Meet the Lab

Victoria P. Connaughton, Ph.D. – PI

Dr. Connaughton’s research seeks to identify the neurobiological bases of visual processing in the vertebrate retina and factors that may affect or alter retinal circuits resulting in vision loss, such as disease conditions or exposure to pharmaceutical or environmental agents.  The research approach used in my lab is interdisciplinary, combining physiological, anatomical, and behavioral techniques to identify visual system deficits in both developing and adult animals. In addition to being an active research scientist and faculty member, she is a strong, consistent supporter and advocate of student research.  All experiments in her lab are performed in collaboration with graduate and undergraduate student research assistants, and many of my publications include student co-authors.  To date, Dr. Connaughton supervised > 50 undergraduate student research projects and > 40 graduate theses.  Her students have presented their work at a variety of venues, such as high school science fair competitions, professional meetings, and student research conferences, and also obtained research funding. Dr. Connaughton includes student co-authors on my publications and, after graduating, most of my students continued their training as graduate and/or medical school students.

Meg Bentley, Ph.D 

Dr. Bentley earned a PhD in Molecular Biology and Genetics from Northwestern University studying the role of protein ubiquitination and the APC/C complex in Drosophila melongaster. After research and teaching post-doctoral fellowships at Harvard Medical School, she decided to dedicate her research to science teaching and curriculum development. Currently, she teaches Biology 100, 110, 210 and upper level courses for majors, including developmental and cell biology. She is also developing interdisciplinary general education courses for non-majors and laboratory, research-based courses for science majors. Dr. Bentley currently works with students investigating the aberrant Notch Signaling in the hyperglycemic larval brain.

Wade Kothmann, Ph.D.

Dr. Kothmann received his PhD from the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston where he studied signal transduction pathways that mediate adaptive reorganization of retinal circuits in response to changes in the visual environment (e.g. a room getting brighter or darker). He then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke before joining the Biology Department at American University, where he currently teaches various biology courses as well as upper-level and graduate neuroscience courses. When not teaching he continues to investigate how plasticity in retinal circuit organization mediates visual adaptation. Undergraduates interested in learning about visual neuroscience at the molecular and cellular level should inquire about summer research opportunities and/or the 5-year combined BS/MS degree program in Biology.

Cassie J. Gould, M.S

Ph.D Candidate 

Cassie entered the ZENV lab in the Fall of 2014 when she began her Master’s Degree (MS) in biology evaluating the deleterious and long-lasting impact of endocrine disrupting compounds on physiology and behavior in the zebrafish. After completing her MS, Cassie was recruited by Dr. Connaughton to stay on for her Ph.D. in Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience (BCaN). Cassie is currently in her 3rd year and is now a Ph.D. Candidate in the Behavior, Cognition, & Neuroscience program. Her current research involves the induction of hyperglycemia in the zebrafish type II diabetes model. She is interested in understanding the interactions between complications associated with this metabolic disease, such as the link between diabetic retinopathy and cognitive deficits. Zebrafish are a good model for her project because, in contrast to humans who take 10-15 years for these complications to arise, zebrafish show similar symptoms after 4-8 weeks of exposure. During her time in the lab Cassie has optimized several techniques that are commonly used in other model systems, specifically, a 3-chamber choice behavioral learning and memory task. Cassie also enjoys training and mentoring  other students in the lab and is looking forward to running her own lab one day. 

Melissa Doot Kennedy, M.S. candidate

Missy graduated from American University with a BS in Marine Biology in the Fall of 2011. She returned last year to work towards her Masters in Biology. She is interested in unique sensory systems, especially in invertebrates. Currently, with the help of her assistant, Angelo, she is looking at the role of serotonin in the photobehaviors of amphipods. Her study currently includes three species of amphipods, each with representative populations from differing habitats. Notably, this group of study species includes several populations from local caves with reduced or missing eyes. It is known that amphipod photobehaviors are disrupted when they are exposed to serotonin altering parasites or environmental contaminants like antidepressants. By exposing amphipods to Prozac in the lab, Missy is hoping to better understand how the serotonin pathway can be adapted for various environments. Outside of the lab Missy likes to spend time outside (or underwater) with her husband, son and dogs.


