Principal Investigator

Heath D. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Dr. Heath D. Schmidt is the Killebrew-Censits Chair of Undergraduate Education and an Associate 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.

Nicole Hernandez, Ph.D.

Nicole is a postdoctoral researcher in the Schmidt Lab at Penn, having completed her Ph.D in 2019 at the University of Pennsylvania. Originally from San Diego, Nicole completed her B.S. degree in Biological Sciences from the University of California, Irvine. Nicole’s dissertation project in the Schmidt lab aims to study the role of the GLP-1 system in the reinstatement of cocaine-seeking behavior. She currently utilizes behavioral pharmacology and DREADD based techniques to identify the mechanisms by which GLP-1 receptor agonists and the endogenous GLP-1 system act to reduce cocaine cocaine seeking at both the circuit and cellular level. Nicole has published 3 first author papers in the Schmidt lab and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellow.

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.

Sana Zeb ’22

Undergraduate Research Assistant

Sana Zeb is an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania and is pursuing a B.A. in the Biological Basis of Behavior and minoring in South Asia Studies. She has been awarded a PURM grant to explore her interest in the neurobiological basis of addiction through the 2020 summer at Schmidt Lab. She hopes to utilize her learning through this experience to supplement both her coursework and to guide future research interests. She plans on pursuing a medical degree after her undergraduate years. Outside of her academic interests, Sana is also a member of the club rugby team and an on-campus acapella group.

Lab Alumni

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 student, Thomas Jefferson University
  • Adrian Arreola, 2012-2014
    • Dental student, Univ. of Penn
  • 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

  • Suditi Rahematpura, B.S. Univ. of Penn ’21
  • 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
  • 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, John A. Burns School of Medicine
  • 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