Principal Investigator

Heath D. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Dr. Heath D. Schmidt is the Killebrew-Censits Chair of Undergraduate Education and a Professor of Neuroscience & Pharmacology in the Schools of Nursing and Medicine at Penn. As a neuropharmacologist and director of the Laboratory of Neuropsychopharmacology, Dr. Schmidt approaches research on drugs of abuse in several ways: to understand drug addiction as a disease of the brain, to develop new pharmacotherapies to treat addiction, and to better understand how the brain works. Dr. Schmidt also explores how food, especially the Western diet consisting of foods high in sugar and fat, changes the brain to produce aberrant food-seeking behaviors that can lead to obesity.  

Post Doctoral Fellows

Yafang Zhang, Ph.D.

Yafang’s primary research interest is studying the molecular and behavioral mechanisms underlying neuropsychiatric disorders. Yafang got her Ph.D. in the lab of Thomas A. Green at the University of Texas Medical Branch. After graduating from UTMB, Yafang continued her research with Dr. Heath Schmidt in 2016.  Yafang expanded her research interests to include neuroendocrine mechanisms underlying drug- taking and seeking behaviors. Cocaine addiction and prescription opioid analgesics abuse are two major public concerns. Using drug self-administration and reinstatement paradigms together with RNA sequencing and fiber photometry techniques, her current project aims to identify novel molecular targets, including GLP-1 and amylin systems, for the development of new medications to treat drug addiction and comorbid disorders.

Graduate Students

Rae Herman

Neuroscience Graduate Group

Rae is a second year student in the Neuroscience Graduate Group. Before arriving at Penn, she graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2018 with a BS in Cognitive-Behavioral Neuroscience. Afterwards, she spent a year researching the neural basis of nicotine relapse at the VU Medical Center in Amsterdam. She is interested in understanding the neural circuits of addiction to uncover novel treatments. Outside of lab, she enjoys live music, powerlifting, and exploring Philadelphia restaurants.

Research Staff

Kael Ragnini, B.A.

Kael Ragnini is a full-time research specialist in the Schmidt Lab. She graduated from Vassar College in 2019 with a major in Neuroscience and Behavior. Her research interests lie in the neurobiological basis of psychiatric disorders, especially substance use disorders and disordered eating. Kael is originally from Barrington, Illinois.

Riley Merkel, B.A.

Riley is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania (C ’21) where she received her Bachelors of Arts in Neuroscience with Honors. Originally from Chicago, IL, Riley is now a full-time research specialist, continuing her research endeavors from her undergraduate career in the Schmidt Lab. Riley is interested in the neural basis of different psychiatric disorders and how to use our understanding of the biological basis of behavior to forge new treatment interventions. Specifically, Riley wants to learn more about the complex relationship between stress and drug-relapse. Outside of the lab, Riley enjoys photography and spending time with her dog.

Antonia Caffrey, B.A.

Antonia is a recent graduate from Bryn Mawr College (Class of ’21) where she received B.A in Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience. Her research interests lie in the neurobiological basic of psychiatric disorders, especially substance use and anxiety disorders. Originally from San Antonio, TX, Antonia is now progressing her research and career at the Schmidt Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Outside of the lab, Antonia enjoys exploring Philly restaurants and you will either catch her spending time with friends or relaxing poolside.

Undergraduate Students

Jennifer Ben Nathan ’23

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Jenn is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a B.A. in Neuroscience. She joined the Schmidt lab as a 2020 PURM participant. Jenn’s work as an EMT treating patients impacted by addiction has inspired her research interests in the biological mechanisms behind behaviors that characterize addiction. Around Penn’s campus, Jenn is a member of the research committee for the Penn Undergraduate Biotech Society, the Reach-A-Peer Helpline, and the pre-health organization Alpha Iota Gamma. Jenn is from North Caldwell, NJ, and she loves collecting vinyl records.

Victoria Chinaka ’24

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Vicki is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a B.A. in Neuroscience on the pre-med track. She joined the lab in the spring of 2022; her senior capstone project inspired her research interest in therapies to treat drug addiction. Outside of the lab, Vicki is the president of Penn’s Circle-K, and a board member of Nigerians At Penn and Penn’s Minority Association of Pre-Health Students. She is also a tutor for the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project and a member of the pre-health organization Alpha Iota Gamma. She is from Baltimore, MD, and she loves to play volleyball and trivia.

Enzo LaVecchia ’24

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Enzo is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania pursuing a B.A. in Biochemistry. As part of the Roy & Diana Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences program, Enzo is motivated to complete research in the frontiers of science and explore his interests in neurobiology and mechanisms of behavior. He joined the Schmidt lab in 2022 after realizing his passion for neuroscience. At Penn, Enzo is a member of the Penn Neuroscience Society’s Research Committee, where he analyzes articles from leading neuroscience journals to learn more about the cutting edge of neurobiology and gain a broader contextual understanding for projects in the lab. He enjoys attending live music events in Philadelphia and playing saxophone around campus in the Penn Band.

Lab Alumni

Graduate Students

  • Dr. Nicole Hernandez, PhD
    • California Council on Science and Technology Fellow

Research Assistants

  • Christopher Turner, 2015-2018
    • Neuroscience graduate student, Univ. of Michigan
  • John Maurer, 2014-2017
    • Pharmacology graduate student, Univ. of Penn
  • Duncan Van Nest, 2014-2016
    • Medical Doctor: Orthopedic Specialist Surgeon
  • Adrian Arreola, 2012-2014
    • Dentist
  • Dr. Thomas Hopkins, M.D., 2010-2011
    • Medical doctor
  • Dr. Blake Kimmey, Ph.D. , 2011-2013
    • Postdoctoral researcher in the Corder Laboratory at Univ. of Pennsylvania
  • Rachel Schassburger-Panas, M.S., 2009-2011
    • Research Compliance Specialist, Penn State College of Medicine

Undergraduate Students

  • Sana Zeb, B.A. Univ. of Penn ’22
  • Suditi Rahematpura, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’21
    • Georgetown University School of Medicine ’26
  • Riley Merkel, B.A. Univ. of Penn ’21
    • Current Research Assistant in Schmidt Lab
  • Kamryn Stecyk, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’21
  • Amanda Moreno, B.A. Univ. of Penn ’21
    • Harvard Medical School ’26
  • Michelle Kahng, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’20
    • Medical student, Univ. of Minnesota Medical School
  • Vanessa Weir, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’19
    • Medical student, Columbia Univ. Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons
  • Jordan Wolfheimer, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’17
    • Medical student, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine
  • Dr. Kelsey Ige, M.D., B.S. Univ. of Penn ’14
    • Medical doctor: Internal Medicine/Pediatrics Specialist
  • Alycia Lee, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’12
    • Medical student, Heidelberg University
  • Blake Kimmey, Ph.D. , B.S. Univ. of Penn ’11
    • Postdoctoral researcher in the Corder Laboratory at Univ. of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Michael McMullen M.D., B.S. Univ. of Penn ’10
  • Dr. Thomas J. Hopkins M.D., B.S. Univ. of Penn ’10