Sarah C. Woolley, PhD

Department of Biology, McGill University

Stewart Biology, N4/8

Montreal, QC H3A 1B1 Canada

sarah.woolley at





Sarah C. Woolley


Department of Biology and the Center for Research on Brain, Language, and Music

McGill University

Email me:

Isabella Catalano

PhD Student

B.A. University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Project: Neural Circuits underlying individual recognition.

Erin Wall

PhD Student

B.A. Florida State University

Project: Experiential influences on female preferences

Undergraduate Students

Hadia Alvi — NSERC SURA recipient, Summer 2021

Maggie-Rose Johnston — Honours student 2021-2022

What we do

Vocal communication signals are critical in social interactions across many species. In the zebra finch, a small, gregarious songbird, males produce learned vocal signals (‘songs’) during courtship interactions with females. Female zebra finches do not sing, but use songs to recognize individuals and select mates.

Song perception:
birds3The ability of females to extract and use information from song is a critical feature of songbird communication.  Moreover, this ability is influenced by auditory and social experiences in development as well as adulthood.  However, we still know little about either the role of experience in shaping female song perception and preference or the neural circuits involved in encoding those preferences.

In our lab, we use a combination of electrophysiology, behavioral analysis, immunocytochemistry, and computational methods to understand how the brain processes and perceives social signals, and how both perception and the underlying neural mechanisms are shaped by social experiences as well as evolution. Current work is investigating how auditory experience during development and auditory and social experience in adults interact to shape song preferences.  

Song Production:
bird2Although the adult songs of male zebra finches are highly stereotyped from one rendition to the next, they are not completely static. Rather, males alter their songs depending on their audience, performing a faster, longer and more stereotyped song when they perform for females than when they sing in isolation. In addition, the activity of single neurons in a cortical-basal ganglia pathway, known as the anterior forebrain pathway or AFP, is less variable during the courtship song than when males sing alone. By recording from the inputs and outputs of the basal ganglia nucleus Area X, the first step in this pathway, I have found that this context-dependent difference in variability appears to arise within the basal ganglia proper. We are currently continuing to investigate the circuit mechanisms by which this variability arises.

What you can do

Join us!

We are always looking for enthusiastic, creative, perseverant, undergraduate and graduate students interested in studying the neural basis of behavior.  Our group is small and supportive and includes graduate students from both McGill Biology and the Integrated Program in Neuroscience and undergraduates from departments across the university and CEGEP.

If you’re interested, please send me an email and tell me about yourself –a recent transcript (unofficial is fine), and curriculum vitae (CV) or resume is a great way to do this– and tell me a little bit about why you are interested in working with us. Send it to

Kids enjoying the summertime weather here in Montreal :)
Kids enjoying the summertime weather here in Montreal 🙂