Martha Bhattacharya and Leah Callovini Join Growing VIP Program as New Leaders

Subject: Martha Bhattacharya and Leah Callovini Join Growing VIP Program as New Leaders
Date: Aug 31, 2022

Martha Bhattacharya, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Neuroscience, has recently taken on a new role at the helm of Vertically Integrated Projects, a multidisciplinary program that engages students in research, creative inquiry and service learning.

As VIP's new faculty director, Bhattacharya joins Leah Callovini, MS, who has been the first member of VIP's administration team since May. As its undergraduate research coordinator, Callovini manages a wide range of program activities, from outreach to assessment.

Bringing VIP to Wildcat Country

The VIP program is one of the University of Arizona's newest and fastest growing initiatives to grow opportunities for experiential learning. At VIP, undergraduate and graduate students work in multi-semester project teams that are based in a faculty member's area of scholarship and exploration.  

The VIP model was first developed at Georgia Institute of Technology and has since been adopted at more than 40 campuses around the world. The VIP program launched in 2020 with a team led by Win Burleson, PhD from Health Sciences Design. Burleson's team, UA Holodeck, uses simulation and supercomputing technology to address complex problems in health care.

Bhattacharya was another early adopter of the VIP model. Bhattacharya, who is a researcher and instructor at the Department of Neuroscience, joined VIP in 2021 with a team called Brain Communication Networks. The team's research focuses on the role of cell communication in neurodegenerative diseases such as epilepsy and Alzheimer's disease.

Bhattacharya's use of the VIP model paid off quickly. In September 2021, she was the recipient of the University of Arizona College of Science's Distinguished Early-Career Teaching Award, in recognition of outstanding classroom teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Leading to the award were her efforts designing new courses that sharpened critical thinking and research skills. One of those courses, NSCS 392, was the class that launched her VIP team.

A Program on the Fast Track

From its initial footprint among Burleson, Bhattacharya and a few other faculty members, VIP soon experienced rapid growth – and increasing administrative needs as a result. By its fourth semester, VIP had grown to 16 active teams with more than 50 students. Currently there are several more teams in development.

Both Bhattacharya and Callovini were hired through an award from the Provost's Investment Fund to provide VIP with permanent, centralized administration, replacing the initial efforts of a group of faculty, staff and campus leaders who managed the program as a collaborative project.

Kasi Kiehlbaugh, PhD, director of Health Sciences Design and lead PI for the PIF award, led VIP's efforts to create a dedicated management team. She also served on the search committees that brought Bhattacharya and Callovini to the helm.

"From its original class in Health Sciences Design, VIP grew beyond our expectations. Win Burleson championed the VIP model and put a lot of energy into establishing the program at UArizona," Kiehlbaugh said. "Right away, colleagues across campus recognized its potential to provide unique, research-based, multidisciplinary educational experiences to a broad range of students. To keep up with the growing interest, we needed a director and coordinator who could oversee the expanding program, and we’re excited to have Martha and Leah in those roles."

A Positive Impact on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Working closely with Callovini, Kiehlbaugh examined program data over the summer to see the range of students VIP has been reaching. Data from its first two academic years shows that women and community college transfer students participated in VIP teams beyond their level of representation in the overall student population. For three semesters, the same was also true of Pell-eligible students.

Following practices used at other VIP campuses, the program at the University of Arizona has sought to remove barriers to research experiences to maximize its impact among underrepresented students. To accomplish that, the program has made research opportunities transparent and accessible through online team listings, and it encourages its team leaders to simplify their application processes and view students' interest and motivation – instead of past experiences and academic performance – as the greatest predictors of success. In addition, the program has added Federal Work-Study opportunities as another means to participate in teams. VIP teams currently employ nine students through FWS, with additional hiring expected in the current semester.  

Removing barriers for faculty members has also played a role in VIP's success. One of the first investments in the program came from the Arizona Institute for Resilient Environments & Societies, which provided seed funds to faculty who wanted to start new teams. To Kevin Bonine, PhD, Director, AIRES Education Initiatives, VIP provided a framework to align faculty research and teaching efforts, introducing students to real-world problem-solving to address environmental challenges.

More recently, AIRES has invested in VIP through student stipend awards, which are available to VIP teams that are developing equitable approaches to sustainability and community resilience. Bonine continues to be involved in VIP as a member of its Executive Committee and was also involved in the recruitment of its new program leaders.

Leading the Next Chapter

After the success of her own VIP team, Bhattacharya was well prepared to lead the program as a whole, and on August 8, she accepted the additional title of Faculty Director, Vertically Integrated Projects. 

Prior to joining VIP, Callovini was a data analyst at Campus Recreation, where she coordinated grants, assessed user engagement and supported diversity and inclusion efforts. Currently she is also a doctoral student at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, where her research focuses on sleep, nutrition and exercise behavior among college students. "Finding ways to support student success has been important to me, so it’s exciting to be part of a program that is expanding access to research and active learning, especially for students from underrepresented groups," Callovini said.

As faculty director and undergraduate research coordinator, Bhattacharya and Callovini will lead efforts to grow VIP in both the number and diversity of active teams and enrolled students, as well as elevate VIP’s research productivity and educational outcomes. "I've seen firsthand how the VIP model can change how students think about their ability to understand scientific processes and make discoveries," Bhattacharya said. "It's been life-changing for many of them, especially for first-generation students who had no prior research experience."


Faculty and students who are interested in engaging with the VIP program can contact for more information about team start-up, enrollment, and Federal Work-Study opportunities.

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