Author: Janice Berriault

Kari Adamsons-Alumni Faculty Excellence Award in Graduate Teaching

Kari AdamsonsCongratulations to Kari Adamsons, the recipient of the 2023-2024 Alumni Faculty Excellence Award in Graduate Teaching! The Alumni Faculty Excellence Awards are among the highest honors bestowed by the University of Connecticut. Recipients must have a distinguished record of sustained excellence and must have been part of the UConn faculty for at least 10 years.

Mamta Saxena (PhD ’13), HDFS Alumni Spotlight, June 2024

Mamta SaxenaMamta is originally from India and moved to the United States in her late twenties. Before moving to the US, she received her master’s degree in child development from the University of Delhi and worked as a lecturer at MS University in Vadodara, Gujarat, as a consultant at IGNOU, and as a research assistant in the area of developmental disabilities at Lady Irwin College. After relocating to the US, she worked as a substitute teacher and afterschool director in California and a preschool teacher in Connecticut. These roles provided her with practical experiences and a socio-cultural systems perspective of the field.

In 2008, she joined the UConn HDFS Department. Under the supervision of Drs. Anne Farrell, Kari Adamsons, and Edna Brown, she completed her dissertation on the caregiving aspects of adult siblings of individuals with disabilities. Dr. Farrell also guided her in completing her fellowship – leadership education in neurodevelopmental and related disabilities (LEND) from UConn Health. She also worked with Dr. JoAnn Robinson to evaluate Early Head Start Programs which exposed her to field observations and coding as a method of study. After graduation in 2013, she was hired as a visiting assistant professor in UConn HDFS and taught undergraduate and graduate courses.

Mamta joined the State University of New York at Oswego Department of Human Development in 2016 as an assistant professor and was tenured and promoted to associate professor in 2021. She teaches courses on lifespan development, research methods, program evaluation, internships, diversity, equity, inclusion, siblings and extended family, and mental health issues. She spearheaded the department’s standardization of methods courses to align course objectives, activities, and assessments for data-driven practices, and evaluation of courses. The initiative resulted in revisions in course objectives and activities that promoted student success regardless of differing instructor effects.

Mamta also serves as co-chair of the sibling relationship focus group at the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and as a program evaluation consultant for Sibshops – a program for siblings of individuals with disabilities. Her research includes mixed methods studies on sibling relationships and caregiving, caregiver’s mental health and caregiving patterns, program evaluation, and pedagogy. Her current research project aims to study trends in demands, family routines, coping, life satisfaction, and their influences on perceptions of stress in post-pandemic contexts. She was recently elected to chair the Family Science Conference 2025 in Costa Rica.

Mamta received the Best Presentation Award (May 2023) for her paper on  gender issues in navigating demands, family routines and stress during the pandemic at the World Conference for Women Studies in Singapore. She was also awarded the Cognella Innovation in Teaching Award for Family Science (Nov 2022) at NCFR.

Mamta has always been passionate about teaching and her experiences at both UConn and SUNY Oswego with students have encouraged her to experiment with innovative methods in teaching and have given her “big-picture thinking.” She continues to think of how teaching can be made more relevant, applied, effective, and efficient and mentor junior faculty to do the same. Ultimately, she would like to transition from a faculty to a leadership position in higher education that integrates DEISJ perspectives, curriculum development, and teaching/research on pedagogy. Mamta’s son is now in college and that leaves her with a lot of time for her hobbies, especially taking care of her vegetable garden in summer. When she is not teaching, she enjoys nature walks, gardening, cooking, sewing, and listening to podcasts on the neuroscience of meditation, focus, learning/motivation, and more.

Alexandria Tomkunas, HDFS Graduate Student Spotlight, June 2024

Lexi TomkunasLexi Tomkunas will complete her PhD in Spring 2024. For her dissertation, she conducted a state-wide analysis of codes of conduct and exclusionary discipline outcomes in Florida as well as semi-structured interviews with educators to explore how mindsets underlie the discipline process. Lexi entered the program having taught kindergarten at a Title I elementary school in Miami, Florida, and has continued teaching elementary school throughout her time at UConn. Her passion for education equity and bridging the research to practice gap underscored her experience in the program.  

At UConn, Lexi has collaborated with her advisor, Dr. Maria LaRusso, on research related to children’s social, emotional, and behavioral well-being and educator well-being. Additionally, she worked with Dr. Beth Russell and Dr. Rachel Tambling on a research project focused on family relationships during the pandemic. Lexi has also collaborated on research projects with various faculty in the Neag School of Education. She completed both the Culture, Health, and Human Development and College Instruction graduate certificates at UConn, as well as a graduate certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis at the Florida Institute of Technology. Furthermore, she was a Southern Education Foundation “SELI” fellow in the summer of 2021 and engaged in research and policy work related to Georgia’s school discipline practices. One of Lexi’s favorite experiences as a doctoral student was having the opportunity to teach the course Diversity Issues in Human Development four times on two different campuses. 

Lexi has accepted a role as the lead of a special education program at a public Waldorf school in Florida. She looks forward to continuing to support students, educators, and families in this role.

Na Zhang, HDFS Faculty Spotlight, June 2024

Na ZhangDr. Na Zhang is a prevention researcher, family scholar, and mindfulness teacher. At the center of her work is the intersection of mindfulness and parenting research. She is interested in understanding the biopsychosocial determinants of parenting behaviors and evaluating parenting interventions’ effects on improving parents’ and children’s mental health, processes of change, and implementation. Traditional parent training programs have focused on teaching parents about the “doing”, the outer parental behaviors, but she is interested in the inner work of parenting – which speaks to the “being”, or parents’ own self-regulation broadly, and mindfulness specifically – and their integration. In Na’s work she argues that integrating mindfulness training to existing evidence-based parent training programs is an innovative approach with potentials to optimize program outcomes in many ways. She is now developing a mindfulness app to enhance an evidence-based parenting program for divorced parents. The work is funded by a career development award from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Na studied at Tsinghua University before coming to the United States as an international student – this year marks her 10th year anniversary. During her PhD study at the University of Minnesota and postdoctoral training at Arizona State University, she studied the design, evaluation, and implementation of parenting interventions across stressful family contexts such as post-deployed military families and parentally bereaved families.

At UConn Na has so far taught undergraduate courses at the Stamford campus and is looking forward to teaching a graduate course soon. She directs a team of graduate and undergraduate student researchers in her Family Resilience and Mindfulness Empowerment (FRAME) lab. Recently she received a mentorship award from the UConn Office of Undergraduate Research.

Na is a qualified/Level 1 Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Teacher trained via Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, and in the final phase to become a certified/Level 2 teacher. She enjoys teaching MBSR and learns as much from her participants as they learn from her.