PEOPLE 2020-10-06T18:16:32+00:00


Joseph Cheer, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator


Joe’s  main interests lie in the elucidation of the neurobiological effects of cannabinoids in both natural and drug-induced reinforcement. Joe graduated from Universidad de los Andes (Bogota, Colombia) with a B.S in Biology in 1996. He joined the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Experimental Microsurgery at the Colombian Neurology Foundation where he worked for 1 year investigating CNS regeneration using oncogene-tranfected cells and sciatic nerve co-grafts in motor cortex-lesioned animals. Joe received his Ph.D from the University of Nottingham (Neuroscience Section of the School of Biomedical Sciences) under the direction of Profs Charles Marsden and Dave Kendall and Dr Rob Mason. Joe’s graduate research focused on the behavioral and electrophysiological effects of cannabinoids.

Joe’s first postdoc (2000-2002) was spent in Sam Deadwyler’s laboratory (Wake Forest University School of Medicine) where he conducted research on multiple single-unit electrophysiology in freely moving organisms. Joe joined Mark Wightman’s lab as a post doc in fall 2002 at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). There, he established the use of a microelectrode that allows for the simultaneous measurement of single-unit activity and dopamine release via fast-scan cyclic voltammetry.

Joe is currently a tenured professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he directs undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral projects related to several neurophysiological and neurochemical aspects of endogenous cannabinoid signaling in intact systems.

In his spare time Joe likes to enjoy the outdoors with his two daughters, his wife and his rescue dog, Rusty.

Iness Gildish, M.S.

Laboratory Manager


Neurobiology and psychology became Inna’s main interest during high school and she knew she wanted to be a researcher in this area. Inna earned her B.S in Molecular Bio-Chemistry from Technion, Haifa, Israel in 2008. During her studies at the Technion she met prof. Kobi Rosenblum whose research in taste learning and memory mechanism dazzled her so she decided to continue her education in his lab.

A year later she joined prof. Kobi Rosenblum’s lab in Haifa University as a M.S. student. During this time she worked with transgenic mice to determine how regulation of translation elongation involved in taste memory formation and its consolidation. By using behavioral, molecular, and imaging techniques, she was able to make progress in understanding the relationship between regulation of protein synthesis during memory consolidation and behavioral output. Inna joined the Cheer Lab in December 2011 to learn about electrochemical and neurophysiological recordings in behaving animals, and to better understand the endocannabinoid system.

Inna’s future goals are to complete a Ph.D. in neuroscience. In her spare time she enjoys reading, watching movies, photography and traveling.

Natalie Zlebnik, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor


Natalie graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in physiology and a BS in neuroscience in 2008. Following her undergraduate studies, she completed her PhD in neuroscience in the behavioral pharmacology laboratory of Marilyn Carroll, PhD, at University of Minnesota in 2014.  Her research in the Carroll Lab investigated vulnerabilities and treatments for drug addiction using rodent self-administration models, and her doctoral thesis examined the effects of wheel running on cocaine relapse-related behavior and its neurobiological substrates.  Natalie joined the Cheer Lab as a postdoctoral fellow in the summer of 2014.  Here, she will expand her technical training to examine the endocannabinoid modulation of dopamine transmission during motivated behaviors using electrophysiological and optogenetic approaches.

Sonia Aroni, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow


Sonia earned her BS in biology, then a MS in neuropsychobiology, at the University of Cagliari in 2012. During her MS, she mastered in brain microdialysis, examining the effect of social isolation and the involvement of CB1 receptors in blunting extracellular dopamine increase in the medial prefrontal cortex in response to food anticipation and presentation in food-restricted rats.
Following her undergraduate studies, she was trained at the Neuroscience Institute of National Research Council to perform EEG recordings in a drug-resistant murine model of epilepsy investigating the therapeutic effect of a PPAR-alpha agonist.
Sonia completed her PhD in Neuroscience in the laboratory of Professor Marco Pistis, at the University of Cagliari. Her research was focused on investigating the neuronal adaptations of brain areas primarily involved in reward and aversion during cannabinoid withdrawal using in vivo extracellular single unit recordings.
In 2017 she joined the Sparta Lab, at the University of Maryland, as a postdoctoral fellow, where she carried on in studying the brain circuitry that underlies drug addiction, taking advantage of in vivo electrophysiology. Her work focused on investigating the involvement of central amygdala CRF neurons in encoding binge ethanol drinking.
She joined the Cheer Lab in the fall of 2018, as a postdoctoral fellow. Here, she is going to expand her knowledge in electrophysiology and she will learn fast-scan cyclic voltammetry, while working on a project aimed to analyse neuronal population activity in the cortex and the striatum through age in an animal model of Huntington’s disease.

