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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.


Essex University, with UCL and University of Manchester is offering studentships in biosocial research. Overall 30 studentships were awarded across the three institutions between 2017-2019.

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 Life 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 Life 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 whose interests include the impact of economic and social environment on health. She is happy to discuss projects based on Understanding Society 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.

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.

  • Social inequalities and social predictors of adolescent mental health and health-related behaviours

    Research suggests declines in levels of adolescent health over the past 10 years. Adolescence is also a time of experimentation with and uptake of poor health-related behaviours. While there is research that has looked at the factors associated with changes in mental health and health-related behaviours, more needs to be done. Projects could be developed to examine familial and neighbourhood inequalities, individual and familial characteristics that may be mechanisms through which these changes occur.

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 social position and methylation across the genome (with Professor Schalkwyk, Life Sciences)

    Understanding Society has measured genome wide epigenetic (methylation) data from those participants that were included from the British Household Panel Study. 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.

  • What they say and what they do?

    Participants in the Understanding Society COVID-19 study were asked about COVID-19 symptoms and intentions to vaccinate. The study also measured antibodies to the virus enabling an analysis of the mis-matches between self report and biomarker.

  • • Social position and the proteome (Dr Yanchun Boa and Anna Dearman)

    Understanding Society has measured two protein panels from blood samples collected in Waves 2 and 3 of the study. This project seeks to examine how these proteins cluster and how these clusters vary by socio-economic position.

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

Maria Laura Filippetti studies the multisensory basis of body awareness throughout the lifespan, using behavioural and neurophysiological methods. Her work is guided by two main research questions: 1) How do infants and children learn to use information arising from different senses (such as vision and touch) to perceive their body; 2) What makes infants aware of what their body needs at any given time (e.g. hunger vs sleep), and how are those sensory needs communicated to the caregiver in an effective way. More recently, Dr Filippetti has been also collaborating with Dr Rigato and a team of independent practitioners and health professionals (i.e. ‘from the Womb to the World’ group; WoW), with the aim of understanding how the prenatal and postnatal environment influences baby’s development and parent-infant bonding.

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. Dr Filippetti is interested in studying parental feeding practices and infants’ emotion regulation to examine the developmental underpinnings of emotional eating. This research is critical because it will inform intervention strategies to target obesity risk and disordered eating, by demonstrating how changes in restrictive parental feeding and emotion regulation can alter unhealthy eating behaviours.

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, attitudes and motivations via speech and voice cues. She works with a diverse participant population (e.g., students, healthy ageing, brain damaged, substance abuse) and some of her work also explores in how far socio-psychological variables (e.g. social power, individual differences) can influence how social intentions are processed in the brain.

Below is 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.

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, gender and family sociologist who focuses on intersections between reproductive and mental health, including reciprocal influences between stress/depression and pregnancy. She also conducts research on child health, the life course, gender, and sexual violence. Dr. James-Hawkins has a background experimental social psychology, survey methods, regression (OLS and Logistic) and multi-level modelling. She is also interested in the physical and mental health effects of caregiving, particularly in relation to caring for dementia patients in the home and the mental and physical health effects on the family.

  • 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.

  • Gender and Sexual Violence

    Since #MeToo went viral in 2017 there have been efforts to address sexual violence and harassment in the policy and legal arenas. However, these efforts are largely based notions of consent that treat it as a black and white issue. In practice sexual consent comes in many varied forms and is influenced heavily by environmental factors. My research focuses primarily on exploring what sexual consent means to emerging adults in real life situations (with Veronica Lamarche, Psychology)

  • Child Health

    I am also working on a project related to child and adolescent health and use of social media (with Cara Booker, ISER).

Potential biosocial projects and placements in the Life Sciences department

Robert Ferguson

Dr Robert Ferguson a lecturer in environmental microbiology and human health. His research focuses on bioaerosols (biological air pollution). He uses molecular tools (e.g. high-throughput sequencing) and bioinformatics to investigate environmental microbiology and its relation to public health.

  • Bioaerosols (biological air pollution) and the drive to carbon zero.

    As we move towards a net zero carbon economy to mitigate the effects of climate change, our exposure to air pollution is changing. Better insulated homes trap air pollution and elevate exposure to moulds, while changes in transport mode influence our exposure to air pollution.

    We have seen a glimpse of this during the COVID-19 pandemic where (despite improvements in outdoor air quality) increased home working shifted exposure into the home and changes in behaviour (e.g. increased cooking and cleaning) resulted in elevated exposure to air pollution. We need to understand how our exposure, and the associated health effects, will change as unintended consequences of the dive to carbon zero.

    Exposure to bioaerosols (biological air pollution such as airborne bacteria, fungi, and cell fragments) can cause serious health problems (e.g. asthma and infectious disease). This project will use cutting edge molecular methods to investigate how factors such as socioeconomic position and attitudes to transport effect exposure and health outcomes related to bioaerosols.

Charalampos (Babis) Rallis

Dr Babis Rallis is a lecturer in Cellular Ageing.

  • Nutritional pathways in ageing, neurodegeneration and cancer

    Physiological and socio-cultural changes associated with ageing impact on nutritional status and nutritional deficiencies are common among the elderly. Such dietary imbalances have, without a doubt, detrimental effects on healthy ageing. Although the ageing field has immensely progressed over the last decade, there is no clear intervention that can be widely applied towards the prevention or amelioration of age-related diseases.

