Donna J. Calu, Ph.D.

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with an undergraduate degree in Neurobiology and Physiology. I completed my PhD at University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, working with Geoffrey Schoenbaum to study the role of amygdala neural activity in attention and associative learning processes. I am a proud Program in Neuroscience (PIN) student. As a postdoc in the laboratory of Yavin Shaham at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), I used an optogenetic approach to examine the role of medial prefrontal cortex in relapse to palatable food seeking. In 2011, I accepted the unique opportunity to become an Early Independent Scientist.

I started Calu Lab at NIDA in the Behavioral Neuroscience Research Branch ​with the help of a handful of talented young scientists.  There we built a research program investigating the behavioral and brain basis of addiction vulnerability.


In Fall of 2015, Calu Lab moved when I became an Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. Read more about the excellent team below! 

Principal Investigator

The Calu lab conducts behavioral and systems neuroscience studies to elucidate the brain systems driving individual differences in reward learning and motivation that predict addiction vulnerability. We probe amygdala, cortical and striatal brain circuitry, prior to drug experience, to determine how engagement of these brain pathways during learning relates to addiction vulnerability phenotypes. We also examine how these brain systems are changed by voluntary drug experience and dependence to drive drug seeking and drug taking. These preclinical studies may yield new biomarkers of addiction vulnerability and identify new prevention and diagnostic strategies for treatment of addiction.

Outside of lab life, I get by with a lot of help from my family and friends. I enjoy yoga, meditation (or at least deep(er) breathing), live music, dancing around, walking, biking, cooking/baking and living with my husband and our two cool kids. 

Research Gate





David Martin, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow

I completed my undergraduate studies at Louisiana State University, earning a B.S. in Chemistry and a minor in Mathematics.  My interests in neuropharmacology led me to the lab of Dr. Charles Nichols at LSU Health Sciences Center, where I developed neuronal sorting approaches suitable for isolating specific neurons from non-genetically modified animals.  Using these techniques, I identified genetic responses to 5-HT2A ligands in specific neuronal subtypes of the cortex.  As a postdoc in the Calu Lab, I am studying the intertwined mechanisms underlying learning and addiction by using a combination of electrophysiological, behavioral, and pharmacological approaches. In addition to laboratory work, I also greatly enjoy the outdoors through playing soccer, biking, windsurfing, fishing, and skiing.


Sara Keefer, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow

I became fascinated with research and behavioral neuroscience during my undergraduate studies at Shippensburg University, where I received my B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Biology. During my studies, I became interested in studying appetitive motivation and pursued these interests for my graduate school training with Dr. Gorica Petrovich at Boston College. I studied the role of the basolateral amygdala and its interactions with the medial prefrontal cortex during appetitive learning. My graduate training resulted in a deep appreciation and understanding of the role of how neural circuitries can influence behavior. I joined the Calu lab to further understand the differential engagement of similar circuitries between subjects that display flexible and inflexible appetitive behaviors using a combination of behavioral, electrophysiological, pharmacological, and chemogenetic methods. Outside of research, I spend much of my time with my daughter and husband and enjoy espresso and running sans stroller.


Cassie Stapf

Graduate Student 

I graduated from the University of Scranton with a B.S. in Neuroscience and a minor in Chemistry. During my undergraduate education, I was able to pursue my interest in research and behavioral neuroscience through my work at Scranton with Dr. Patrick Orr working to study the effects of Tylenol administration on memory consolidation. Additionally, during the summer months of my Junior year, I was able to pursue my interest in pharmacology through a fellowship at Drexel University. Deciding to focus on the neurobiology of the motivation systems and being interested in individual differences in vulnerability to addictive behaviors, I joined the Calu lab in 2020. My hope is to develop a research project which brings together the study of endocannabinoid mediation within the motivation systems and better understand individual differences in reward pursuit. Outside of the lab I enjoy reading, learning to cook better, exploring Baltimore’s neighborhoods, and spending time with my rescue pup, Millie.


Sam Bacharach, B.A.

Graduate Student

I received a B.A. in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in 2013, where I became interested in behavioral neuroscience and the mechanisms of reward learning. Aspiring to do the research that had originally drawn me into the field, I joined the Calu Lab as a post-baccalaureate IRTA fellow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse and used in-vivo electrophysiology in awake behaving rats to examine neural activity in the nucleus accumbens and basolateral amygdala during a reward-unblocking task. My present graduate research in the Calu Lab examines the interaction of dopamine and endocannabinoids in cue-motivated learning in rats. Specifically, I’m interested in how ventral tegmental area endocannabinoid signaling mediates incentive and flexible behaviors in sign- and goal-tracking rats. Outside of the lab, I am an active cellist and perform with several orchestral and chamber groups in the area.

Research Gate profile


Utsav Gyawali B.A.

Graduate Student

I completed my undergraduate studies at St. Mary's College of Maryland with a major in Mathematics and a minor in Neurosciences. At St. Mary's, I worked in the lab of Dr. Anne Marie Brady exploring compulsive cocaine seeking in an animal model of schizophrenia. My interest in learning new techniques led me to join the lab of Dr. Brian Mathur at UMB as a lab manager/research technician. At the Mathur lab, I explored how thalamus intralaminar nuclei controls dopamine release in the striatum and reward related behaviors using optogenetics, chemogenetics, ex vivo electrophysiology, and fast scan cyclic voltammetry. To further my underlying interests in drug addiction, in fall of 2017, I joined the Calu lab. In the Calu lab, I am investigating the role of extended amygdala in incubation of opiate seeking in opiate-dependent and non-dependent animals using behavioral, in vivo electrophysiological, chemogenetic, and pharmacological tools. My interests outside of lab include camping, hiking, playing string instruments, and exploring Baltimore.

Rotating Graduate Students and Current Volunteers

We are grateful for the interest and hard work of rotating graduate students and student volunteers!



Program in Neuroscience: Cody Scholtens


Previous Calu Lab Members

Yu-Wei Chen, Ph.D.
Helen Nasser, Ph.D.
Dan Kochli, Ph.D. 

Post-Bac Students Research Technicians and Undergrads
Ellen Lesser, B.A.
Danielle Lafferty, B.A.
Kimberly Fiscella, B.A.
Sam Bacharach, B.A.
Alex Kawa, B.S.
Jules Chabot
Anne Tobin

Janai Williams
Emily Park
Satvik Pendem
Malik Carrol
Caleb Park
Camron Piotrowski
Anne Tobin
Hope Nyarady