Drew Halliday


Drew Halliday started his Ph.D. in Clinical Neuropsychology at the University of Victoria under the co-supervision of Drs. Stuart MacDonald and Mauricio Garcia-Barrera in 2016. Growing up in Abbotsford with both parents working as health care professionals steered Drew’s interest towards helping people at a very young age. While navigating back and forth through different social sciences courses in his undergraduate years, Drew saw psychology as a missing link that could connect his passion for helping people to an understanding of what makes individuals unique despite so many similarities.

In this ever-evolving field, Drew recognizes how our understanding of the human brain is still at the surface and strives to contribute to the knowledge of mental health through his research. Working part-time as abehavioural therapist, he realized that with the very data-driven field of behavioral therapy, he was not able to impact brain health as he desired, and therefore found himself drawn towards neuropsychology. When asked why neuropsychology, Drew explains how it is a comprehensive approach to understanding the super fascinating human brain while factoring in aspects like social context and genetics.

Drew studies how our early lifestyle influences our later life, and how brain and behaviour are related. He is interested in identifying the neurophysiological changes that occur before neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions manifest as behaviour. According to Drew, identifying the early biomarkers of neurodegenerative conditions like dementia could help detect these conditions early, reduce health risks, and lead to effective interventions. 

Accompanying Dr. Stuart McDonald to England for a conference, Drew came across a great opportunity to join a global health project. He had no idea that reading what he called a very dry manual of a functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) for Dr. MacDonald would play a significant role in getting him this great prospect. The opportunity, which he grabbed with both hands, led him to sub-Saharan West Africa to collect the first functional neuroimaging data reported in African infants. The objective of the project was to investigate the effects of malnutrition on infant neurocognitive development.

Between traveling to Italy as a part of a university summer program, teaching English in Morocco and working for Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in England, the decision to come back to Victoria certainly did not seem alluring at a time. However, looking for a place to call home, Drew returned to the West Coast to pursue his masters under his former supervisor Dr. MacDonald.

Drew’s first-hand experience with the fNIRS serves as a forefront in his research undertakings. Drew points out how researchers often ignore the variability in neural activity and only focus on averages to derive results but this ignored information can have use of its own. The study conducted to find this difference showed that computing both mean and variability are associated with faster responding, though computation based on mean is more accurate.

Drawing on the results of his master’s thesis, Drew is currently using functional near infrared spectroscopy to find alternative uses for cerebral oxygenation in older adults who are at risk for adverse age-related health outcomes. He believes studying these changes could contribute to early identification efforts, which could inform effective interventions.

While many of us find it hard to admit having a fear of failure, Drew acknowledges that with the satisfaction that he achieves from getting good results, fear of failure is also strong motivator when things get intense. Reflecting on the opportunities he had and things he learned along the way, he encourages his fellow students to take risks and to not shy away from exciting opportunities.