Personality and genetics

Students research the effects of cortisol

By Meghan Feir

Hermella Alemneh and Mikaela Hanson are using zebra fish in a research project that could have a direct correlation in the way we understand how hormones play a vital role in human personality outcomes.

Alemneh and Hanson’s presentation title, “Does A Stressed Mothers’ Hormones Contribute to the Personality of Their Offspring?” encapsulates the main topic they are researching, which they will be presenting at this year’s Student Academic Conference on April 15, complete with a fish tank.

Using a maze, the two classmates determined how bold or shy each zebra fish was by testing if they would go forward in a maze without knowing whether food or a predator would await them at the end of the tunnel.

“You don’t think about fish having personalities – it’s more of a humanistic trait – but all animals have personalities,” Hanson said. “When I was talking to Dr. Wisenden, they had done previous research kind of like this, looking at whether you inherit your personality or if it’s more epigenetic.”

Alemneh and Hanson conjecture that the personality of each fish can be directly linked with the atmosphere surrounding the mother’s pregnancy. If the mother spent the majority of her pregnancy in a safe environment and had enough to eat, her offspring will likely be bold. If cortisol levels in the mother were high due to consistently taxing experiences, the chance that she will produce shy, apprehensive offspring is more probable.

Cortisol, something referenced often in weight-loss commercials, is a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands. It plays a vital role in how our bodies manage stress.

The classmates’ research could potentially support the importance of women regulating cortisol levels before and during pregnancies, if not for their own sake, for their future children.

“At the Student Academic Conference, there are going to be students that are not science majors,” Alemneh said, “but they can easily relate to the topic with the bold and shy fish.”

For more information about the Student Academic Conference, visit

MSUM is hosting the third annual Minnesota Conference of Undergraduate Scholarly and Creative Activity April 14. We are excited to welcome MnSCU universities and community colleges to our campus. For more information, visit