Research outlines from potential supervisors

Below are research outlines from PhD supervisors who are particularly interested in recruiting a PhD student for entry in September 2023. Entry in January 2024 or May 2024 may also be possible. Please consider writing a research proposal around the listed project or topic area. You are advised to contact a potential supervisor by email to introduce yourself, and discuss your research ideas, before submitting an application. You are also welcome to contact academics who have not listed their research outlines below.

  • Supervisors who are not recruiting for entry in September 2023 have also been invited to record this below.
  • If a supervisor you are interested in working with does *not* have an entry below, you are still welcome to contact them to ask if they are interested in your research proposal.
  • Supervisors are listed alphabetically by Surname.
  • An entry below does NOT mean that the supervisor is able to offer a fully funded PhD studentship unless that is stated in the text. Applicants are encouraged to apply for a SENSS or Psychology School Studentship (advert live before the end of October, closing date 6 January 2023). All studentships will be advertised on our Prospectus.

Dr Sam Berens (Cognitive Psychology; Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience)

Routes to conceptual learning and generalisation

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 17 January 2023 **

How do we learn to solve problems for which we have little prior experience? Imagine you are foraging for dinner in an unfamiliar forest. You discover a delicious fruit that grows atop a particular type of tree. In order to have enough to eat, you must visit many different trees, yet there is a problem; the largest trees bear the most fruit but take the longest time to climb. You must quickly learn which trees are worth climbing and which are not. How do we learn new concepts like ‘a worthwhile tree’ and generalise this information to make good decisions in different situations? Neural network models provide a powerful framework for understanding this kind of learning. However, the (often surprising) predictions that they make have yet to be tested in humans. Furthermore, it is unclear when and how artificial neural networks and humans can generalise what they have learnt to novel situations (so-called out-of-distribution generalisation). During this PhD, you will examine the mechanisms which allow us to learn generalisable concepts that provide a basis for flexible decision-making. This work will involve a variety of techniques, including computational modelling, behavioural data analysis, and functional neuroimaging (fMRI).

Keywords: Learning, Memory, Generalisation, Inference.

Dr Daniel Campbell-Meiklejohn (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience; Cognitive psychology)

A PhD with The Social Decision Lab

The Social Decision Lab (PI: Dr Dan Campbell-Meiklejohn) is open to PhD applications this year. Our interests and methodologies are diverse, so you are welcome to discuss and propose empirical projects relating to choices made in social contexts (including cooperative, collective, altruistic, teaching, and moral choices), social learning, information avoidance, social learning, interoception and emotion regulation, and cognitive effects of antidepressant medication.  We have expertise in methods of behavioural measurement, task design, psychophysiology, neuroimaging, computational models of reinforcement learning, and psychopharmacology with dedicated testing space.  Collaborative, co-supervisory, and interdisciplinary opportunities exist within the School of Psychology, the Brighton and Sussex Medical School, The Institute for Developmental Studies and Global Studies (Anthropology).  Please get in touch with Dan C-M by email initially daniel.cm@sussex.ac.uk to discuss your application.

Prof Samantha Cartwright-Hatton (Clinical and Developmental Research Group, Mental Health Strategic Focus Area)

Impact of the Flourishing Families Clinic

This PhD will explore the impact of a novel NHS service ‘The Flourishing Families Clinic’. This clinic, the first of its kind, seeks to support parents who are receiving treatment for their own mental health, in order to reduce the likelihood of the intergenerational transfer of poor mental health. The pilot version of the clinic gave support to parents who had anxiety disorders, but we have now received funding to expand the clinic’s remit across mental health services.

The student will work alongside Sussex Partnership NHS Trust clinicians, and will have the opportunity to work on a range of projects, including:

  • Qualitative study of parents’ satisfaction with the clinic.
  • Developing and evaluating a short training module, helping clinical staff to ‘Think Patient as Parent’.
  • Auditing the mental health status of children whose parents attend the clinic, and exploring the impact of the parents’ own treatment upon this.
  • Evaluating a clinical rollout of a digital intervention for parents with anxiety disorders.

