Summary

Depression is a prevalent mental health disorder characterised by a range of debilitating symptoms and affecting over 300million people worldwide(1). Mental health problems often develop before 18 years of age, with emergence between ages 18 and 25 years. Northern Ireland has one of the highest incidences of mental illness in Western Europe and the highest rate of suicide in the UK, a rate which continues to climb(2). Ulster University recently reported on prevalence rates of mental health disorders, self-harm and suicidality in a large cohort of first year NI university students(3) and found that more than 50% of new undergraduate students reported any lifetime mental disorder, concurrent with recent press releases(4).

Rates of depression and suicidal ideation were particularly high. Almost 80% of those who reported self harm also reported suicidal ideation in this cohort, highlighting the high incidence of comorbid depression, self-harm and suicide amongst young people entering university. The aetiology of depression is complex, but recent studies indicate genetic and environmental interactions are both implicated in disease pathology. There is a genetic component to the aetiology of psychiatric disorders, which has been demonstrated in twin and family studies, indicating up to 40% heritability(5).

In terms of environmental causes, childhood adversity and trauma including verbal and physical abuse, neglect and parental mental disorders are also major contributing factors to the development of mood disorders and suicidal behaviours. Other childhood adversity such as parental loss, bullying and socioeconomic status are all associated with increased incidence of depression in later life. Epigenetic modifications such as DNA methylation, in contrast to DNA polymorphisms, can be influenced by environmental factors and provide a potential mechanism through which life events can lead to the biological, and ultimately behavioural, changes associated with depression. Epigenetics could therefore be a key mediator of the interplay between biological vulnerability and life events leading to the behavioural changes seen in depression.

Our current research seeks to investigate the molecular mechanisms underpinning the aetiology of mental health disorders and depression using wet-lab and bioinformatic approaches. Using genome-wide and epigenome-wide sequencing, we wish to computationally profile a genetic signature of depression, depression comorbid with self-harm and/or suicide in the search for novel biomarkers using bespoke in-house algorithms. Currently, we are interested in the HPA axis and immune function in depression, and this project will also focus on driving forward these novel avenues of enquiry using a range of model systems including our genetically-altered cell lines and CRISPR models.

The PhD Researcher will use PCR-based methods to profile DNA methylation and gene expression in these models to determine functionality of target genes. We wish to recruit a motivated, hard-working PhD Researcher with a background in molecular biology to join an innovative multidisciplinary team from the Institute of Mental Health Sciences, the Biomedical Sciences Research Institute and the Psychology Research Institute. We will provide training in a range of cutting-edge approaches, including bioinformatics, pyrosequencing and gene-editing technologies, which previous graduates have found very marketable in their research and other scientific careers.

1.WHO, 2017. Depression and Other Common Mental Disorders: Global Health Estimates. Geneva.
2.O'Neill, S…Murray, E. 2018. Journal of Affective Disorders, 239, 58-65.
3.McLafferty, M…Murray, E.K & O'Neill, S. M., 2017. PLOS ONE, 12, e0188785.
4.Robson & Preston. 2018. Belfast Telegraph. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/almost-half-of-northern-ireland-young-people-have-mental-health-problems-study-reveals-36776120.html
5.Howard, 2019. Nature Neuroscience, 22, 343-352.


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

    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:

    Department for the Economy (DFE)

    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £15,285 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



The Doctoral College at Ulster University


Reviews

Profile picture of Kamin Hau

Kamin Hau - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


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 Sarah Craig

I completed my undergraduate studies at Ulster University, where I graduated in 2017 with first class honours in Biomedical Science with a Diploma in Professional Practice . I joined the Diabetes Research group as a PhD researcher in September 2017 and completed my PhD studies in June 2020.I am proud to say I not only completed my PhD studies within 3 years, but also became the World Champion (with a perfect score!) in Irish Dance during my PhD studies. My favourite memory was the opportunity to present my PhD work at the EASD conference in 2019. If I could speak to myself at the start of my PhD, the best piece of advice I would give myself would be to enjoy every single minute as the time flies in. I really would do another PhD!

Sarah Craig - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


Profile picture of Natalie Klempel

I completed my undergraduate studies in America at Texas Woman’s University where I majored in Kinesiology. I then moved to Scotland to successfully complete my Masters with Merit in Human Anatomy at the University of Dundee.My proudest moment was when I passed my viva! My favourite memory was …the dissections. I’ll never forget the friends I made and the good times we had together. I couldn’t have got through this without the support of my family, friends, lab colleagues, supervisors, and my boyfriend. If I could speak to myself at the start of my PhD, the best piece of advice I would give myself would be to write up after every experiment, keep a lot of back up copies of the work, and to enjoy the experience.

