Donald O’Malley

Donald O'MalleyAssociate Professor and Graduate Coordinator
Computational and Systems Neuroscience, Evolution of Biological Intelligence

Department of Biology
Northeastern University
420 Mugar Life Sciences Bldg.
360 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115 USA

Academic Education

  • Ph.D., Physiology and Biophysics, Harvard Medical School, Boston MA
  • B.S., Chemical Engineering, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA


  • Associate Professor, Northeastern University, Boston (2003-Present)
  • Assistant Professor, Northeastern University, Boston (1997- 2003)
  • Research Assistant Professor, SUNY-Stony Brook, Long Island NY (1996-1997)
  • Research Associate, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stony Brook NY (1992-1995)
  • Visiting Lecturer, University of Colorado, Boulder (1990-1991)
  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston (1989-1990)
  • Graduate Student, Harvard Medical School, Boston (1983-1989)
  • Research Assistant, Kansas State University, Manhattan KS (1981-1983)
  • US Army Officer, 937th Engineer Group, Fort Riley KS (1979-1983)

Other Professional Activities

  • Inventor of the Digital Maze Game, an emerging educational technology.

Research Interests

The computational capabilities of neuronal populations are at the core of all that nervous systems do, from sensorimotor transformations to more complex behaviors. Basic research, using confocal microscopy and high-speed behavioral imaging, seeks to understand the neural control of the zebrafish larva’s extended locomotor repertoire (including many behaviors discovered here at NU). The larval zebrafish is a transparent predator that gives neurobiologists unparalleled access to the workings of an elegant set of neural circuits. This is a rapidly expanding research field that started with confocal reconstructions and in vivo calcium imaging (O’Malley et al. 1996, 2003; O’Malley, 2008; Sankrithi and O’Malley, 2010), and now entails optogenetics and global brain mapping approaches.

The capabilities and intelligence that are intrinsic to the larva’s 150,000-neuron CNS were vastly expanded in the vertebrate lineage. It is an extraordinary challenge to understand how the massively interconnected information engines of the mammalian CNS (neocortex, thalamus, hippocampus and the basal ganglia) emerged from simpler animals. Human flash memory (Gioioso and O’Malley, 2009) and language are at the pinnacle of neuronal computation, but are not understandable absent an evolutionary approach grounded in the synaptic organization of local brain circuits. The theoretical and computational branch of my research program aims to understand how intrinsic neuronal circuits, in conjunction with synaptic plasticity, evolved into the supremely powerful devices that epitomize the hominid lineage.

Teaching Activities

I taught Microbiology and Cell Biology at the University of Colorado and a Calcium Stores Seminar at SUNY Stony Brook before joining the Northeastern University Department of Biology. At NU, My Biological Imaging course illustrates the principal imaging tools used in biomedical research; we present and critique key applications from the current research literature. I also teach Neurobiology, which emphasizes the operations of neural circuits from a molecular and biophysical perspective. At times I offer graduate-level Advanced Topics seminars relating to my research interests as well as a Research Problem Solving seminar. Recent seminars have focused on Locomotor Control Systems, The Evolution of Artificial and Biological Intelligence and Computational Neuroscience. I previously taught Anatomy and Physiology, with an emphasis or organ-systems physiology.