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ESRC Centre for Doctoral Training: SOC-B

ESRC Centre for Doctoral Training: SOC-B. Studentships have come available to join the second cohort of the students at the Soc-B Centre for Doctoral Training.

Soc-B studentships are based across social and biological science departments in three centres of excellence in biosocial research: University of Essex, UCL and University of Manchester.

Soc-B PhD studentships will include a first year spent in project rotations and biosocial training before selecting a PhD research topic for years 2-4.

Find out more and apply

For further information about the studentship and application process at Essex University please contact Professor Meena Kumari

The Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial Research (Soc-B) at Essex University.

Researchers at Essex University are at the forefront of research into social-biological connections and can offer expert supervision and projects in this area. Our Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial research (SOC-B) offers studentships at the interface of social and biological science.

Overview

Essex University, with UCL and University of Manchester is offering studentships in biosocial research. Overall 30 studentships will be awarded across the three institutions, with 10 offered in 2018.

Essex University hosts a number of ESRC and other investments that fall under the bio-social umbrella including the Understanding Society dataset, which has included state of the art measures of the social and economic environment plus biomarker and genetic data and conducted under scientific leadership within the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).

Researchers in ISER are linked to a number of departments across the University in order to facilitate research into the social-biological interface such as biology, psychology and sociology. The psychology department hosts groups that are interested in social and health psychology and has state of art facilities that measure biomarkers including the baby lab and the centre for brain sciences.

Examples of Potential Project Areas

Students will finalise projects and placements available in Soc-B at Essex University during their studentships. Listed below is a non-exhaustive list of potential supervisors and examples of appropriate current research in ISER, the Departments of Psychology and Sociology and the School of Biological Sciences to provide some guidance on the breadth of research topics available and the range of topics that could be developed for a PhD. Additional potential supervisors are available in the Department of Biological Sciences, Sociology and Health and Human Sciences.

It is anticipated that projects will include both strong social and biological science content and inter-departmental panel supervision will be developed and finalised in year 1 of the studentship.

Potential biosocial projects in ISER

Michaela Benzeval

Professor Michaela Benzeval is the Director of Understanding Society which interests include the impact of economic and social environment on health. She is working with a number of colleagues across the university and nationally on a number of projects that span the social science disciplines and biology.

Examples of areas of research suitable for Soc-B include:

  • Which biological pathways are associated with the environment?

    Research is underway to understand the social and biological pathways and interactions that may help to understand regional and environmental variations in health. Understanding Society has collected data from across the UK and a variety of biomarkers that could be used to examine questions related to regional and environmental variations in health such as whether self-rated health varies across countries in the same way as objective markers of health.

  • Determinants of biomarkers of ageing or stress across the lifespan

    The Understanding Society dataset is relatively unusual in that biomarker and clinical data have been collected from all people across the entire adult age span. This allows us to examine which and how social and environmental factors are associated with biomarkers and functioning by groups that are developing, maintaining and declining in health.

Nicola Barban

Dr. Barban is a Reader at the Institute for Social and Economic Research a co-Director of the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change (MiSoC). His research interests include the genetics of human reproductive behaviour, genome-wide association studies, polygenic scores and gene-environment interactions in social sciences.

Examples of projects that could be suitable for Soc-B students are

  • The role of gene-environment interactions in health inequalities

    It has been shown that inequality begins before birth, and that large differences in social background have important consequences for later outcomes, such as education, earnings and disability. Nevertheless, genetics may mitigate, or amplify, the effects of exposure to different environments. The goal of this project is to advance the understanding of gene-environment interactions (GxE) in the generation of social and health inequalities. Combining methods from genetics and social science, it will study how the interplay between individuals’ genetic endowment and prenatal environment affects life course outcomes.

