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Donna Calu, PhD

Academic Title:

Assistant Professor

Primary Appointment:

Anatomy and Neurobiology


HSF2 S263

Phone (Primary):


Education and Training

I graduated from University of Maryland, College Park with an undergraduate degree in Biology. I completed my PhD at University of Maryland School of Medicine, working with Geoffrey Schoenbaum to study the role of amygdala neural activity in attention and associative learning processes. 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. As an Early Independent Scientist at NIDA I 1) examined the validity of the food relapse model and 2) established a research program aimed at exploring the neural correlates and brain reward mechanisms underlying individual differences in addiction vulnerability. I joined Anatomy and Neurobiology in September of 2015. We continue our research efforts to characterize the neural circuit basis underlying individual vulnerability to addiction. For more about me and current lab peronnel see:



Lab website:

Research/Clinical Keywords

Reward, learning, motivation, attention, decision-making, addiction, obesity, individual differences, hedonics, amygdala, insular cortex, striatum, dopamine, in vivo electrophysiology, optogenetics, chemogenetics

Highlighted Publications

Bacharach, SZ*, Nasser, HM*,Zlebnik, NE, Dantrassy, HM, Cheer, JF, Calu, DJ. (2018) Cannabinoid receptor-1 signaling contributions to sign-tracking and conditioned reinforcement in rats. Psychopharmacology doi: 10.1007/s00213-018-4993-6.

Nasser, HM, Lafferty, DL, Lesser, EN, Bacharach, SZ, Calu, DJ. (2017). Disconnection of basolateral amygdala and insular cortex disrupts conditioned approach in Pavlovian lever autoshaping. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. 2017 Nov 21;147:35-45.

Nasser, HM*, Chen, YW*, Fiscella, KA, Calu, DJ. (2015) Individual variability in behavioral flexibility predicts sign-tracking tendency.Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. Nov 3; published online.

Chen, YW, Fiscella, KA, Bacharach, SZ, Tanda, G, Shaham, Y, Calu, DJ. (2014) Effect of yohimbine on reinstatement of operant responding in rats is dependent on cue contingency but not food reward history. Addiction Biology. Epub ahead of print Jul 27, 2014.

Chen, YW, Fiscella, KA, Calu, DJ. (2014) Effect of cafeteria diet history on cue-, pellet-priming-, and stress-induced reinstatement of food seeking in female rats. PLoS One. Jul 15; 9(7):e102213.

Calu DJ, Kawa AB, Marchant NJ, Navarre BM, Henderson MJ, Chen B, Yau H-J, Bossert JM, Schoenbaum G, Deisseroth K, Harvey BK, Hope BT, Shaham Y. (2013) Optogenetic inhibition of dorsal medial prefrontal cortex attenuates stress-induced reinstatement of palatable food seeking in female rats. Journal of Neuroscience. 33(1):214-26.

Calu, DJ, Roesch, MA, Haney, RZ, Holland, P.C., Schoenbaum, G. (2010). Neural correlates of variations in event processing during learning in central nucleus of amygdala. Neuron. 68(5);991-1001.

Roesch MA, Calu DJ, Esber GR, Schoenbaum G. (2010) Neural correlates of variations in event processing during learning in basolateral amygdala. Journal of Neuroscience. 30(7):2464-71.

Calu, DJ*, Roesch MA*, and Schoenbaum G. (2007) Dopamine neurons encode the better option in rats deciding between differently delayed or sized rewards. Nature Neuroscience. 10(12):1615-24.

*Authors contributed equally to the work.

Additional Publication Citations

Research Interests

Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience aimed at elucidating the brain mechanisms underlying individual differences in reward learning, motivation, addiction vulnerability and neuropsychiatric disorders. 

We study the brain mechanisms underlying individual differences in natural reward learning, motivation, and behavioral flexibility. We combine classic and modern techniques to examine real-time neural activity in awake, behaving rats as they perform reward learning tasks. We manipulate neural activity to demonstrate a causal role for specific brain circuitry in driving motivated and flexible behaviors. We examine the possibility that competing brain systems drive individual differences in cognitive strategies used for reward learning, with the ultimate goal of understanding vulnerability to addiction and neuropsychiatric disease.

