Jessica Whitaker-Fornek, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Fellow, Pharmacology
Levitt Lab

Areas of Interest

Areas of Interest: I am broadly interested in the neural control of breathing in mammals and birds. The rhythmic drive to breathe begins in utero where fetuses engage in fetal breathing movements. These early breathing rhythms don’t contribute to gas exchange but may serve as exercise for growing respiratory muscles and the neural circuits controlling them. I am interested in how modulatory signals in the prenatal environment, such as endogenous opioids, shape the maturation of breathing control circuits so that aerial breathing can be initiated at birth. From a comparative perspective, I am also interested in the development of breathing control circuits in birds, which employ different respiratory strategies compared to mammals. My long-term career goal is to be an independent investigator at a research university where my lab team can uncover the “birth” of breathing circuits in birds and mammals.  

Honors & Awards

  • 2023 Honorable Mention, Postdoc Poster Presentation, 49th Annual Midwest Pharmacology Colloquium
  • 2022-2025 Trainee Advisory Committee Representative, Comparative & Evolutionary Physiology, American Physiological Society
  • 2021 Invited Speaker, International Society for Developmental Psychobiology (ISDP) Conference
  • 2020 Dr. Deborah Davis Memorial Women in Biology Scholarship Award


  • Ph.D., Biological Sciences, Idaho State University
  • M.S., Physiology, Southern Illinois University
  • B.S., Zoology, Southern Illinois University

Published Articles or Reviews

  • Dossat, A.M., Kokoska, M., Whitaker-Fornek, J., Sniffen, S.E., Kulkarni, A., Levitt, E.S., Wesson, D.W. 2023. Gustatory cortex glucagon-like peptide-1 receptors influence food intake. Journal of Neuroscience 43 (4251-4261).
  •  Varga, A.G., Whitaker-Fornek, J.R., Maletz, S.N., Levitt, E.S. 2022. Activation of orexin-2 receptors in the Kolliker-Fuse nucleus of unanesthetized mice leads to transient apneas. Frontiers in Physiology 13.
  •  Whitaker-Fornek, J.R., Nelson, J.K., Lybbert, C.W., Pilarski, J.Q. 2019. Development and regulation of breathing rhythms in embryonic and hatchling birds. Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology 269. 
  • Fromherz, S., Whitaker-Fornek, J.R., Sharp, A.A. 2018. Classroom-based experiences to support underserved STEM student success: from introductory inquiry to optogenetics in the embryonic chicken. The Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education 17 (A97-A110).

Web Sites