The project would suit a student who:

  • Is interested in adult or child mental health
  • Is excited by applied research.
  • Has strong interpersonal skills and lots of patience, which are much-needed in the thrilling but messy world of NHS-based research…
Using parent report to measure child wellbeing 

This PhD will be based alongside ‘The Flourishing Families Clinic’. This clinic, the first of its kind, supports parents who are receiving treatment for their own mental health, in order to reduce the likelihood of the intergenerational transfer of poor mental health.

Unfortunately, when measuring the outcome of parenting interventions, we usually ask the parent to report on how the child is doing, before and after the intervention. However, in our clinic, where parents are being treated concurrently for their own mental health difficulties, there is a potential confound: it is possible that the parent’s own mental health will bias their ratings of their child’s, and any changes in children that are reported may simply reflect changes in the parent’s condition.

The student will conduct several studies exploring the size of this bias, and exploring ways that it might be mitigated. For example:

  • Using existing data from a large longitudinal sample of anxious parents to estimate impact of parents’ wellbeing on their rating of their child’s.
  • Experimental studies that manipulate parents’ mental states and explore the impact on their rating of their child’s wellbeing.
  • Exploring whether biases can be mitigated by, e.g. giving parents different instructions, or by statistical methods.

The project would suit a student who:

  • Is interested in adult or child mental health
  • Enjoys experimental, lab-based research.

Prof Kate Cavanagh (Developmental and Clinical Psychology)

Evaluating the efficacy and mechanisms of action of app-based audio tools for improved sleep health in working adult populations: Sleep skills, sounds and stories

** This project has guaranteed funding for one student and is advertised on the SENSS website  **

Co-supervisor: Dr Faith MatchamCollaborative partner: Unmind

Sleep plays a vital role in maintaining physical and mental health. However, sleep disturbance and insomnia are very common. Insufficient sleep has been shown to adversely impact a range of outcomes including cognitive performance, mental health, emotional regulation, quality of life, relationship satisfaction, workplace and leisure activities. There is an urgent need for evidence-based interventions that improve sleep quantity and/or quality in working-age adults.

Smartphone-based mental health applications (or ‘MHapps’) are a prime delivery medium for sleep interventions, and standalone, audio-based tools (sleep skills, sounds and stories) for sleep designed for ad-hoc use by the general public have dramatically increased in popularity and availability in recent years. There is a lack of empirical evidence regarding the efficacy and mechanisms of app-based sleep tools. This collaborative PhD research program will address this gap in knowledge.

Dr Lincoln Colling (Cognitive Psychology)

Tools for reproducible research OR Joint action with artificial agents

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 16 January 2023 **

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Lincoln Colling and at least one other academic from the University of Sussex (to be decided once the research proposal is confirmed). Applicants should prepare a proposal around one of the two topics described below and one student will be awarded funding.

1. Tools for reproducible research 

Worries about the replication crisis have lead to an open-science revolution in Psychology and Neuroscience. As part of this, there has been an increased focus on practices such as data and code sharing. Sharing data and code from psychology studies, in a form that allows independent researchers to replicate the results of published studies, is, however, very difficult and outside the skill-set of many psychology researchers. This PhD will look to uncover the exact nature of the current shortcomings with the aim of developing tools and practises to help researchers improve data and code sharing. The ideal candidate will have a background in programming (R, Python, Javascript, Matlab or similar) and a desire to develop those skills further.