Miguel Angel Lujan Perez, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow


Miguel earned his B.Sc. in Psychology from University Jaume I, Castellon, Spain in 2014. During his undergraduate studies, Miguel participated as an undergraduate research staff in Dr. Laura Font’ and Dr. Raul Pastor’s lab at the Department of Basic and Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology. Following his B.Sc. studies, Miguel completed an M.Sc. in Neuroscience at the Dr. Olga Valverde’s Neurobiology of Behaviour Group in the University Pompeu Fabra and the University of Barcelona, Spain in 2016. His M.Sc. research was focused on the consequences of synthetic cathinone adolescent exposure in the reinforcing effects of cocaine in adulthood. During this period, Miguel mastered the mouse intravenous drug self-administration paradigm.

In 2016, Miguel joined Dr. Olga Valverde’s lab at University Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. There, he was awarded with a Research and Docent Staff scholarship by the Ministry of Education of the Spanish Government to develop his Ph.D. studies in Biomedicine. In 2020, Miguel obtained his Ph.D., focused on understanding the viability of cannabis derivative substances (mainly cannabidiol) as a therapeutical strategy to reduce cocaine consumption and excessive reinforcement.

In October 2020, Miguel joined Dr. Joseph Cheer’s lab at the University of Maryland as a Postdoctoral Fellow. Here, he will investigate the pharmacological and physiological basis of motivation in a transgenic mouse model of reinforcement learning, with a particular emphasis on endocannabinoid signaling using electrophysiological and optogenetic approaches.

Lan-Yuan Zhang, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow


Lan-Yuan Zhang graduated from the Peking University in 2015 with a degree of B.S. and received a recommendation to enroll in the Ph.D. program with exemption from admission exams. His graduation study focused on exploring the endocannabinoid regulation of synaptic and astrocytic glutamate release in the accumbens core during cocaine withdrawal.

In 2018 Lanyuan received scholarship support for a two year exchange program to explore the functional impact astrocytic activities to reward seeking processes at Cheer lab at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

In July 2020, Lan-yuan received his Ph.D. degree in neuropharmacology from Peking University. Soon after his graduation, Lan-Yuan joined Dr. Joseph Cheer’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow to continue his research.

As for laboratory skills, he is well trained in rodent cocaine self-administration procedures, attentional set-shifting task, whole cell patch-clamp recording and in vivo fiber photometry.

Sheila Antonagi Engi, Ph.D.

Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow


Sheila graduated in Biology Sciences from the São Paulo State University (UNESP, São Paulo, Brazil) in 2009. After, joined Prof. Cleopatra Planeta´s lab to study and investigate the mechanisms related to cocaine and anabolic addiction and cardiovascular complications in adolescent and adult animals in her Master´s Degree; later, she investigated the protective central and cardiovascular effects of exercise in ethanol consumption disorders in her Ph.D. Degree. She obtained her Master´s (2012) and Ph.D. Degree (2016) in Physiological Sciences from the Federal University of São Carlos, SP/Brazil.In 2017 started her first postdoc in Prof. Fabio Cruz´s lab (Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil) and investigated the effects of cannabidiol treatment using cell culture and different animal behavioral protocols for ethanol consumption disorders.In 2020 joined Prof. Joseph Cheer´s lab to investigate the effects of cannabinoids during the adolescence and its consequences in cocaine-seeking and consumption in adult animals using fiber photometry technique.

Andrew Kim, B.S.

Research Technician


Andrew graduated from the Johns Hopkins University in 2012 with a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering.

In the Cheer Lab, Andrew assists with ongoing studies on endocannabinoid modulation of dopamine transmission and effects on goal-directed behaviors via electrochemical and optogenetic techniques.

He is currently implementing an in-vivo calcium imaging method to study neural network dynamics associated with the onset and progression of Huntinton’s disease in mouse models.

Samantha Miller, B.A.

Research Technician


Samantha graduated from Miami University in 2018 with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Spanish.

During her time at Miami University, Samantha worked with an undergraduate research team in the Broadening Undergraduate Research Program directed by Dr. Jennifer Quinn. The student-led project assessed the effects of early life stress (acute versus chronic) on behavioral flexibility and compulsivity with alcohol as a reward in mice. Samantha also worked under Dr. Matthew McMurray investigating the effects of oxytocin on impulsive decision making in rats.

Sam joined the Cheer Lab in October 2018 as a research technician. She currently works with Dr. Natalie Zlebnik on a project examining adolescent THC and Ritalin exposure and its impact on impulsive behavior in adulthood.

In the future, Sam hopes to attend graduate school to obtain a PhD in neuroscience or psychology.

Lakota Watson, B.A.

Research Technician


Lakota graduated from the University of Colorado Boulder in 2018 with a B.A. in Neuroscience and a B.A. in Psychology.

During her time at CU, Lakota worked with Dr. Marie Banich studying adolescent mood and cognition and assisted in behavioral tasks during fMRI and MRS sessions with teens and their parents. The project she worked on focused on GABAergic signaling in the PFC, mood, and behavior. It evaluated connections between overall cognition and brain activity and psychological state in adolescents with a genetic risk for mood disorders.