Natalie Klempel - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


Profile picture of Poonam Singh Nigam

I joined Ulster university in Jan 1990 after completing Postdoctoral research in Germany (1986-88) and PhD in India (1985). DSc degree in Applied Microbial-Biotechnology has been awarded after the evaluation of my thesis based on Research, Publication & related activities, completed as a research-active academic member of staff (1990-2019). DSc thesis summarised my scientific outputs and contributions (183 research papers, 3 biotechnology reference-books, 43 research-informed book-chapters, 26 research-informed review-articles, 90 conference-abstracts,1 European Patent and 2 Technology-transfers; Supervision of National & International researchers-18 Postdoctoral/Exchange and 12 PhD; and affiliations as Examiner of 58 PhD researchers globally, and Fellow & Member of nine scientific & academic societies.My message to all researchers is that "Chase your Aspirations and Never Give up". I couldn’t have got through my long academic & Professional journey without

Poonam Singh Nigam - DSc in Biomedical Sciences


Profile picture of Karl Smith

I started my PhD after I completed my undergraduate in Biology at Ulster University in 2016, with a dissertation project that focused on genetic variations in bacterial species. I continued using some of these techniques in my doctoral research, which primarily involved the investigation and development of mass spectrometry imaging in vitamin D treated prostate cancer, looking at the metabolic and genetic variations upon treatment. I worked with international collaborators at the University of Edinburgh and Maastricht University, where I got to learn and develop mass spectrometry techniques that have not previously been carried out in Northern Ireland. I now work as a postdoctoral researcher at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, where I am helping to develop and implement a mass spectrometry imaging facility for users across the world with the super powerful 21T FT-ICR mass spectrometer.A PhD is a demanding process but when

Karl Smith - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


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


Profile picture of Ryan Kelsey

I graduated Ulster University in 2016 with a degree in Biomedical Science with DPP (Pathology). I was then offered a PhD studentship with Dr Catriona Kelly and Professor Neville McClenaghan at CTRIC which I started in September 2016. My PhD explored the pathophysiology of Cystic Fibrosis-Related Diabetes, the most common co-morbidity associated with Cystic Fibrosis.My proudest moment was undoubtedly passing my Viva (via Skype!), but I was also proud to be given the opportunity to present my work at the UK Cystic Fibrosis Trust Conference in 2018. Through this conference, I was able to meet with people with CF and the challenges they face which was important reminder that the research I was doing mattered. I couldn't have got through this without the unwavering support of my family, who were always there for me in the good times and the bad. I am also extremely grateful for the support and mentorship of my supervisors Dr Catriona Kelly, Professor Neville McClenaghan and Dr Dawood Khan

Ryan Kelsey - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


Profile picture of Ahmed Abuelhana

My proudest moment was when I knew the possibility of the full transfer of my PhD project to Ulster University, the University which I loved and started my first steps towards my PhD in, and also being a PhD graduate from one of the highly reputable universities such as Ulster is a big thing which I should always be proud of. I think there is no that word that can ever express my deepest thanks and sincere appreciation to my supervisor Professor Kathryn Burnett for her ideal supervision, valuable guidance, encouragement, generous help and ultimate support throughout my PhD project. I have been really lucky to have her as a supervisor. Also my deepest gratitude to Mr Linden Ashfield, Principal Clinical Pharmacist, Antrim Area Hospital (NHSCT) for his help and endless support throughout the whole research project. Also, I could not have got through this without the support of my beloved family (my father ”Sayed”, my mother ”Gamila”, my wife “Nermeen”

Ahmed Abuelhana - PhD in Biomedical Sciences


Profile picture of Ryan Lafferty

I graduated from Queen's University Belfast with a Master's in pharmacy in 2014 and subsequently began working as a community pharmacist in the Greater Belfast area. My career began to take an unusual turn when I got involved with a small startup company who developed a novel blood glucose monitor for diabetic patients. From here, my interest in diabetes was piqued and I applied for a PhD project (somewhat optimistically!) in the Diabetes Research Group at Ulster. Nearly four years later, I'm still there working as a postdoctoral researcher. Not bad considering I never thought I had a chance of getting a PhD spot!My time within the DRG has been, and still is, fantastic. I've made life-long friends (and surprisingly few enemies!) who have been patient, helpful and a joy to collaborate with. I couldn't have got through it without them (you know who you are). Likewise, the guidance from my supervisors, Prof. Peter Flatt and Dr. Nigel Irwin, has been invaluable. I'm probably most proud of

Ryan Lafferty - PhD in Biomedical Sciences