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Aetna taps students' research skills (Released: 10/5/98)

by Richard Veilleux Office of University Communications

STORRS, Conn. -- Jay Vadiveloo, an Aetna official, has lots of ideas for research projects but no time to accomplish the extra tasks.

Chuck Vinsonhaler, head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Connecticut, doesn't have much time to spare either, but he does have students with an extensive knowledge of math, statistics and actuarial sciences who are seeking research projects for their master's and doctoral dissertations.

So, when the two discussed their situations last year, the answer soon became clear, and Vadiveloo, a department head for Aetna Retirement Services, quickly brought UConn graduate students Frank Kang and Yvonne Chueh on board as interns. Their work has been so good that Vadiveloo, who is also an adjunct professor in UConn's math department, had no problem convincing other Aetna executives of the value of bringing more UConn math students to Hartford.

Vinsonhaler and Vadiveloo have now crafted a link between the corporate giant and UConn that will bring up to six actuarial sciences students a year to the insurer for year-long internships. The arrangement will fill many of Aetna's needs while giving the students a close-up look at the industry, a stipend and fellowship, as well as a research project they can carry from Aetna to UConn as they craft their dissertations.

"You can't lose. Aetna gets great students who bring their skills, energy and excitement to the company, and the students get real life experience and funding," says Vadiveloo. "It is such an easy program to sell."

Vadiveloo has been such an energetic proponent of the arrangement that he has convinced other department heads at Aetna, notably in information services, to explore creating a link with UConn. And still other department heads may follow, too.

What makes this program so special -- and rare -- Vinsonhaler and Vadiveloo agree, is that it goes beyond a standard internship, usually involving undergraduates, that gives companies an extra pair of hands and students a glimpse of life outside of academe, and instead places students directly into the research core of the corporation.

"Ph.D. students are more involved in creation of new knowledge," Vinsonhaler says, "and they want to be exposed to research problems, so (Aetna) will guide them to areas where research needs to be done."

Besides the learning experience, the students will be paid an hourly salary and the math department will receive a $5,000 fellowship for each intern they place. Nearly all of the fellowship money will go to the students, Vinsonhaler says, while about $500 from each will be reserved in a pool for recruiting the nation's best actuarial sciences students into UConn's program. The interns will work at Aetna full-time in the summer and during breaks in the academic calendar, and part-time during the academic year. They will also be eligible for course credit.

Vadiveloo is currently surveying other Aetna department heads to find areas that need help, then he and Vinsonhaler will work to match students to particular departments and research areas.

"It's a very practical program," Vadiveloo says. "The students bring great energy to my whole area. They (Frank Kang and Yvonne Chueh) are a breath of fresh air."