A journey from sport to science

Jeff Weiler, PhD

When it comes to sports, a lot rides on how well an athlete controls the movement of their body.

Whether the sport of choice involves jumping, throwing, hitting a ball, or running as fast as possible, the outcome is a combination of hard work and natural talent.

This concept of human movement has impacted Jeff Weiler’s life on and off the volleyball court, as a professional athlete, kinesiologist and movement neuroscientist.

Growing up playing a variety of sports, Weiler quickly realized that he excelled at volleyball specifically and worked hard to take this skill as far as it could go. He played for the Canadian National Volleyball Team from 2001-2008, and received Dalhousie University’s Athlete of the Year Award three years in a row, all while completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology.

Having dedicated a huge portion of his life to the sport, he faced a tough decision in 2008 when the Canadian team didn’t qualify for the Olympics in Beijing, China. He ultimately decided to retire, and moved to play for professional teams in Greece and Germany for two years.

“The time I spent playing volleyball were like my formative years,” Weiler said. “I really learned a lot about myself and I met my best friends. It was an incredible experience that not a lot of people have the opportunity to take part in.”

While he never had a desire to research sport per se, his research interests developed through his love and passion for sports and athletics and his time playing volleyball.

“As I got older and more intellectually mature, I began to question how we are able to perform specific movements, and why certain people are good at those movements while others are not,” the postdoctoral fellow explained. “I want to know what the neurological mechanisms are that allow for these movements to unfold.”

Following the time he spent in Europe, Weiler came to Western University to pursue a Master of Science degree in Kinesiology. He completed one year, and switched into the PhD program.

It was then that Weiler met Schulich Medicine & Dentistry professor Paul Gribble, PhD, who encouraged him to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the School.

“Right before I defended my dissertation, I ran into Paul at The Grad Club and he asked me what my plans were for the future,” he said. “Long story short, he spoke to my current supervisor, Andrew Pruszynski, PhD, and they offered me a fellowship position.”

The former athlete’s postdoctoral research is focused on how sensory information is used to promote and execute goal-oriented actions, which essentially means a movement that someone wishes to perform, such as picking up a cup.

He is interested in how we take in that sensory information, and what the underlying mechanisms that support that type of computation are.

“As I move further into my fellowship and become a more independent researcher, I’m also looking into how we decide what movements to make,” he explained. “For example, if you have two identical cups of coffee in front of you, how do you use sensory information to choose how to move and which cup to pick up?”

A basic science researcher by trade, Weiler said he will not have much of a clinical reach in his own work, but the research he is working on could be applied to a number of movement disorders.

“If someone has a stroke to the areas of the brain that control movement, how would that influence how people make decisions for making particular kinds of movement?” he said. “I’m interested in answering these kinds of questions, and once we understand the foundation of how the brain works when it is working optimally, we will have a better idea of how to improve it when it is working sub-optimally.”

Located in the Brain and Mind Institute, Weiler has access to state-of-the-art equipment that can help support his research questions. The exoskeleton robot he uses regularly, for example, is the only one in the world that has three degrees of freedom — the shoulder, elbow and wrist can all move.

“The equipment we have access to is really unparalleled across Canada,” he said. “I’m also lucky to have talented researchers and faculty members around me all of the time who I can bounce ideas off of.”

Since he started his graduate studies and postdoctoral training, Weiler has stopped playing volleyball. However, he continues to play other sports such as squash and basketball, and enjoys his athletics out of pure enjoyment.

And with every jump, throw or sprint, he is reminded that there is always so much more to sports and human movement than meets the eye.