  • The use of polygenic scores in social sciences

    A polygenic score (PGS) is a linear combination of the effects of genetic variants present in the entire genome and can be interpreted as a single quantitative measure of genetic predisposition. Just as a battery of multiple questions on personality types or attitudes toward immigration can make up a scale that is measured by one index, a PGS assumes that individuals fall somewhere on a continuum of genetic predisposition resulting from small contributions from many genetic variants. This project will use data from recent large-scale Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) on behavioural outcomes to construct single quantitative measures of genetic predisposition based on millions of genetic markers, and investigate their use in the social sciences.

  • Biodemography of human reproduction

    Biological fecundity is often not taken into account by social scientists who study the determinants of parental age. However, as the biological ability to have children declines with age (in particular for women), postponement of the age at first birth collides with the biological ability to conceive a child. Recent developments in molecular genetics allow to partially identify genetic variability in reproductive behaviour. This project will examine the role of genetics in the biodemography of human fertility.

Cara Booker

Dr Cara Booker is deputy director of graduate studies. Her interests include social inequalities in health related behaviours and well-being in adolescents; social media use and well-being; Early life events and resilience in adulthood using sequence analysis; and factors related to resilience in health among the UK LGB population.

Examples of projects that could be suitable for Soc-B students are:

  • What are the factors related to health resilience in the UK LGB community?

    Research on the health of lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people has found significant health disparities with LGB individuals experiencing poorer health outcomes than heterosexual individuals with LGB people experiencing greater rates of heart disease. Projects could be developed to examine the biological mechanisms that mediate these associations.

Emily Grundy

Professor Emily Grundy is the ISER Director. Her main research interests are families, households and kin and social networks in later life, especially in relationship to health, associations between family life courses and health and well-being at older ages, and trends and differentials in later life health, disability and mortality.

Meena Kumari

Professor Meena Kumari is a topic champion for health and biomarker research in Understanding Society.

Examples of topics that suitable for Soc-B include:

  • The association of quality of social support from friends and family with biomarkers of stress

    Poor social support is associated with poor health but it is unclear why and which biological mechanisms play a role in these associations. A number of biosocial studies and cohorts, including Understanding Society which is a household study with data available from friends and family, include detailed social and biological data in order to address these questions.

  • The association of social position and methylation across the genome (with Professor Schalkwyk, Biological Sciences)

    Understanding Society has measured genome wide epigenetic (methylation) data from those participants that were included from the British Household Panel Study (https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/bhps/). This sub-set of participants of Understanding Society have data collected annually before the measurement of genomic information enabling the development of projects related to social position across the lifecourse, impacts of periods of stressors such as unemployment or poverty and lifecourse determinants of methylation profiles.

  • Methodological considerations in the collection of biomarker data in social surveys

    The methods used to collect biological and clinical data in settings such as visits to hospitals or clinic settings may not be appropriate to collection of these data from population representative studies such as Understanding Society and data are typically collected from nurse visits to participant’s homes. The University of Essex is a world leader in methodological innovation and development concerning data collection and study panel maintenance. Issues associated with biomarker data in social studies, for example missing data, need to be examined and addressed using both practical and statistical approaches.


Potential biosocial projects and placements in psychology department

The Department of psychology includes a number of researchers who’s work falls under the umbrella of biosocial research. This includes work conducted in the all research groups, examples of on-going projects that fall under the remit of biosocial research are provided below:

Dr Maria Laura Filippetti

Dr Maria Laura Filippetti explores the psychophysiological and neural underpinnings of body awareness across the lifespan. In particular, she is interested in understanding how babies learn to perceive their body as being their own, and in uncovering the developmental processes involved in self-recognition and self-other distinction. More recently, she has started a new line of research exploring the role of caregiver-infant interactions in the development of eating behaviour and interoceptive sensitivity (i.e. the ability to perceive internal changes in sensations, such as hunger and satiety cues). Examples of topics that suitable for Soc-B include:

  • Just before I recognise myself: exploring neural and psychophysiological markers of self-recognition

    The ability to recognize one’s face is considered a fundamental aspect within the spectrum of selfhood. However, what is believed to be the most representative instance of personal identity is probably the less reliable representation of the self; the rather infrequent encounters we have with our own face are in fact mediated by a reflecting surface and likely distorted by a variety of expectations shaped by ourselves and others. How do we balance this information in order to maintain a contentment and stable mental representation of our own identity? This project builds upon the work done by Dr Filippetti on the developmental origins of body perception and aims to examine neural and psychophysiological markers (e.g. event-related brain potential and near-infrared spectroscopy) of self-recognition and self-other distinction.

