This opportunity is now closed.

Funded PhD Opportunity

Epigenetic mechanisms underlying nutritional contributions to mental health and cognition

Subject: Biomedical Sciences


Summary

Mental health and wellbeing is an area of increasing public interest. There is also a growing recognition for the need to explore the underlying genetic and environmental contributions to cognitive health, both separately and together.

Epigenetics is an important new field of research which looks at the way environmental influences can interact with the genes to help explain the final outcome or phenotype. This is an exciting area since it can shed light on otherwise difficult to explain effects. One such effect is the way in which environmental stress or access to nutrients in the parents’ generation can affect the children’s development and eventual health, sometimes many years later, as seen in the Dutch Winter Famine studies (see ref1 for a review).

Together with colleagues in the Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health we have been using a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard clinical tool for testing for effects, to look at a cohort of mothers and children. In this work we explored how treating the mums with the B vitamin folic acid in trimesters 2 and 3 of pregnancy led to improved psychosocial behaviours and better cognitive performance in their children (2,3). We were able to link this environmental effect to changes in a type of epigenetic mark on the DNA of the mothers and their children, uncovering a possible mechanistic link (4). This mark is called DNA methylation.

We then went on to show using cutting-edge techniques involving DNA microarrays, pyrosequencing, knockout cell lines and bioinformatics that changes were occurring at ZFP57, an important controller of a class of human genes called imprinted genes, and that the changes were sufficient to alter the activity level of ZFP57 (5).

Following on from that exciting work we have received new funding for the EpiBrain project, which will further explore the epigenetic mechanisms which may underly the nutritional effects on brain development and mental health.

This project, in collaboration with leading scientists in Spain and Canada, will also examine how B-vitamins might be helping to prevent cognitive decline in an ageing population through changes in the epigenome.

A student with a good background in genetics/molecular biology and a strong desire to learn new techniques would be ideal. We have a track record of producing excellent PhD students and most of our students graduate with one or more publications. We provide training in both wet-lab (cell culture, PCR, sequencing) and dry-lab (bioinformatics, statistics, paper writing) work. The student will be expected to drive their project forward as part of a team with the help and guidance of more senior lab members and our collaborators on this project, which include world-leading centres in Vancouver and Spain.

Previous graduates have found their skills in high demand in both biological research and other science careers.

References;

1. Irwin…McNulty, Walsh Epigenomics 8:863 2016
2. Henry, Cassidy….McNulty, Walsh Acta Pediatrica 107:2018
3. McNulty…Walsh, Pentieva BMC Medicine 17:196 2019
4. Caffrey, Irwin, McNulty…Walsh, Pentieva Am J. Clin. Nutr. 107:566 2018
5. Irwin...Pentieva,McNulty…Walsh Clin. Epigenet 11:31 2019


Essential criteria

  • To hold, or expect to achieve by 15 August, an Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC) in a related or cognate field.
  • Sound understanding of subject area as evidenced by a comprehensive research proposal

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • Completion of Masters at a level equivalent to commendation or distinction at Ulster
  • Experience using research methods or other approaches relevant to the subject domain
  • Work experience relevant to the proposed project
  • Publications - peer-reviewed
  • Publications record appropriate to career stage
  • Experience of presentation of research findings
  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement
  • Use of personal initiative as evidenced by record of work above that normally expected at career stage.
  • Relevant professional qualification and/or a Degree in a Health or Health related area

Funding

    The University offers the following awards to support PhD study and applications are invited from UK, EU and overseas for the following levels of support:

    Vice Chancellors Research Studentship (VCRS)

    Full award (full-time PhD fees + DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £15,000 maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Vice-Chancellor’s Research Bursary (VCRB)

    Part award (full-time PhD fees + 50% DfE level of maintenance grant + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees and provide the recipient with £7,500 maintenance grant per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fees Bursary (VCRFB)

    Fees only award (PhD fees + RTSG for 3 years).

    This scholarship will cover full-time PhD tuition fees for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Department for the Economy (DFE)

    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £ 15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fee’s component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided). For Non-EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK. This scholarship also comes with £900 per annum for three years as a research training support grant (RTSG) allocation to help support the PhD researcher.

    Due consideration should be given to financing your studies; for further information on cost of living etc. please refer to: www.ulster.ac.uk/doctoralcollege/postgraduate-research/fees-and-funding/financing-your-studies


Other information


The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Reviews

Profile picture of Kieran O'Donnell

My experience has been great and the people that I have worked with have been amazing

Kieran O'Donnell - 3D printing of biological cells for tissue engineering applications

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Profile picture of Michelle Clements Clements

Completing the MRes provided me with a lot of different skills, particularly in research methods and lab skills.

Michelle Clements Clements - MRes - Life and Health Sciences

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Profile picture of William Crowe

Throughout my PhD I’ve been provided with continuous support and guidance by my supervisors and the staff at the University.I’ve also received many opportunities to further enhance my professional development in the form of teaching experience and presenting my work at conferences which will aid in my pursuit of a career in academia or industry.

William Crowe


Key dates

Submission deadline
Friday 7 February 2020

Interview Date
09 to 20 March 2020


Applying

Apply Online  


Campus

Coleraine campus

Coleraine campus
The feeling of community at our Coleraine campus makes for a warm and welcoming student experience.


Contact supervisor

Professor Colum Walsh


Other supervisors

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