Lab Team 

We are passionately committed to providing an inclusive and supportive environment for trainees from all backgrounds. We strive to provide our lab members with the mentoring, resources, and opportunities necessary to develop as researchers and advance their careers – as scientists, physicians, or otherwise.

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Morgan James, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor | Department of Psychiatry

Dr. James received his PhD in 2014 in the laboratory of Dr. Christopher Dayas at the University of Newcastle in Australia, where he studied the neural circuits that underlie drug-seeking behaviors. He then completed postdoctoral training under the mentorship of Dr. Gary Aston-Jones, where he combined several advanced neuroscience techniques with sophisticated animal models of addiction to further probe the neural circuits that drive reward-seeking behavior. His current lab utilizes a cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the brain circuits involved in disorders of motivation (including addiction and binge eating disorder) with the goal of guiding and informing translational outcomes. Outside of the lab, Morgan is a keen home brewer and enjoys surfing at the Jersey shore.


Current Lab Members


Shayna O'Connor

Graduate Research Technician

Shayna graduated from Rutgers University with a BA in Psychology. While there, she worked with Dr. Gary Aston-Jones studying the role of orexin in animal models of addiction. She plans to pursue a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience. In her free time, Shayna enjoys snowboarding and going to concerts.

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Morgan Paladino

Graduate Research Technician/Lab Manager

Morgan joined the James Lab in July 2021 as our Lab Manager/Research Technician. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame (BS in Neuroscience and Behavior) and Trinity College Dublin (MS in Neuroscience), she then returned to her hometown of Buffalo, NY, where she worked with Dr. Gregory Loney for two years studying the role of the insular cortex in polysubstance use. Outside of lab, she enjoys cooking, running, and exploring new cafes. 


Michelle Bilotti

Graduate Student

Michelle is a PhD student in the Joint Graduate Program in Toxicology. She received her undergraduate degree in Biochemistry with a concentration in Toxicology from Rutgers in 2020. Michelle is interested in microglia research, and previously studied microglia-neuronal interaction following natal pesticide exposure in a zebrafish model in Dr. Cooper and Dr. White’s lab at Rutgers under Dr. Victoria DiBona. She continued her microglia studies in her first graduate lab rotation with Dr.Dipak Sarkar, investigating the effects of natal ethanol exposure on microglia in connection to B-endorphin neuronal cell death. In the James Lab Michelle plans to investigate the role that microglia may play in the regulation of the orexin system. Outside of lab, Michelle enjoys live music, the beach, and going to brunch with her friends.

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Sam Liu

Master's Student

Sam, or “Sam the Man” as he is often referred to in lab meetings, is currently working towards his MS in Biomedical Sciences after previously earning a BA in Cell Biology and Neuroscience here at Rutgers. Originally working with Dr. Nicholas Bello in the Animal Sciences department, Sam represents a collective effort in evaluating the relationship between obesity and the orexin system in regards to binge eating disorder, with collaborators including Dr. James, Dr. Aston-Jones, and Dr. Bello. Sam spends his time playing too much Valorant but makes up for it by volunteering as an EMT and working as a camp nurse during a pandemic. 

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Kaushanie Fernandopulle

Master's Student

Kaushanie graduated from Rutgers University in 2019 with a BA in Biological Sciences. She is currently working towards a Master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences. Her previous research experience is with Dr. Gary Aston-Jones under the guidance of Dr. Morgan James, exploring the connection between the hypothalamic orexin system and the pathological motivation for palatable food. Kaushanie is also currently a medical scribe, and is interested in applying to medical school in the near future. Outside of the lab, she enjoys hiking, trying new restaurants, and hanging out with friends.


Jackie Mehr

Undergraduate Researcher

Jackie is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Biotechnology. Her research focuses on understanding the connection between dysregulated sleep and disorders of motivation, as well as the orexin neural circuits underlying binge eating behavior. Jackie plans to pursue a career in translational research after graduation. In her free time, Jackie enjoys rock climbing and designing lab websites.

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Alexandra (Sasha) Shumyatsky

Undergraduate Researcher

Alexandra is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in Cell Biology and Neuroscience and minoring in Spanish. Previously working in the Gary Aston-Jones' lab on sex differences in cocaine addiction, she is excited to now be carrying out her honors' thesis in the James' lab studying expression of circadian-related genes in orexin neurons in cocaine-dependent rats. Alexandra enjoys playing tennis, cooking and traveling in her free time.

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Abanoub Armanious

Undergraduate Researcher

Abanoub is a second-year undergraduate student double majoring in Public Health and Cell Biology & Neuroscience with a minor in Religion. His previous research experience was with Dr. Kyle Murphy of the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rutgers where they studied the effects of CD44 on the REDD1 protein of the mTOR signaling pathway in breast cancer cells. He plans to complete his BS degree and go onto medical school. Outside of the lab, he focuses his energy on his nonprofit, Save the Children of the Developing World (

Previous Trainees

Students mentored by Dr. James in the Aston-Jones lab

Orion Yedidia | Undergraduate Researcher (2019-2020)

Applying to medical schools

Mohita Jariwala | Undergraduate Researcher (2019-2020)

Medical student at New Jersey Medical School

Noah Shin | Undergraduate Researcher (2019-2020)

Dental Student at Maurice H. Kornberg School of Dentistry

Asrita Vattikonda | Undergraduate Researcher (2016-2019)

Medical student at Jefferson Medical School

Allen Chang | Master's Student (2017-2019), Undergraduate Researcher (2016-2017)

PhD candidate at the Medical University of South Carolina

Brian Liu | SURP Research Intern (2019)

Undergraduate student at Johns Hopkins University

Julia Nauman | SURP Research Intern (2018)

Lab Manager at Michigan State University

Kevin Peng | Undergraduate Researcher (2017-2018)

Medical student at the Ohio State University College of Medicine

Brooke Bender | SURP Research Intern (2016)

PhD candidate at the Center for Neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh

Ami Ghadia | Undergraduate Researcher (2015-2017)

Dentistry student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine

Nikki Koll | Post-baccalaureate Researcher (2015-2016)

Medical student at the New York Institute of Technology College of Medicine

Jasmine Lin | Undergraduate Researcher (2015-2017)

Medical student at the New Jersey Medical School