  • Being in tune with your body: the development of appetitive tendencies

    Unlike other species, human babies enter the world completely dependent on their caregivers to manage their needs. For example, during feeding parental behaviour can influence the development of infants’ ability to sense their hunger and satiety signals. Parental feeding style can influence children eating habits, however little is known about the interaction between infant’s sensitivity to hunger states and parental influences in predicting eating behaviour later in life. In a longitudinal design, this project aims to systematically investigate the relationship between eating behavior in caregivers and infants’ ability to promptly identify and correctly interpret their internal states of hunger and satiety. We will use a combination of psychophysiological (e.g. EEG, ERPs) and observation measures to uncover the developmental trajectories of appetitive traits and eating behaviour.

Nick Cooper

Nick Cooper is Academic director of the Centre for Brain Science, which houses many state of the art equipment labs, plus facilities for a wide range of psychological studies. He has been engaged in various studies investigating EEG and TMS indices of the putative human mirror neuron system and how these measures vary as a function of individual differences in empathy, autistic traits, experience and susceptibility to yawning. He is also involved in projects examining the effects of rTMS and tDCS on oscillatory activity, mood, cognition and behaviour in control and clinical populations. Additional interests include the relationship between television editing and children’s attention, the effects of life stress on ageing (in particular, memory performance) and the relationship between human behaviour and the microbiome.

Studies into ageing are particularly relevant to biosocial research as outlined below:

  • Investigating protective factors for stress resilience in old age.

    Recent work has shown that a large amount of cumulative stress across one’s lifespan can lead to an acceleration in cognitive decline with accompanying changes in electroencephalographic (EEG) activity suggestive of altered functioning of neocortex and hippocampus. Such stress is induced by many social and affective factors and yet, some people appear resilient and do not exhibit these changes in function. It is hitherto unclear what factors facilitate this resilience and how they may offer protection to brain function. The proposed study uses behaviours and EEG paradigms, along with other psychophysiological techniques (e.g. GSR, heart-rate, NIRS) to tease apart high functioning and low functioning high-stress individuals to investigate this phenomenon. Determining protective factors against stress is of increased importance in a high-functioning society and carries the potential to improve stress-resilience and well-being among the population.

Silke Paulmann

Professor Paulmann explores the way we communicate emotions and attitudes via speech and is running studies to investigate the cognitive architecture underlying emotional and attitudinal language processing in young and healthy aging adults as well as in adults with a history of alcohol abuse. She is also involved in research projects that attempt to answer how vocal emotions are communicated cross-culturally. Finally, some of her recent work also explores in how far socio-psychological variables (e.g. power, motivation) can influence how emotions and attitudes are communicated through the tone of voice.

Below is provided an example of the use of biomarkers in her research:

  • Watch your tone! Exploring neuro-biological markers of motivational tone of voice processing.

    Daily interactions frequently include instances where individuals try to motivate others to action. For example, a manager may ask an employer to finish a task earlier than originally anticipated. Depending on the tone of voice used to deliver this request, individuals may or may not feel more compelled to comply. In line with this assumption, unique, recent electro-physiological evidence from our group suggests that listeners rapidly pick up motivational cues embedded in tone of voice. Certain types of motivational tone of voice (e.g., pressuring/controlling) also negatively impact on well-being indicators. The proposed project will build on this initial evidence and for the first time systematically explore neuro-biological markers (here indexed through event-related brain potentials and physiological responses such as skin conductance response, muscle tension, or heart rate) of motivational tone of voice.

Silvia Rigato

Silvia Rigato’s is a member of the cognitive and developmental psychology group with a broad research interest is in the development of perceptual and cognitive abilities in infancy.