    Using quantitative multi-omic methods such as genome-wide cellular phenomics, transcriptomics and genetic circuit mapping in combination with pharmacological and dietary regimes, we try to understand the interactions between nutrition and lifespan and their roles in the initiation and progression of age-related diseases. We focus on nutrient-responsive signalling pathways that govern our growth, physiology and stem cell renewal. These pathways contribute, when deregulated to age-related pathologies such as cancer and neurodegeneration and we focus especially on these conditions.

    Results from these studies will empower the biogerontology and cancer fields in designing targeted interventions towards improving health across the course of life.

Leo Schalkwyk

Professor Schalkwyk is a Professor of Human Genetics in the School of Life 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/
Position Research interest
Nicholas Allum Sociology Professor of Research Methodology Attitudes to science and technology, Survey methods, measurement error, social trust
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
Robert Ferguson Life Sciences Lecturer Bioaerosols, environment, health
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
Andrew Harrison Mathematics/life 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
Charampos (Babis) Rallis Life Sciences Lecturer Ageing, nutrition
Gavin Sandercock Life Sciences Senior lecturer in clinical physiology
Leonard Schalkwyk Life 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
Vladimir Teif Life Sciences Senior Lecturer The use of liquid biopsies based on cell-free DNA for diagnosis, monitoring and stratification of normal and disease conditions in patients and across populations.
Elia Valentini Psychology Lecturer Threat, pain, anxiety

2017 Cohort

David McAleavey

Addressing the consequences of socioeconomic inequality has been a motivating factor in much of my professional life as an educator, both in formal and popular contexts, for over two decades. Expanding our understanding of the social and biological pathways through which socioeconomic inequalities become amplified and embedded, not only across an individual’s life course but intergenerationally, is now the aim of my PhD.

Currently, I’m focusing on better understanding how aspects of the social environment are crystallised in the built environment, and in particular the proximate environmental, behavioural and perceptual mechanisms that account for how our interaction with the built environment modulates our social behaviour.

Levels of personal and social trust are the key attitudinal factors that affect rates of prosocial behaviour. In communities with low levels of trust - and correspondingly low levels of prosocial behaviour - multiple sources of chronic stress can result, which in turn lead to well established biological changes to the body’s immune system. This typically results in negative health consequences across the life course. Thus, a better understanding of the contribution the built environment has on trust - that is an understanding of the proximate mechanisms that account for how buildings “get under the skin” - will help illuminate one pathway, among many, through which the social environment and health are linked.

Supervisor: Dr. Rick O’Gorman
Advisors: Prof. Nicola Shelton, Dr. Tom Foulsham, and Dr. Amy Clair

Alexandria Andrayas

Social differences in health are consistently reported yet it is still not quite clear what the mediating processes are leading to such discrepancies. Health behaviours have been proposed but these may not fully explain all the differences between the most and least disadvantaged groups. Further the relative contribution of health behaviours to social differences in health is not clear because they are subject to measurement error and also interact with other exposures. Further, there have been a number of biological pathways that have been proposed to arbitrate social differences in health but again it is not clear how these may link to upstream pathways such as those involved in inflammation and stress reactivity. In this proposal, I aim to investigate whether DNA methylation can be used to create a biomarker of smoking by comparing methylation-based estimates with self-reported smoking measures; examine how smoking assessed with a new biomarker and self-report compare in their explanation of social differences in health and; identify whether smoking assessed with DNA methylation is associated with additional biological processes that are socially patterned and how these tobacco-related effects may be controlled for in epigenetic associations.

Supervisor: Prof. Meena Kumari
Advisor: Prof. Leo Schalkwyk

Kitt Bevan

Project title: Maternal separation in childhood and the role of biomarkers of stress in its association with mental and physical health

Description of proposal: This PhD has two primary aims. Firstly, it will attempt to investigate the relationship between maternal separation in childhood and the risk of adverse physical and mental health outcomes in adulthood, that include cardiovascular mortality, diabetes and depression. Furthermore, it will examine whether cortisol (measured using hair and salivary samples in adulthood) acts as a mechanism that helps to explain this relationship. The second component of this project will focus exclusively on the relationship between diabetes, depression and cortisol. Previous research has shown that this relationship may be affected by the type of cortisol measurement used. To explore this further, this project will investigate whether the relationship between salivary cortisol and depression is confounded by data collection factors related to the collection of salivary cortisol samples.

Supervisor: Meena Kumari and Paul Clarke
Research interests: the impact of early life events on adult health; the relationship between cortisol and cardiovascular disease and depression; pathway analysis.

2018 Cohort

Steven Haworth

I am curious about social behaviour and how we interact with others around us, be it strangers, acquaintances or those close to us . What guides our behaviour and/or choices? What mediates them? What if any are the consequences of our choices? And is there a link between these behaviours and our biology? I have a keen interest in combining aspects of genetics, neuroscience, epidemiology, sociology and psychology to better understand human interactions and potentially answer some of these questions.

Supervisor: Prof. Meena Kumari

Melissa Ellery

Areas of interest: health psychology and social epidemiology.

In partnership with:

University of Essex ESRC - Social and Economic Research Council BBSRC