January 2017 Instructor of the Month Declan Ali

    From breathing and heart activity to neurotoxins and neurological disorders, January's Instructor of the Month Declan Ali knows the importance of keeping science engaging and relevant to real life.

    By News Staff on January 3, 2017

    What do you teach?

    I teach neuroscience, physiology and cell biology. The courses I currently teach are Neurobiology (ZOOL 342), Physiology lab (ZOOL 344) and a Neuroscience discussion course (PHYSL 444).

    Why should people learn about it?

    The subject matter is broad and many aspects have real world implications/applications. But in addition to that, it forms the basis and the groundwork for future interest in the neurosciences.   

    What are some of its "real-world" applications?

    In my basic neuroscience class we cover topics such as neuronal communication, motor and sensory systems, neurodevelopment and (briefly) some neuronal diseases. Students gain an understanding of how humans and other animals sense their environment, control muscles, move and respond to stimuli. In effect, this is what we do on a daily basis.  

    Real world applications include a basic understanding of the neurological basis of diseases that many of us might be familiar with. You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a loved one affected by a neurological disease such as depression, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s or epilepsy, to name a few. While we still have much to learn about these diseases and afflictions, the subject matter that I teach allows an understanding of the basic function of the nervous system and how it relates to some of these diseases.

    We also talk about neurotoxins and how they affect the nervous system, such as toxins from jellyfish, pufferfish, snakes and snails. It helps students gain an understanding of how some animals have evolved to protect themselves and acquire food. To me, the term “real-world” means everything in our environment. On some level, I think it’s all interesting and important.

    What’s the coolest thing about this subject area?

    How so much of what we do on a daily basis comes from the activity of your nervous system. Thought processes, movement, sensations, pain, reflexes, breathing, heart activity. The nervous system and CNS activity underlies and controls so much of it. It’s so important in your daily life, and we take a lot it for granted.

    You were recently named a teaching fellow. What does that mean to you and what do you hope to achieve with the fellowship?

    It means a tremendous amount to me. It’s a recognition that what we do (myself and my neuroscience colleagues involved in this particular project), is meaningful to the students that we teach. The whole point of the project is to continue building a tool to help students learn and understand neuroscience. In the end this is about the students, and I’m thrilled to see that the Faculty of Science both recognizes and appreciates their students to the extent that they are willing to invest in them and their future. But more than that, we hope that it will help students at all levels (high school, undergraduate, graduate, medical degrees etc.) across the globe.  

    You developed a neuroscience simulator that has been utilized internationally. What inspired you to do this and why do you think it has been used so widely?

    We developed the simulator to try to teach concepts that are difficult to understand. Some of the topics are abstract and require the ability to “see” what is happening in a neuron so that a student can grasp the fundamental idea. This is very difficult to do when looking at a figure or a static image on a PowerPoint slide. Several years ago, I thought that there must be a better way to explain the abstract concepts in a manner that is appealing and attractive to students. So, I came up with the simulator that was designed by Kelvin Jones, Greg Funk, me, and a programming company, ATMIST. We continue to expand it and have presented it at international meetings. We’ve had requests from colleagues in US and European universities to use it in their classes. The abstract nature of neuroscience is universal. Students in Alberta have the same difficulties and misconceptions as students in Portugal, the US and Japan. Therefore, we believe that the simulator can have universal appeal and we hope will benefit many students worldwide.   

    What was your favourite learning experience as an undergrad, and how do you incorporate that experience into teaching your students?

    Great question! My favourite learning experience was from a professor who often incorporated interesting and real-world applications into his lectures. And coincidentally, it was a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto. Looking back, I guess that influenced me more than I realized. I don’t think I can hold a candle to his talent, but it made me realize how important it is to engage students and to show them why the subject matter is important. This means showing them how the material relates to their lives.

    What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

    I love physical activity! It helps to clear my head. I’ve done (and/or continue to do) everything from running and cycling races, to triathlons, to SCUBA diving, rock climbing, martial arts and adventure race. I think I’m just looking for the next challenge. That’s what life is all about.