Troy Daniel Zars, 1990

Spring 2019 (May 16, 2019)

Troy Daniel Zars, 1990

Troy Daniel Zars, 51, of Columbia, Mo., passed away Dec. 27, 2018, surrounded by his family and friends. Troy was born in Waterloo, Iowa, on Sept. 29, 1967. He graduated from Cedar Falls High School where he met his wife, Melissa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1986.

Troy attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where he earned his bachelor of arts degree in biology in 1990. Troy and Melissa were married in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on July 21, 1990. He completed his master’s degree in biology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1991 and continued his education at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where he earned his Ph.D. in 1997 and saw the birth of two of his sons, Ethan and Benjamin Zars in 1994 and 1996, respectively. After completing his Ph.D. he moved his family to Wurzburg, Germany, in 1997, where he completed his post-doctoral fellowship. In Germany his third son, Jonathon Zars was born in 2002.

He is remembered by his passion for science and research as a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri. His passion for science extended to his case of colorectal cancer which he battled through experimental immunotherapies at the National Institutes of Health. He hoped that his case could help develop treatments for future patients of late-stage colorectal cancer. He impacted many lives as a loving husband and father and a caring and intelligent professor. Part of him will always live on inside the people who knew and loved him. Troy was an excellent cook, especially at the grill and smoker, and loved fishing, hunting, reading, and music. He was fun-loving and generous with his time and energy.

Troy is survived by his wife: Melissa Zars of Columbia, Missouri; three sons: Ethan, Benjamin, and Jonathon Zars also of Columbia, Missouri; his mother: Lois Paulsen of Grundy Center, Iowa; his father: Ronald Zars of Albia, Iowa; his stepfather: Richard Paulsen of Cedar Falls, Iowa; his brother: Doug Zars ‘91 of Rochester, Minnesota; and his sister: Meghan Paulsen ‘99 of Cedar Falls, Iowa.

A Celebration of Life was held Jan. 4, 2019, at the St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, 914 West Boulevard South; Columbia, MO 65203. Memorial contributions may be made to the Safra Family Lodge at the National Institute of Health or can be held until a memorial fund is established to honor his passion for science and education. Arrangements are under the direction of Nilson Funeral Home, 5611 E. St. Charles Rd.; Columbia, MO 65202. (573) 474-8443. Online condolences may be left for the family at

From the University of Missouri:

Troy D. Zars, Professor of Biological Sciences, died on Thursday, December 27, 2018, following a battle with cancer.

“Troy’s death is a heartbreaking loss for everyone in the Division of Biological Sciences,” said John C. Walker, Curators’ Distinguished Professor and Director of the Division of Biological Sciences. “He was a distinguished and respected faculty member of our department and integral to the MU neuroscience research community. He will be remembered as an extremely creative scientist, a wonderful and supportive colleague, a dedicated mentor and teacher, and a kind human being. He will be missed tremendously.”

Troy Daniel Zars received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Luther College, a liberal arts college in Decorah, Iowa. He then moved to the University of Northern Iowa, where he completed a master’s degree in biology. In 1996, he earned a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. He did his doctoral work with Dr. David Hyde on the genetics of retinal degeneration in the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). He was awarded a prestigious Humboldt Research Fellowship, which took him to Germany to work with Martin Heisenberg in the Department of Genetics and Neurobiology at the University of Würzburg, Germany. For his postdoctoral work, he developed a neural systems approach in memory formation using Drosophila. In 2002, he moved back to the United States to join the faculty in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, where he rose to the rank of Professor in 2017.

Zars’ research was in the area of neurobiology of learning and memory. He was specifically interested in examining mechanisms of memory formation in multiple contexts. He used the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model system and took advantage of molecular, genetic, neural systems, behavioral, and physiological approaches to understand how the fly brain learns and stores information. He characterized his lab’s unique contribution to the field as “based on moving back and forth between classical (i.e., Pavlov) and operant (i.e., Skinner) paradigms to test for conservation of function for genes and neural circuits in both types of learning.” His lab was well known for its use of an elegant “place memory” paradigm using a heat box system, which he coupled with sophisticated genetic approaches to map the location of short-term memory in precise neuronal circuits. He and his group published over 40 papers; many appeared in highly prestigious journals. Zars also authored several influential reviews of his field. His research ideas were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Zars was widely regarded as an extremely creative and thoughtful scientist, who was always pushing the boundaries of technological approaches to bring previously difficult questions into the realm of the possible. Every year, he usually was asked to review many grants and papers, and he wrote commentaries for several of the papers he reviewed. His contributions to his field are unquestioned and are reflected in his outstanding international reputation.

Zars was integral to MU’s neuroscience research community. He was an active member of the campus-wide Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program and served on its executive committee for 12 years. He also was a core faculty member of the Neural Circuits and Behavior Group. He organized and taught graduate courses on cellular and systems neurobiology as well as a neurobiology journal club. Additionally, he co-founded and co-organized a highly successful bi-weekly neuroscience research seminar series, which was used to invite advanced post-doctoral fellows from some of the best neuroscience labs in the country to talk about their work. His commitment to neuroscience education and research extended beyond the MU campus. He participated in outreach activities aimed at encouraging young people to consider careers in neuroscience. He also co-founded and organized the Gateway Behavioral Neuroscience Conference, which brought together Drosophila investigators from four universities across the Midwest.

Zars was very supportive of his colleagues and the Division of Biological Sciences. He served on the Division’s Personnel Committee and Divisional Council as well as the Division’s Graduate Education and Graduate Recruitment committees. He also served as a Faculty Fellow for the Office of the Provost and as a member of the MU Research Council.

Zars was especially beloved as a mentor and teacher. He trained four postdoctoral fellows, nine graduate students (seven Ph.D. students), and 22 undergraduate research students in his lab. He served on an additional 30 dissertation and thesis committees. His mentoring style reflected his own approach to science: he encouraged his students to develop their own research projects but also to actively seek out ways to collaborate with one another or with postdoctoral fellows on each other’s projects. The collaborative environment he engendered in his lab is reflected in many papers with multiple graduate students and postdoctoral fellows as co-authors. In addition to the graduate neuroscience courses, Zars taught a cell biology course for majors every year. Students characterized him as a personable, approachable, engaging and soft-spoken teacher who was excited about the material and genuinely cared about their learning.