Skip navigation
Institute for Human-Animal Connection


Doctoral Student Fellows & Interns

Doctoral Student Affiliates

  • Hagit Brandes

    Hagit Brandes, MA

    Doctoral Student, University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
    [email protected]

    More about Hagit

    Second-year doctoral student Hagit Brandes is from Israel, where she earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Haifa University. She also did post-graduate work in animal-assisted emotional therapy at Oranim College in Kiryat Tivon.

    Brandes is conducting research on the human-animal connection and the human-environment connection, exploring how these relationships affect human well-being and how they can explain social problems. She's also examining how interventions that facilitate human connection to, and relationships with, animals and the environment can offer solutions to social problems. She plans to focus her doctoral dissertation on reducing children's aggressive behavior through animal-assisted intervention.

    "As the field of animal-assisted practice is becoming more widespread, it is important to me that I work with professional leaders in this field and contribute to the scientific rigor that validates our work with animals," Brandes explains.

    Once she completes her PhD, Brandes says she hopes to continue research and teaching in the animal-assisted field, contributing to the development of this new and exciting field.

  • Jen Pearson

    Jen Pearson, MSW, MSc

    PhD Candidate, University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work
    [email protected]

    More about Jen

    Jen Pearson entered the social work profession after years of working as a riding instructor and dog handler. Her clinical work has focused on utilizing animal-assisted interventions with at-risk youth in settings such as Green Chimneys Children's Services, the Griffith Centers for Children and The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp, as well as Pet Partners and PATH International. In addition to her MSW and Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate from the University of Denver, Jen earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Edinburgh's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in the United Kingdom in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare.

    For her doctoral work, Jen's research interests include the human-animal bond and related psychopathologies from an attachment theory perspective, animal and object hoarding, the development of international ethical standards for animal-assisted interventions, and welfare assessment for animal participants in therapeutic activities.

    Jen is connected with several local dog training facilities and conducts intensive canine behavioral rehabilitation on a private basis. She enjoys working dogs in obedience, agility, tracking and protection sports.


  • Ria Kurtz

    Ria Kurtz, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Ria

    Ria is an advanced standing student at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, concentrating in Mental Health and working towards the Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate. She completed her bachelor's degree at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania where she was also fortunate enough to be able to minor in Animal-Assisted Interventions. Ria has always had a strong love and connection to animals starting from when she was just a little kid; growing up in rural Pennsylvania gave her a lot of opportunity to foster her relationship with animals on all levels. Ria is a huge advocate for nature-based and animal-assisted interventions, as opposed to the traditional responses to adversity.

    Ria hopes that through her internship with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection that she will be able to refine her writing and research skills so that she can be a part of future policy writing to improve community health and engagement through nature-based and animal-assisted legislation. She is also hoping to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to educate future generations of human services professionals about the benefits of the human-animal connection and to be a positive impact on the world as a whole.

  • Hanna Lee

    Hanna Lee, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Hanna

    Hanna Lee is in her concentration year at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work and will receive her MSW and Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate in 2019. She has over 6 years of experience working and volunteering in animal shelters, interning with wildlife rehabilitation centers as well as equine assisted therapy centers. She completed her undergraduate coursework at the University of Redlands, receiving a BA in Psychology and minor in Human-Animal Studies. She has always had a strong interest in the relationship between social issues and humane education. Hanna is currently interning with IHAC by working on humane education programming and research with the Zoology Foundation in Larkspur, Colorado.

  • Jocelyn Medina

    Jocelyn Medina, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Jocelyn

    Jocelyn Medina is entering her second year at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), with a concentration in Mental Health and specialization in Animal-Assisted Social Work. She has been interested in, and captivated by, animals since an early age. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Metropolitan State University of Denver in 2013 and minored in Biology due to her interests in people, mental health, and animals.

    Following completion of her undergraduate degree, Jocelyn continued to explore potential career paths through continuing education until she chose to join the AmeriCorps Federal Emergency Management Agency Corps. During this time, she worked with survivors of natural disasters and alongside emergency operations teams for ten months across the United States. The experiences gained and the human connections formed during her term of service resulted in exploration of the field of Social Work. Upon discovering University of Denver's Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate program, Jocelyn immediately applied to GSSW with the hope of combining her interests in working with individuals (whether human or animal) and mental health. She is looks forward to continuing her exploration and learning as a student and IHAC research intern at DU with considerable excitement.


  • Amanda Olguin

    Amanda Olguin, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Amanda

    Amanda is an advanced standing Master of Social Work (MSW) student who received her bachelor degree in social work from Northeastern Illinois University. After graduating, she took a job at a community mental health center and worked with adults diagnosed with serious mental illness. Amanda decided to make the move from Chicago to Denver to pursue her MSW at University of Denver. She was particularly interested in the university because of the animal-assisted social work certificate and the Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Amanda has always loved animals and grew up with many animals she formed strong bonds with. She has spent time both working and volunteering in animal shelters and has a strong commitment to humane practices. Working in the mental health field and seeing the impact animals had on clients reaffirmed Amanda's belief that animals have a unique ability to form connections with humans that can be powerful.

    When Amanda is not in class or working she is spending as much time as she can with her husband, 3-year-old dog, Elliott, and 1-year old daughter. Having a young, active dog and a very active toddler ensures there is never a dull moment in her household! She is also an avid hiker and has been trying to explore all the trails available in the Denver area. She hopes to one day complete a 14er and learn how to rock climb. Amanda is most excited about experiencing Denver winters and getting a break from the harsh Chicago winters.



  • Julia Senecal

    Julia Senecal, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Julia

    Julia Senecal is in her second year of the MSW program at the University of Denver, where she is focusing her studies on sustainable development and global practice, and earning a certificate in Animal-Assisted Social Work. After witnessing the powerful bond between humans, the environment and non-human animals in her work at the Department of Veterans Affairs and as a public school teacher, the opportunities within the Institute for Human-Animal Connection drew Julia to Colorado. Julia is now thrilled to be involved in IHAC's important and robust research agenda, and looks forward to a career dedicated to moving research into policy - she firmly believes that sustainable animal- and nature-based interventions should be accessible to ALL.


  • Sasha Zoller

    Sasha Zoller, MSW Candidate

    [email protected]

    More about Sasha

    Sasha Zoller is a student at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, specializing in mental health and the Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sasha is passionate about creating a space where animal-assisted interventions always include the humane treatment of animals and respect for those animals' self-determination. She feels very honored to be selected as an intern at the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the 2018-2019 academic year. Through her work on innovative research regarding animals in therapeutic settings, she hopes that she will be able to contribute to the fields of mental health and human-animal interactions.