Jenna Wiegand, M.S. candidate

Jenna is an Environmental Science Master’s student who is studying how toxins found in the Anacostia River affect the anatomy and behavior of zebrafish. Her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science is also from American University. She has been in the ZENV lab for four years. Her research interests include behavior and ecotoxicology. She is extremely passionate about species conservation, and hopes that her work will go towards saving the planet. In her free time she spends time with her dog and two cats.


Mikayla Crowley-Perry, Postbaccalaureate Research Assistant

Mikayla’s research interests revolve around developmental neurobiology. Specifically, she is interested in examining the effects of juvenile hyperglycemia on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Additionally, she is interested in examining the long term cognitive and physiological effects of sustaining a childhood traumatic brain injury. Mikayla completed her postbaccalaureate program in 2019 and will remain a member of the ZENV lab studying the long term effects of endocrine disrupting compounds on the visual system while applying to MSTP programs. She is also a laboratory instructor in the Department of Chemistry, and enjoys reading, sewing, hiking, and exploring the DMV.

Kyle Laurie, Postbaccalaureate Student

Kyle recently joined the ZENV lab this fall as a premed post baccalaureate student. His research aims to study the effect of diabetes on neurotransmitter release in the hyperglycemic zebrafish model. Currently, his experiments explore the exocytosis patterns of dopamine on the isolated fish brain. Kyle graduated from UC Davis in 2018 with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and enjoys hiking, biking, and photography in his free time.



Angelo Barberio, B.S.

Angelo is a senior at American University. Angelo has been working in the lab since the beginning of fall semester of 2017, working under Emma Lucore, and was responsible for measuring the fish using a computer software, feeding, collecting data, and using ethovision to track fish for her research study. Over the summer of 2018, Angelo worked with Missy Kennedy and was responsible for amphipod water changes, setting up the appropriate trails, and conducting the trails using the light boxes and chamber that was designed by Missy. Missy and Angelo have been scoring these amphipod trails to see whether or not the amphipods were photonegative or photopositive.Now, Angelo is studying the different populations of amphipods and how they adapt and behave in different environments. The main purpose of the research is to examine photoreception in the amphipods and assess the impact of altered serotonin pathways on photobehavior to determine whether the amphipod is photonegative or photopositive. This is done by using a preference assay, subterranean, and surface populations of the species Gammarus minus to be characterized as photonegative, photopositive, or photoneautral before and after the exposure of the antidepressant Fluoxetine. Fluoxetine is a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and amphipods are either kept in .5% Fluoxetine, .05%, or control (deer park water). The results will provide an understanding of the photoreception of amphipods as well as the serotonin on the photobehavior. This ultimately gives the general public and the science world a better understanding of the visual system of these invertebrate species. This is the first known in depth study of amphipods. Angelo would like to give a many special thanks because each one of these peoples work and contributions surly do not go unnoticed. “First and foremost, I would like to thank Emma for giving me chance to help here out with the research the beginning of my sophomore year. I have learned the basics of what it takes to thrive in a research lab setting and I appreciate her trusting my work. Next, I would like to thank Missy for letting me work with her over the summer and to this day. I’ve learned some very extraordinary facts in this research process and the experience made me fall in love with research and science even more than when I came in. Also, thank you for trusting me with the data and the trails as they are huge implications for our results and our future findings. To continue, I would like to thank the fantastic people in the lab that I get to work with on a daily: Mikayla Crowley-Perry, Cassie Gould, Julie Delgado, Dr. Meg Bentley, Dr. Wade Kothmann and the list goes on. They make each and everyday a great time and make the lab an incredible place for an extraordinary environment. Last but not least, I would like to thank Dr. Vikki Connaughton being the amazing lab leader she is and letting me continue my research in this lab. She gave me a chance by answering my email and I have not been more grateful! The ZENV Lab is truly a special place.”


Erica Winston, B.S.

Erica is a rising senior American University studying biology on a pre-vet track. She hopes to work in wildlife rehabilitation or conservation biology. Erica currently works as a lab assistant in Dr. Connaughton’s ZENV lab, Erica is excited to explore the ways in which endocrine disruptors affect long term development and vision in zebrafish. In her free time, she loves all forms of dance, hiking or any outdoor activities, and exploring DC.