References:

Crüwell, S., Apthorp, D., Baker, B. J., Colling, L. J., et al (in press) What’s in a Badge? A computational reproducibility investigation of the open data badge policy in one issue of psychological science. Psychological Science. 10.31234/osf.io/729qt

Colling, L. J. & Szűcs, D. (2021). Statistical reform and the replication crisis, Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 12, 121-147, 10.1007/s13164-018-0421-4 

Colling, L. J., et al. (2020). Registered replication report on Fischer, Castel, Dodd, and Pratt (2003), Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. 3(2) 143-162. 10.1177/2515245920903079

 2. Joint action with artificial agents

When we perform a task with another person, like dancing or playing a piano duet, we are able to coordinate the timing of our actions with exquisite precision. It’s likely that we do this by generating predictions of our co-actors actions using our own actions as a model. But how do these mechanisms fair when we co-act with artificial agents like robots and virtual avatars? And are our abilities to co-act with artificial agents impacted by whether we view them as more or less human? During this PhD you will examine the mechanisms that support joint action specifically in the context of artificial agents using a range of techniques including behavioural experiments and Electroencephalography.

References:

Colling, L. J. (2018). Planning together and playing together. In M. Cappuccio (Ed.), Handbook of Embodied Cognition and Sports Psychology. (pp. 413–441). MIT press.

Prof John Drury (Social and Applied Psychology)

John Drury is not recruiting for entry in September 2023.

Dr Matt Easterbrook (Social and Applied Psychology)

Understanding Inequalities from a Social Psychological Perspective

I invite applications from prospective PhD students who wish to research one of the following topics.

Educational inequalities

Stereotypes and biases among peers, teachers, parents, and wider society can make educational environments threatening and place additional barriers in the way of educational success for members of disadvantaged and minoritized groups.  Wise interventions (such as values-affirmation) can help, but often help only those who complete the intervention.  I invite applications from those interested in furthering our understanding of how social and cultural contexts shape educational inequalities and moderate the effectiveness of interventions. Relevant publications include:

Economic inequalities

Meritocratic discourses, perceptions of social mobility, and everyday exposure to inequality all contribute to people’s perception of and reaction to economic inequality. I invite applications from those interested in researching the precursors and consequences of perceiving economic inequality.  Relevant publications include:

Social class identities

I invite applications from those wishing to study the meanings and consequences of different indicators of social class, including income, education, occupation, and/or subjective identities. 

Relevant publications include: https://doi.org/10.1002/casp.2574

Dr Tom Farsides (Social and Applied Psychology)

People’s views about their partners’ posthumous body donation

Posthumous body donation involves consenting while alive to one’s body being donated for educational or research purposes after one’s death. When donors consent, there is no requirement for donors’ relatives to be involved. However, relatives’ involvement after donors have died is essential for successful donation. With Professor Claire Smith, Anatomy Professor at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), and the assistance of staff at the London Anatomy Office (LAO), I have previously investigated prospective donors’ views about body donation consent and implementation procedures (see references below). I am now looking to supervise one or more doctoral students who will investigate donors’ (and prospective donors’) relatives’ views about such things. Data collection and analysis will be guided mainly by the grounded theory approach outlined in Glaser and Strauss (1967). Central to this will be interviews with relatives of actual and prospective body donors.

Farsides, T. L. & Smith, C. F. (2020). Consent in body donation. European Journal of Anatomy. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2019.101334

Farsides, T., Smith, C. F., & Sparks, P. (2021). Beyond “altruism motivates body donation.” Death Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2021.2006827

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory.

Smith, C. F. … Farsides, T. (2022). Understanding beliefs, preferences and actions amongst potential body donors. Anatomical Sciences Education. https://doi.org/10.1002/ase.2204

Dr Sean Figgins (Social and Applied Psychology)

Identity leadership in physical activity settings

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 13 January 2023 **

Physical inactivity is a worldwide problem and, therefore, understanding how to increase physical activity is important. Engagement with physical activity is in part determined by social factors (i.e., the influence of others). For instance, physical activity leaders play a central role in our motivation for, enjoyment of and, ultimately, engagement in physical activity. As yet, however, research exploring how leaders can facilitate health-enhancing behaviours is limited (see Stevens et al., 2022 for a review). Given that group identification is proposed to play an important role in our engagement with physical activity, the social identity theory of leadership (SIL) holds promise in understanding effective leadership in physical activity contexts. Indeed, initial research on SIL in physical activity settings suggests that followers whose leaders engage in identity leadership attend more frequently (e.g., Stevens et al., 2018) and exert more effort in sessions (Steffens et al., 2019). However, more research is needed to explore the role of SIL in helping people engage in physical activity. Therefore, broadly speaking, the aim of this PhD is to explore the application and effectiveness of SIL in physical activity settings.   

