Minds and motion: Welcoming Zach Hall

Meet Zach Hall, new assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Andrew Lyle - 28 February 2020

How do sensory experiences influence the early development of the brain? That question, with particular focus on movement and motor experience, is what drives Zach Hall’s research. 

Newest assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, Hall joins the University of Alberta after research experience both across Canada and across the Atlantic. He began his research career at Western University, where he completed his masters’ program, before completing his PhD at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and postdoctoral research at the University of Toronto.

Join us in welcoming Zach Hall.

What brought you to the University of Alberta?

While seeking faculty positions near the end of my postdoc, I had hoped to join a department that was both in Canada and could foster my interdisciplinary background—ranging from evolution to behaviour to brain to cell. I was very eager to apply, then, to a position here at UAlberta. Our department uniquely and fearlessly encapsulates almost all disciplines within biology—and is rife with opportunities to produce challenging, integrative research to drive forward our understanding of the brain.

Tell us about your research program.

My research program is focused on understanding the importance of sensory experience on early brain development. I focus on a specific period of postembryonic development in which two ongoing processes in the brain overlap for the first time. 

First, our sensory systems become sufficiently developed to start processing sensory input from the environment. Second, our brains continue to grow, including changes in both the connections of pre-existing brain cells but also the generation of entirely new brain cells. Together, these processes make this the period in our lives in which brain structure and function is most sensitive to the effects of sensory experience.

A specific question my lab seeks to answer is the importance of motor experience on early brain development. I believe understanding this connection between body and brain development has broad implications in our understanding of the importance of movement on early brain development and in developing novel therapeutic approaches to combating aberrant early brain growth by manipulating sensory experience.

What inspired you to enter this field?

Since I began studying neurobiology as an undergraduate, my favourite studies have always been those of critical periods of development. Critical periods are developmental windows of time in which sensory experiences have an irreversible impact on subsequent brain structure and function. 

When I studied songbirds, I learned of certain sparrow species that exhibit a “sensory phase” of development in which they must hear a typical sparrow song to be able to sing a species-typical song later in life—even though they don’t begin singing until months later! Together, these studies have motivated me to understand the extremes to which the environment shapes the brain early in development.

Tell us about your teaching.

I will begin teaching in the department in 2021. I look forward to lecturing as a means of teaching students about the power of the scientific process inside and outside the lab. I believe a thorough understanding of science endows students with important skills including critical thinking, creativity, and thoughtful planning.

Anything you’d like to add?

If any of my past or present research has sounded interesting to you, I encourage you to check out my website and contact me to talk more about ongoing research opportunities in my lab.