Student Spotlight: Imani Hall

Picture of Imani Hall
Photo courtesy of Imani Hall

"Neuroscience is mijn passie" is how you say "Neuroscience is my passion" in Dutch. I learned this from Imani Hall, who is this week's student spotlight feature. Imani Hall's hometown is Martha’s Vineyard, MA, but she was born in the Netherlands and is fluent in Dutch, a small fact that not many know about. Hall is a bright, captivating individual, and her desire to help others is palpable.

Arriving at Duke amidst a pandemic, Hall didn’t let that dampen her experiences. While all her classes were online and social activities were at a minimum, Hall was grateful to be on campus and meet new friends at Duke. She chose Duke because she sought a school that is top-tier in neuroscience programs but also has a great dance program, making it the best of both worlds.

Hall is not only smart but also extremely talented. She is an exceptional dancer, having started at the age of two and competing since she was seven. For Hall, dancing is “a universal language that transcends any language barrier”. She currently serves as the co-president of the Defining Movement dance group on campus. When not dancing, Hall focuses on her other passion: neuroscience. She is majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Psychology and a Child Policy Certificate.

Hall’s curiosity for human behavior began with the adoption of her sister. A small girl from Haiti, Hall’s sister was almost five-year-old at her adoption. Her sister experienced toxic stress from extreme poverty, abuse, and neglect during an important developmental period in her life, which has left a lifelong impact. Growing up with her sister has strengthened Hall’s desire to work with people facing similar and different challenges and sparked her interest in studying the biological bases of human behavior, especially those with developmental-behavioral disabilities.

Hall joined the Graduation with Distinction (GWD) cohort of 2024 after successfully defending her GWD thesis on April 16th, 2024. Titled “Generation of Nuclear-Localized Rabies Virus for Dissection of Adult Cortical Circuits,” her thesis focuses on researching the rabies virus and investigating ways to transfer its genomic information into the nucleus of its host cell. Hall initiated this research journey by contacting the principal investigator of the Velmeshev lab for a position within the lab. When she expressed her interest in pursuing a thesis for GWD, in collaboration with Zijian (Zach) Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher, they identified an offshoot project connected to his primary research. Hall’s thesis dovetails with the primary focus of the studies.

In addition to her thesis in neuroscience, Hall is working on a capstone project that explores the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and child policy. Titled "Parental Involvement and Child Policy: Examining the importance of parental involvement in the successful implementation of child policies for children with autism spectrum disorder," the project involves interviewing parents to gain insight into their experiences navigating the journey of special education. She has also been working at the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development for the last four years, where she is part of the Sense to Know study. This study utilizes an app with videos shown to toddlers and infants to track their eye movements for early detection and diagnosis of autism. Hall is tremendously proud of this work and has been enjoying every moment of it. Outside of academic works, she volunteers at organizations like American Reads/ America Count tutor, and Best Buddies Duke, which aim to improve the lives of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Hall hopes to use her knowledge from her degrees to enhance the lives of IDD individuals.

After Duke, she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology or neuroscience and work with developmental-behavioral disabilities. When asked to share advice with the upcoming class of students looking to excel, Hall encourages them to embrace new challenges and opportunities, even if they extend outside of one’s comfort zone or expertise. She shares that she herself struggled with trying new things due to fear of failure but has since come to understand that growth often involves discomfort. Recognize discomfort is just a signal for your mind and body to grow. “Discovering your niche may require some time and experimentation, and that is totally okay!” - Imani Hall