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Biology studies explore human physiology and climate change impact on species: WCSU students earn SURF awards to pursue research with faculty mentors

image of James Hannon

DANBURY, CONN. — Two Western Connecticut State University students will gain invaluable hands-on experience in studies contributing to understanding of human physiology and climate change impact on species survival with support from the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program offered by the WCSU Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.

image of James Hannon
James Hannon

James Hannon, of Danbury, and Emily Hoegler, of Bethel, have received the department’s 2020 SURF awards to pursue research studies coordinated by mentors from the university’s biology faculty. Hannon’s research, mentored by Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Michelle Monette, will explore the impact that environmental stress caused by climate change has produced in Atlantic killifish, an important source of prey for many species found in coastal estuaries. Hoegler will continue work with her mentor, Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences Dr. Joshua Cordeira, to study how the expression or suppression of dopamine, a chemical whose release commonly increases during exercise, affects food intake behavior and propensity to gain weight.

image of Emily Hoegler
Emily Hoegler

Hannon and Hoegler competed successfully in a process open to applicants from WCSU and other colleges for the two SURF positions awarded annually by a department faculty review committee. The continuing limitations on campus access during the Covid-19 crisis have required the SURF committee to defer the timeframe for realization of their projects to summer 2021, when they will complete their field and laboratory studies over an eight- to 10-week period, submit a technical paper and present findings at a scientific forum. Each student will receive a $4,000 stipend upon successful completion of the program.

SURF programs are offered at universities nationwide with the goal of stimulating interest in research opportunities and careers in the STEM disciplines. Monette observed the SURF program in biology at WCSU provides an intensive research experience that also affords the chance to consider future career objectives. “This program is integral to our department’s ability to provide motivated undergraduates with the opportunity to gain skills and confidence in laboratory and field-based research,” she said.

Hannon, a biology major with a concentration in environmental science, gained an introduction to study of biodiversity and common species in brackish waters during field work tracking diamond-back terrapins in southern Connecticut under the guidance of Professor of Biological and Environmental Studies Dr. Theodora Pinou. His studies with Monette this winter provided the scientific foundations to investigate how animals use physiological attributes to adapt to their environment, and how their survival is threatened when these mechanisms are overwhelmed by rapid environmental change.

“As environmental temperature rises, oxygen becomes less soluble in water, which requires gilled animals to pass more water over their gills to maintain homeostatic oxygen levels,” Hannon said. “This presents a problem for fish, particularly those in marine and estuarine waters, because as water intake increases, so does the intake of salt. Our goal is to determine the impact of elevated water temperatures on salinity tolerance by analyzing patterns in gene expression and developing genetic biomarkers that will further the scientific community’s understanding of multiple stressors on estuarine fish.”

During the present campus closure, Hannon has prepared for his research work through a thorough investigation of the biological literature on his subject, and he plans to work with Monette in an independent study course during the fall semester. He also recently earned a Connecticut Sea Grant Undergraduate Research Fellowship with an award of $5,000 supporting his summer 2021 project. The Sea Grant fellowship is awarded to broaden participation of underrepresented and underserved students in marine and coastal professions through research, training and mentorship opportunities.

“These fellowships will provide me with real-world experience in field collection techniques, fish husbandry, laboratory procedures, genetic data analysis and scientific communication,” he said. “These are invaluable lessons, providing the knowledge that I hope to carry on to graduate school and a career in an agency or company focused on conservation.”

Hannon credited his progress toward achievement of these goals to his wife, Sam, and the “passionate and incredibly knowledgeable” members of the WCSU biology faculty including Monette, Pinou, and Associate Professors Dr. Rachel Prunier and Dr. Edwin Wong. “As a father of two young girls, I feel it is my absolute duty to do what I can to protect and repair local ecosystems,” he said. “Retention of the biodiversity we see in plants, animals and even bacteria is critically important for our planet to continue to support human life for future generations.”

Hoegler, a biology major specializing in human exercise physiology, has worked in Cordeira’s laboratory for the past year as a student research assistant investigating the effectiveness of exercise in altering food intake behavior and preventing weight gain. Inspired by a hypothesis posed by another student lab assistant, Katie DuFrirsz, that changes in dopamine levels during exercise may alter motivation to consume high-fat foods, Cordeira’s research team has found further promising findings in the scientific literature on which Hoegler aims to build in her fellowship project.

“A lot of previous work has established that exercise increases dopamine expression” in the human body, she explained. “I want to look at what that means for appetite and high-fat food consumption, which has been strongly implicated in the spread of obesity. I have always been interested in health and wellness, and this topic is of great significance now with the growing obesity epidemic and all its associated health issues.”

Hoegler pursued an independent study course with Cordeira during the past semester that demanded extensive research on the various mechanisms of human physiology that may contribute to the effectiveness of exercise in decreasing appetite. Her fellowship project will use experimental and control groups of mice to establish a baseline for food consumption with or without exercise, based on whether or not the mice have access to an open running wheel. She will then inhibit dopamine reception in the experimental group to determine its effect on motivation to run and subsequently to consume food.

“If inhibiting D2 dopamine receptors decreases their motivation to run, and therefore prevents the mice from obtaining the rewards of running through decreased food intake and subsequent weight loss,” the study would point to a relationship between higher dopamine expression and weight loss induced by exercise, she noted. “This could contribute to the field of exercise physiology, because it would help to determine the ways in which exercise decreases appetite and prevents weight gain and to find ways to make weight loss easier and more efficient.”

Hoegler plans to pursue research on human physiology in graduate school after completing her WCSU major in biology and minor in philosophy in 2021. She described Cordeira as “an amazing mentor” whose laboratory has offered valuable research opportunities that have continued online through Webex meetings during the current pandemic, and whose guidance offers support in preparing for graduate studies. She also credited Assistant Professor Dr. Kristin Giamanco for her support in pursuing the SURF grant and for her academic and career guidance.

For more information, contact Monette at or Sherri Hill of the Office of University Relations at For background on the SURF program at WCSU, visit


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