Given that research on this topic is in its infancy, there is scope to shape this research to match your interests.

The project will be supervised by Dr Sean Figgins and Prof Viv Vignoles.

Prof Gillian Forrester (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience)

Evaluating great ape cognitive and behavioural wellbeing

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 23 January 2023 **

The Comparative Cognition Group (PI: Professor Gillian Forrester) is seeking a PhD candidate to help a multidisciplinary team to monitor gorilla and chimpanzee wellbeing across a range of captive and wild settings. Methodological approaches are non-invasive and unobtrusive, including behavioural video observation and coding, cognitive evaluation, keeper reports, thermal imaging, heart rate variability and pupillometry via video capture.

In collaboration with our zoo, wild animal park, sanctuary and release-reintroduction partners, we aim to develop a battery of measures that allow us to longitudinally track individuals’ wellbeing. We hope that this process will help us to identify individuals who may be good candidates for wild release and also inform about potential groupings and pairings of apes in captivity and pre-release. Moreover, we aim to develop enrichment interventions that focus on improving quality of life in captivity and aid transitions back into the wild where appropriate.

The PhD will work alongside our multi-institutional team and international conservation collaborators. The candidate may be required to travel and obtain relevant vaccinations for fieldwork. Experience in the field and/or working in remote locations is desirable. The candidate must be collaborative and flexible and possess the ability to navigate competing priorities and agendas from different partners. Experience is essential at working in complex situations involving multiple stakeholders. A driving licence and good command of spoken French is required.

Key words: great apes, behaviour, wellbeing, fieldwork, conservation, Africa, release, re-introduction.

Dr Sophie Forster (Cognitive Psychology)

Distracting and intrusive thoughts

In any given moment we might be attending to something in the world around us, or our own thoughts. Often thoughts appear to spontaneously attract our attention against our will, distracting us from our current tasks or even exposing us to unpleasant or distressing information. While there is an enormous amount of research on attention to information in our external environment, relatively little is known about how we attend to our own thoughts. The PhD project will apply theories and methods drawn from the attention literature to this understudied topic. We will consider whether theories of selective attention be applied to predict which thoughts will suddenly pop into our minds, and why our thoughts sometimes appear to ‘block out’ the world around us. Depending on the interests of the successful candidate, there could also be scope to develop this project to consider individual differences and/or the clinical context of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The project will combine behavioural and cognitive neuroscience research methods. A student working in this area should have a background in psychology or cognitive neuroscience and experience with programming is desirable.

Interested candidates are encouraged to contact Dr Sophie Forster: s.forster@sussex.ac.uk

Attention lab webpage: https://sophieforsterlab.wixsite.com/attentionlabsussex

Dr Darya Gaysina (Developmental and Clinical Psychology)

Anxiety and depression in older people

Anxiety and depression are common mental health problems in older adults (age 65+) – yet we do not fully understand what affects vulnerability, who seeks support, or why people respond to treatments in different ways. Supervised by Dr Darya Gaysina, the PhD project will use existing large datasets (both from clinical and general populations) and advanced machine learning techniques to understand the factors that affect these aspects of mental health in older people. The successful candidate will have opportunity to engage with clinicians and policy makers, as well as with older people, and their families, to make impact beyond academia. Please, contact Dr Gaysina (d.gaysina@sussex.ac.uk) for discussing the project in more detail.

EDGE Lab (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/edgelab/)

Dr Megan Hurst (Social and Applied Psychology)

Megan Hurst is not recruiting for entry in September 2023.

