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Funded PhD Opportunity

Epigenomic Profiling of Young Adults with Mental Health Disorders in Northern Ireland

Subject: Biomedical Sciences


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.
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 £ 15,009 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:

Other information

The Doctoral College at Ulster University


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
9 to 20 March 2020


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Coleraine campus

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

Contact supervisor

Dr Rachelle Irwin

Other supervisors

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