  • Identifying children at risk of poor social and cognitive development

    Maternal depression is associated with poor developmental outcomes in young children. Building on current work in our lab, we propose to investigate how infants’ trajectories in attentional, social and brain functioning result in these poorer outcomes. By recruiting a group of expectant mothers at risk of depression and following them and their babies from late pregnancy until the end of the first postnatal year, we will be able to delineate detailed developmental trajectories. We will focus on specific mechanisms rooted in the interaction between mothers and infants that are likely to set children off on a sub-optimal developmental course. Fine-grained assessment of infant attentional and social function (already developed in our lab), as well as maternal attention and emotional sensitivity, will enable us to identify at which point maladaptive developmental trajectories emerge and the role of maternal behavior and characteristics in this development. This will provide essential information needed for designing and targeting effective future interventions. Concurrent assessment with EEG (electroencephalography) and fNIRS (functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy) will allow us to identify how these differing trajectories relate to, and interact with, infant brain development. We also plan to follow up our existing cohort of 74 infants in early childhood (at 2.5 and 4 years) in order to relate the detailed infant social and attentional measures we have been developing in our lab, as well as genetic variations (we have collected saliva samples from the infants), to key cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes. The project would be suitable for one or two PhD students.

Elia Valentini

Dr. Elia Valentini is Lecturer at the Department of Psychology and his work focuses on understanding how people perceive negative valence information, how they interpret both physical and psychological events as threatening. Some keywords in his projects are therefore threat, pain, anxiety, emotion, attention. Most of his research involves measuring electroencephalography and other psychophysiological measures, subjective reports and behavioural performance in a multisensory setting.

Studies into pain and vulnerability to existential threats are particularly relevant to biosocial research as outlined below:

  • Investigating neural markers of tonic pain

    Attempting to identify biomarkers of individual vulnerability to chronic pain is a crucial research target in order to improve pain treatment. There is evidence that some aspect of brain oscillatory activity recorded by means of electroencephalography (EEG) reveal specific dysfunctional patterns that may contribute to the generation of clinical pain. To date it is unclear whether oscillatory EEG activity can be a specific marker ot tonic pain compared to other prolonged sensations in different modalities. The project will address this gap by targeting the frequency and the amplitude of EEG modulation in healthy volunteers.

  • Neurological markers of maladaptive brain activity in fibromyalgia and their relationship with treatment efficacy

    The unknown pathogenesis, and lack of biological markers to monitor its development, makes Fibromyalgia (FM) a crucial target of research. Furthermore, there is a lack of effective treatment and more research addressing the efficacy of treatment is needed. The goal of this project is to identify robust neurological markers able to discriminate between FM individuals who received an effective treatment compared to those who did not. The effectiveness trajectory will be studied not only in terms of subjective and clinical evaluation but especially in terms of advanced EEG signal processing, by looking into the functional connectivity of oscillatory brain activity.

  • Existential neuroscience: Is there a special place for death in the brain?

    Previous evidence seems to support one of the major theoretical findings in social psychology of the last 30 years: not only thinking about death seems to be associated to pervasive and specific changes in people behaviors and opinions, the associated brain activity also seem to be more prominent than the one observed in other negative mind-sets. However, our knowledge on the contextual constraints of this phenomenon is still scarce are the observed brain activity may be not special but rather shared with other anxiogenic existential threats. The project will address this issue by confronting experimental participants to the exposure to the idea of death vs. other threatening scenarios (e.g. the event of being paralyzed or abandoned). Both subjective reports and EEG activity will be analysed to uncover the difference between existential threats.


Potential biosocial projects and placements in the sociology department

Laurie James-Hawkins

Dr. Laurie James-Hawkins is a health sociologist who focuses primarily on intersections between reproductive and mental health, including reciprocal influences between stress/depression and pregnancy. She also has a background experimental social psychology. Dr James-Hawkins is also interested in the physical and mental health effects of caregiving.