Dr Eisuke Koya (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience, Sussex Neuroscience)

Changes in food desirability and the impact of food cues 

Stimuli or ‘cues’ associated with food, such as fast-food signs and advertisements powerfully control our behavioural and emotional responses. For example, encountering the ‘Golden Arches’ may make one crave for a hamburger and seek it out. However, our responses to food cues are also controlled by the desirability of food. Thus, we may react less to the Golden Arches after consuming several hamburgers and feel sated, i.e. when the rewarding value of food is devalued. Recently, we found that mice react less to sucrose cues following its excessive consumption (Sieburg et al., 2019), as observed by reduced sucrose seeking behaviour. This reduction was also associated with reduced neuronal activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain structure that is important for reward. But which brain areas might coordinate these changes in nucleus accumbens activity and the diminished reactivity to food cues? The aim of this project is to reveal the wider brain circuitry linked to the nucleus accumbens that interprets changes in the desirability of food and the resulting decreased impact of food cues. A combination of techniques such as immunohistochemistry and state-of-the-art in vivo neuroscience methods, such as fibre photometry and optogenetics will be used here to reveal these mechanisms.

Reference:

Sieburg MC, Ziminski JJ, Margetts-Smith G, Reeve HM, Brebner LS, Crombag HS, Koya E. Reward Devaluation Attenuates Cue-Evoked Sucrose Seeking and Is Associated with the Elimination of Excitability Differences between Ensemble and Non-ensemble Neurons in the Nucleus Accumbens. eNeuro. 2019 Dec 10;6(6):ENEURO.0338-19.2019. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0338-19.2019. PMID: 31699890; PMCID: PMC6905639.

Dr Liat Levita (Behavioural and Clinial Neuroscience)

Neural mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive adolescent anxiety and behaviour

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 16 January 2023 **

Adolescence is associated with high levels of anxiety. Abnormal approach and avoidance behaviours are typical in people suffering high levels of anxiety and anxiety disorders. However, how they manifest themselves during adolescence is less well explored. Moreover, adults and adolescents respond to threat differently, e.g., in the way they learn to predict danger and learn that something is safe.  This PhD project will examine what are normative/adaptive approach & avoidance responses versus pathological ones (i.e., ones that can lead to or are a symptom of a mental health issue, such as anxiety) in adolescents, by using behavioural, psychophysiological (heart rate and SCR), endocrine (e.g., cortisol) and brain imaging (EEG) measures.  This project will suit a candidate with an interest in adolescent development and mental health, with a background in psychology/neuroscience with some programming and brain imaging experience. 

Dr Faith Matcham (Developmental and Clinical Psychology)

Digital Technologies to measure and manage mental health

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 16 January 2023 **

Digital technologies, such as wearable devices and smartphone sensors offer exciting opportunity to revolutionise how we measure and manage our health. Recent advances in sensors and remote measurement systems provide sophisticated, high-frequency and objective measurement of parameters known to be associated with health outcomes: heart rate and accelerometery sensors in wrist-worn wearable devices can give information indicative of sleep patterns and physical activity levels. Data from smartphone sensors such as Global Positioning System (GPS), Bluetooth, gyroscope, phone screen interactions, ambient noise and light levels have also been used to collect information relating to sociability, movement, speech and activity associated with low mood. Digital technologies provide the unparalleled opportunity to unobtrusively measure real-time changes in cognition, behaviour, and physiology, providing early indicators of therapeutic outcome and targets for personalised intervention.

I am involved in a variety of research activities which examine the utility of these technologies across a range of contexts and clinical populations. I am keen to extend the knowledge in this field and welcome applications from anyone interested in developing a project with this technology at its core, whether this be via observational data collection, intervention development and delivery, or other scientific methodology.

Faith Matcham is also a co-supervisor on a SENSS collaborative studentship supervised by Kate Cavanagh and detailed under her name.

Dr John Maule (Cognitive Psychology)

Details coming soon.

