support and will allow the graduate students to enhance their dissertation research projects.

“I am moved by the beauty of life as it has evolved. I think any child who is denied that knowledge is being cheated.” — Richard Dawkins

Spring 2014 SPOTLIGHT ON

Mike Soltys ’81 Degree: BA, communication Job Title: Vice president of corporate communications, ESPN

Richard Dawkins, right, spoke with the CLAS Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum at Jorgensen Auditorium on April 9.

The Dean and Richard Dawkins On April 9, Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum sat down for a public talk with renowned evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins. Their Q&A in front of a packed house touched on Dawkins’ “selfish gene” theory, the crisis of teaching evolution in American schools, and how scientists should go about solving the bigger problems, like the origins of life. Read the full interview at

First Female Physics Professor Reaches 45-year Milestone A lot has changed in the field of astronomy since the late 1960s, when Cynthia Peterson came to UConn as the first female physics faculty member. Peterson was the only woman on the physics faculty for her first 35 years at UConn. But in January of this year, a woman was appointed for the first time to lead the physics department— laser physicist Nora Berrah.

During her career at UConn, Peterson estimates she has taught more than 9,000 undergraduates, mostly students in astronomy, which is her passion. Peterson says astronomy has changed so fast, it has been like teaching a new class every year. Not only have the Hubble Telescope and Kepler space observatory, for example, vastly accelerated the discovery of the universe, nearly 2,000 planets have been discovered outside the solar system. Teaching at the college level has also been transformed over the years, says Peterson. Learning is both more interactive and more self-directed, and students are far more invested in their independent research projects than they were when learning was more passive. Some things haven’t changed, she says: lab work is still important, and there is nothing to beat live “eye-to-eyepiece” telescope observation rather than just looking at pictures. Peterson, who was introduced to stargazing as a child by her mother, remembers visiting the UConn Planetarium on North Eagleville Road with her two children when they were young. They would eat lunch, she says, and talk about the stars.

In 1980, UConn undergraduate Mike Soltys snagged the first internship position at ESPN, a newly launched cable channel based in Bristol, Conn. Decades later, he now works as vice president of corporate communications for ESPN’s U.S. networks, and is one of the station’s longest-serving employees. Recently, Soltys was inspired to pay his experiences forward as a mentor in the CLAS Career Advisor Program, which pairs current students with alumni to create career connections, share experiences, and aid in the transition from college to the professional world. Soltys was matched with Heather Fyfe ’16, an honors student majoring in communication and sports management who is also on the UConn softball team, a member of the Communication Society, and a reporter for The Daily Campus.

Heather Fyfe ’16, left, met with mentor Mike Soltys ’81 during a recent visit at ESPN

Fyfe hopes to work in the sports communication industry, and says that Soltys has encouraged her to actively build her resume early in her academic career. “One of the most important things that he said was to be realistic, and that you have to get out there and apply yourself in order to get where you want to be,” says Fyfe. “He has helped me a lot, and it is great to have someone there to answer questions.” “In just the short time that we’ve worked together, I can see that she has accomplished a lot, and it’s a great feeling to be part of that,” says Soltys. Interested in becomng a CLAS Career Advisor? Visit clascareeradvisor.

Professor of Physics Cynthia Peterson, pictured today and in 1980.


Liberal Arts & Sciences AROUND CAMPUS

Makeover Slated for Monteith Building In March, the UConn Board of Trustees approved renovations to the Henry Ruthven Monteith Building, which has housed CLAS classroom and office space since its construction in 1959. The project will bring the building up-to-date with its twin, the Jaime Homero Arjona Building, which was renovated in 2013. Data systems for high-tech classrooms; new lighting, flooring, and ceilings; and—perhaps the most exciting to students, professors, and alumni alike—central air conditioning are all in the plans. Monteith throughout the decades. Historic photos courtesy of the Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut Libraries.

We want to hear from you! Have exciting news to share? Tell us what you’re up to by contacting Caitlin Trinh, CLAS Director of Alumni Relations, at



Liberal Arts & Sciences Spring 2014  

A newsletter for alumni of UConn's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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