More project info here

Awards and Affiliations

2001-03  University of Maryland; Biology Academic Honors

2003-04  Research Assistant; Department of Molecular Pathology, Walter Reed Army

                  Institute of Research, Silver Spring, MD

2004-10  Graduate Research Assistant; University of Maryland School of Medicine,

                  Baltimore, MD

2007-10  National Research Service Award; National Institute of Mental Health

2010       PhD Thesis Project Award; University of Maryland Graduate Program in Life


2010       Top Junior Investigator Data Presentation; Winter Conference on Brain Research

2010-11  Postdoctoral Fellow; Intramural Research Training Award; NIH/NIDA/IRP,

                  Baltimore, MD

2011-15  Early Independent Scientist; NIH/NIDA/IRP, Baltimore MD

2011       Early Independent Scientist Position; National Institutes of Health; NIDA-IRP

2011       Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Course on Cell Biology of Addiction; Selected 

2013       Excellence in Scientific Research, Toni Shippenberg Fellow Award, NIDA-IRP

2013       Winter Conference in Brain Research Travel Fellowship, WCBR 2014

2015-      Assistant Professor, UMSOM; Research Collaborator, NIH/NIDA/IRP

2016       Outstanding Young Scientist, Maryland Science Center, Maryland Academy of Sciences 

2017       Nominated by UMSOM for Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientist, Life Sciences Category




Grants and Contracts

2011-2015      Early Independent Scientist, National Institute of Health, National Institute

                           on Drug Abuse Intramural Research Program

2017-2019      NARSAD Young Investigator Award, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation

2017-2020      McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award

2017-2022      R01 NIDA, 1R01DA043533-01A1, Award period

In the News

Community Service

2012-15  Gifted and Talented Intern Program with Long Reach High School, Columbia, MD

2014       Lecture to disadvantaged and special education high school students; Winter

                 Conference on Brain Research School Outreach Program

                 Lecture to high school and college students; NIDA Summer Student Seminar

2015       Panel representative for Academia jobs; “Future of the PhD: Career Options,” NIDA

                 Post-bac Program

2016       Thesis committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Qualifying Exam Committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Advisory committee member, Program in Neuroscience

                Alternate member School of Medicine Council

                Interviewer for Medical School Admissions

                GPILS and OPS Awards Nomination review committee member

2017-18   Qualifying Exam Committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               Program in Neuroscience Retreat Committee member

               Program in Neuroscience Seminar Committee member

               Chair of Neurobiology Seminar Series in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

               Co-Chair Anatomy and Neurobiology Faculty Search Committee

               Interviewer for Medical School Admissions, 2017-2018 academic year

               Advisory committee member, Program in Neuroscience, 2017-2018 academic year

               Thesis committee member, Program in Neuroscience

               Program in Neuroscience Training Committee member

               Laboratory demonstration for NOVA Baltimore City Schools Fall Lab Tour

               Program in Neuroscience curriculum committee member

Professional Activity

Download CV for Mentoring, Teaching, and Invited Lectures

Peer Review Work                              

Ad-hoc reviewer: Scientific journals

Journal of Neuroscience (2010-2016), F1000 Associate faculty post-publication review contributor (2010-11) Neuroscience (2010-11), Addiction Biology (2012-2015), Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience (2015), Neuropsychopharmacology (2015-2016), Behavioral Neuroscience (2014-2015)

Ad-hoc reviewer: Grant agencies

French National Research Agency (2013), Israel Science Foundation (2015), Marsden Fund, Royal Society of New Zealand (2016)


Lab Techniques and Equipment

  • Rodent behavioral models of learning, decision-making, addiction and stress
  • In vivo electrophysiology in awake, behaving rats
  • Anatoimcal tracing and immunohistochemistry
  • Brain circuit manipulation via optogenetics and chemogenetics

Links of Interest