**This project has guaranteed funding and will hopefully be advertised on our prospectus by the end of November 2022**

Dr Emiliano Merlo (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience; Sussex Neuroscience)

Neural mechanisms of memory persistence

Memories are everyday miracles that we take for granted. We hope that the good ones last for our entire lives, but memory persistence is double-edged. Our brains can change memories when they are outdated or become irrelevant which results in better responses at the present time. However, aberrantly persistent memories are key for a variety of psychiatric disorders including post-traumatic stress (PTSD), specific phobias, substance abuse, and food addiction. Treatment for these disorders is difficult and poorly effective. For instance, cognitive behavioural therapy is used on PTSD and specific phobias, but is only effective in half the cases, and even then, fear returns. Understanding the neural mechanisms controlling persistence and inhibition of memories of both rewarding or traumatic events is essential to develop more effective therapies.

In my laboratory, we use rodents to investigate the neural mechanisms underlying maintenance or inhibition of aversive and appetitive memories. The experimental approach we use includes behavioural analysis, genetic and pharmacological interventions (e.g., gene/protein knockdown using antisense and/or CRISPR/Cas9 technology), neuroanatomical labelling and imaging of neuronal memory ensembles, and molecular biological analysis.

References:

Vaverková et al., 2020. Doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2020.574358. eCollection 2020.

Merlo et al., 2018. Doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3273-17.2018. Epub 2018 Feb 23.

Dr Alexa Morcom (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, Sussex Neuroscience)

Memory cueing and selective recollection in youth and ageing 

My lab’s research focuses on memory. People can vividly remember unique events from the brain’s vast store of overlapping experiences. We are interested in how people select relevant events or details for retrieval, how they avoid confusion between similar memories, and how these abilities evolve in ageing. We use anatomically precise fMRI and time-resolved EEG brain imaging as well as behavioural methods in humans, combining traditional with multivariate and model-based analytic techniques. You can read more here and find links to our papers such as [1-3]. 

Memory cueing and selective recollection in youth and ageing 

In this project you will investigate the conditions under which control acting before memories are retrieved trades off with external memory cues to make selective recollection possible for younger and older people. You will have the opportunity to learn and apply brain imaging with advanced multivariate analysis techniques and memory tasks designed to examine stages of memory control. You will explore when and how control dynamically modifies retrieved representations in memory brain networks [2,3] and how this control is impacted by ageing. According to the longstanding environmental support theory of cognitive ageing, memory control ability is reduced so older people become more dependent on external memory cues, but this hypothesis still lacks evidence and we do not know whether preretrieval or postretrieval control (or both) are impaired [1]. Understanding these potential trade-offs between cues and control has potential applications in understanding which kinds of cues can best support memory in later life.  

References 

1.            Morcom, A. M. Mind Over Memory: Cuing the Aging Brain. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 25, (2016). https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416645536 

2.            Moccia, A. & Morcom, A. M. Cue overlap supports pre-retrieval selection in episodic memory: ERP evidence. Cogn. Affect. Behav. Neurosci. 22, 492–508 (2021). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-021-00971-0 

3.            Moccia, A., Plummer, M. & Morcom, A. M. Selective retrieval revealed by electroencephalographic (EEG) neural pattern reinstatement. (2022). doi:10.1101/2021.04.05.438462 

Dr Anna Rabinovich (Social and Applied Psychology)

Removing barriers to sustainable behaviour adoption by reducing moral threat: Exploring intergroup contact between members and non-members of “moralised minority practice groups”

**This project has guaranteed funding and is advertised on our Prospectus (under Funding and fees) with a closing date of 11 January 2023 **

Some environmental minority practices (such as veganism, commuting by bike, voluntary simplification) can be interpreted as “moral”. Existing research suggests that members of such moralized minority practice groups can be derogated, because non-members feel morally threatened. This project will explore how this perception of moral threat could be reduced, with the aim of eliminating derogation sometimes experienced by those who practice certain sustainable behaviours, and removing barriers that people may perceive in adopting new sustainable practices.

In particular, we will use intergroup contact framework to explore what affects the quality of contact between members and non-members of “moralised minority practice groups”. We will trace natural contact experiences over time, and conduct experimental studies to understand which factors contribute to positive intergroup interactions and willingness to adopt minority sustainable practices. These factors could include self-presentation choices made by each side, communicative goals, as well as situational factors, such as threat activation.