  • Mental Health and Reproduction

    Research on the connection between reproductive health and mental health is varied with the relationship between the two remaining unclear and ambiguous. While some people appear to be susceptible to biological and psychological triggers such as unintended pregnancy in regards to negative mental health episodes, others appear to be resilient. It is unclear why this is so and what biological and environmental factors might lead one to be more or less susceptible to mental health problems such as depression.


Potential biosocial projects and placements in the biological sciences department

Leo Schalkwyk

Professor Schalkwyk is a Professor of Human Genetics in the School of Biological Sciences. His research interests are genomic and epigenomic methods and software, epigenomics and the environment , Alzheimers disease and Schizophrenia.

Potential Supervisors in Essex University

Supervisor Schools/
Departments
Position Research interest
Nicholas Allum Sociology Professor of Research Methodology Attitudes to science and technology, Survey methods, measurement error, social trust
Tarek Al Baghal ISER Research Fellow, University of Essex Use of new technologies in collection of data and the analysis of merged data sources
Nicola Barban ISER Reader Genetics of human reproductive behaviour, polygenic scores, gene-environment interactions in social sciences
Sonia Bhalotra Economics Professor of Economics Creation of human capital, early childhood development, the benefits of early life health interventions, gender inequality, the political economy of public service provision, intergenerational mobility and the dynamics of mortality, fertility and sex selection.
Michaela Benzeval ISER Director, Understanding Society social inequalities, longitudinal, health policy 
Cara Booker ISER Research Fellow, Deputy Graduate tutor, ISER Adolescent well-being, LGTB+ health inequalities, parent-child relationships and well-being
Jonathan Burton ISER Associate Director, Surveys, University of Essex Survey methods, mixed-modes, consent questions
Joan Busfield Sociology Professor of Sociology, Graduate Director Mental Illness, Psychiatry and the Pharmaceutical Industry
Paul Clarke ISER Professor of Social Statistics Longitudinal data analysis, Causal inference, Mendelian randomization
Nicholas Cooper Psychology Centre for Brain Science, Academic Director Transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS), transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), mirror neurons, stress & ageing
Tom Crossley Economics Professor of Economics Applied Econometrics and Statistics, Survey Methods and Health Economics
Nicolas Geeraert Psychology Senior lecturer Research Interests: acculturation, migration, sojourners
Helge Gillmeister Psychology Senior lecturer, Academic director of the Centre for Brain Science Electroencephalography (EEG) , eye-tracking, physiological and behavioural methods, biomarkers of embodiment, body representations, eating disorders, body dysmorphias, depersonalisation
Valerie Gladwell Biological Sciences Senior lecturer in sports and exercise science Workplace,  environment, physical activity
Andrew Harrison Mathematics/biological sciences Bioinformatics, microbiome
Meena Kumari ISER Professor of biological and social epidemiology Biological pathways by which the social environment and health are linked over the lifecourse, genetic epidemiology
Annette Jäckle ISER Professor of Survey Methodology, Associate Director of Innovations for Understanding Society, University of Essex Using mobile devices for data collection, questionnaire design, mixed mode data collection
Susan McPherson Health and human sciences Senior lecturer
Rick O’Gorman Psychology Senior Lecturer in Psychology Cooperation, relationships, evolution
Silke Paulmann Psychology Professor Social communication; ERPs; prosody
Gavin Sandercock Biological Sciences Senior lecturer in clinical physiology
Leonard Schalkwyk Biological Sciences Professor Human Genetics Genomic and epigenomic methods and software, epigenomics and the environment , Alzheimers disease and Schizophrenia
Andrew Simpson Psychology Senior Lecturer in psychology Inhibitory control, child development, cognition
Ewen Speed School of Health and Social Work Research Director, Health and Human Sciences UK health policy, qualitative methods (discourse analysis), critical mental health
Elia Valentini Psychology Lecturer Threat, pain, anxiety

In partnership with:

University of Essex ESRC - Social and Economic Research Council BBSRC