She joined the Cheer Lab in October 2018 as a research technician. Presently, Lakota works with Dr. Jen Wenzel and Dr. Joseph Cheer on two projects. Her primary project examines the role of endocannabinoid mediation of oxytocin and its effects on prosocial behavior in mice. She employs both a Pavlovian social distress task and in vivo calcium imaging to quantify such effects. Additionally, Lakota continues Dr. Wenzel’s work in elucidating the role of the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway in active avoidance. 

In the future, Lakota hopes to attend graduate school and obtain a Ph.D. in neurobiology.

Thach-Vu Nguyen

Undergraduate Volunteer


Vu is currently a junior studying biochemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In June 2018, Vu joined as a volunteer at the Cheer Lab, learning the foundations of behavioral research. Since becoming a member, Vu has co-presented a poster on the role of corticostriatal projections in impulsive choice behavior. He currently works closely with Lakota to investigate the progression of neuronal activity during a social distress task using calcium mini-endoscope imaging of mice in a Pavlovian paradigm.

Vu is also the author and team liaison of Team ACID, an undergraduate research group in the Gemstone Honors College at the University of Maryland. Team ACID developed a novel treatment model aiming to promote prosocial behavior in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Under the mentorship of Dr. Nishanth Sunny, the team looks to microdose an analogue of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in a mouse model of ASD and apply social and anxiolytic behavioral assays such as a partition test with a conspecific and an elevated zero maze to assess the efficacy of the model. Additionally, they will examine the modulation of endogenous serotonergic receptors to further deconstruct the observed behavior.

In his free time, Vu enjoys being a live-in volunteer at the College Park Volunteer Fire Department. He plans to pursue a career in medicine and politics.

Jessica Klein

Undergraduate Volunteer


Jessica is a sophomore studying Physiology and Neurobiology at the University of Maryland, College Park. 
Through the University of Maryland, Jessica is on a research team studying the host pathogen interactions between different genetic knockout strains of Escherichia coli and bacteriophage. Currently, her research team is studying how the knockout of the ΔthrA gene in E. coli affects the replication of T2 and T4 bacteriophage in varying conditions. Under the mentorship from Dr. Jessica O’Hara, Jessica and her team are studying the implications of this genetic knockout on the synthesis of L-serine, thus affecting the replication of the bacteriophage. 
Recently joining Cheer Lab in September of 2019, Jessica is in the midst of learning the fundamental aspects of behavioral neuroscience research. She is working alongside Samantha Miller and Erin Beebe in efforts to study the effects of THC and Ritalin administration in adolescent rats and development of impulsivity in adulthood.  

Tristan Beeson

Undergraduate Volunteer

Tristan graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in the spring of 2018 with a degree in Physiology and Neurobiology.

While at the University of Maryland, Tristan performed research on the relationship between estrogen and cognitive decline with aging in the Hearing and Speech Sciences Lab under Dr. Rochelle Newman. In this project, the cognitive performance of pre-menopausal women, menopausal women on hormone therapy and menopausal women not on hormone therapy was assessed using a variety of verbal memory and recall tasks.

Tristan joined the Cheer Lab as a volunteer in September 2019. Currently he is primarily working with Erin to assess the effect of endocannabinoid mediated dopamine signaling in the nucleus accumbens on interval timing.

Outside of the lab, Tristan works as a medical scribe in the ER of the Baltimore Washington Medical Center and he volunteers as a Firefighter/EMT at the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company in College Park. In the future Tristan hopes to attend medical school and become an MD or DO.

Paula Nhan

Undergraduate Volunteer

Paula is currently a senior studying biochemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park. She graduated from Montgomery College in 2018 with a A.S. in Biochemistry.

During her time at the University of Maryland, Paula investigated ligand dependency on the synthesis of nanoparticles under the guidance of Dr. Jason Kahn. The student-led project examined polystyrene and dithiothreitol (DTT) ligand effects on citrate-stabilized gold nanoparticles. In 2016, she obtained her qualification as a state certified pharmacy technician of the Maryland Board of Pharmacy and currently works at CVS Pharmacy.

She joined the Cheer Lab in August 2019 as an undergraduate volunteer to learn the foundations of behavioral neuroscience. Paula currently works with Dr. Natalie Zlebnik on an ongoing investigation that examines THC and Ritalin exposure in adolescent mice and rats and its influence on adulthood impulsivity.

Interested in joining the lab? Contact us about potential openings.


Years Alum Current Position
2009 – 2011 Carien Lansink, Ph.D. Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam
2009 – 2012 Giovanni Hernandez, Ph.D. Jasper Research Fellow, University of Montreal
2010 – 2013 Roger Cachope, M.D. Director of Systems Neurobiology, CHDI, adjunct Assistant Professor, UMSOM
2010 – 2013 Erik Oleson, Ph.D. Associate Professor, University of Colorado, Denver
2013 – 2014 Thibaut Sesia, Ph.D. Group Leader, University of Cologne
2013 – 2019 Jen Wenzel, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, University of San Diego
2014 – 2020 Dan Covey, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Lovelace Research Institute, University of New Mexico