Jessica Whitaker-Fornek, PhD

Postdoctoral Fellow
Levitt Lab


Jessica grew up on a farm where her family raised unusual birds including ostriches and emus. Jessica’s love of animals led her to study zoology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois. As part of an undergraduate research fellowship, she studied wild bird behavior at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado. This experience focused Jessica’s research interests on the neural control of behavior. Back at Southern, Jessica joined Dr. Andrew Sharp’s lab where she studied the neuromuscular control of leg kicking in chicken embryos. Jessica completed her M.S. in physiology at Southern Illinois University in 2016. Next, she joined Dr. Jason Pilarski’s lab at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho. Jessica examined the development of brainstem breathing control circuits in zebra finch embryos. In 2020, Jessica completed her PhD research in biological sciences and subsequently joined Dr. Erica Levitt’s lab at the University of Florida to study mammalian breathing control circuitry. Currently, Jessica is using brain slice electrophysiology techniques to study inhibitory synaptic transmission in mouse models of Rett Syndrome, a human neurodevelopmental disorder. At the University of Michigan, Jessica is excited to expand her research experience to studying the influence of opioids on pontine breathing control neurons.

Areas of Interest

Jessica’s research interests center around the neural control of breathing behavior in birds and mammals. She is especially interested in prenatal development of the breathing control network.