The project will be supervised by Dr Anna Rabinovich in collaboration with Dr. Tim Kurz (University of Western Australia). 

Dr Charlotte Rae (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience; Cognitive Psychology)

Possible Co-Supervisors: Dan Campbell-Meiklejohn (Psychology), Jessica Eccles (BSMS), Emma Russell (Business School)

I am a cognitive neuroscientist, specialising in mind-brain-body interactions, and the biological basis of wellbeing.

I am interested in how clinical conditions (in particular, Tourette syndrome) and lifestyle (in particular, working patterns and employment) affect mental health, cognition, and brain function. Recently, we began a major project on the 4 day working week, examining how workplace performance, mental health, lifestyle, sleep, and brain function change when employees in local businesses switch from working full-time to working a 4 day week. We have been using occupational psychology assessments, wellbeing questionnaires, actigraphy sleep watches, and structural and functional MRI brain scanning to measure the scope and scale of the psychological changes that take place when reducing time at work (with no loss of salary).

Alongside our 4 day week project, we have also been conducting ‘big data’ analyses of the UK Biobank, a nationwide epidemiological dataset. We have been investigating neural and physiological biomarkers of working long hours, and related employment factors, using fMRI data from the Biobank.

In the future, as well as looking at the effects of working long hours, and reducing time at work with no loss of salary in a 4 day week, I’d also like to investigate how 0-hours contracts impact the mind, brain, and body.

I would be delighted to receive applications from students who are interested in applying neuroscience and psychological approaches to understand the biological basis of wellbeing, in the context of employment.

You can read more about our work on the lab website, and on our Sussex 4 Day Week study project website

Dr Pablo Romero-Sanchiz (Clinical and Developmental Psychology)

1. Trauma and addictions

Trauma exposure and addictions have a well-established connection, but the underlying mechanisms remain unknown. Cue exposure (or cue reactivity) methodology is an experimental procedure commonly used to study several psychopathological behaviours and disorders, particularly addictions and trauma. Furthermore, this methodology can be combined with other approaches such as fMRI, psychophysiology equipment or observational tools to assess how addictions and trauma are linked at different levels.

Relevant research outputs:

  • Romero-Sanchiz, P., Mahu, I. T., Barrett, S. P., Salmon, J. P., Al-Hamdani, M., Swansburg, J. E., & Stewart, S. H. (2022). Craving and emotional responses to trauma and cannabis cues in trauma-exposed cannabis users: Influence of PTSD symptom severity. Addictive Behaviors, 125 (September), 107126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2021.107126
  • Farrelly, K. N., Romero-Sanchiz, P., Mahu I.T., & Stewart, S. H. (in press). Do coping motives mediate the relationship between PTSD symptoms and cannabis craving after a personal trauma cue? Journal of Traumatic Stress. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/jts.22715/
2. Immigration, Ethnic and Cultural Diversity, Uncertainty and Threat.

Perception and actual uncertainty and threat are crucial elements in current anxiety and mood disorder models. However, the role of specific uncertainties and threats in certain populations, such as immigrants, and ethnic and cultural minorities, remain unexplored. In this project, we aim to fill that gap using a variety of methodological approaches, including quantitative approaches (e.g., experimental, quasi-experimental), and qualitative (e.g., thematic analysis, grounded theory).

Relevant research outputs:

  • Romero-Sanchiz, P., Andrade, R. F., Jiménez Ayala, A. L., Obempong, R. A. K.,  & Nogueira-Arjona, R. (2022, September 7-10). Influence of ethnicity in the experience of uncertainty and threat in ethnic minorities: a mixed-methods pilot study. In Romero-Sanchiz, P. (Chair). Uncertainty processing in diverse groups and contexts: from intolerance of uncertainty to uncertainty distress [Symposium]. Presented at the 51st Annual Congress of the European Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies. Barcelona, Spain.

Dr Rim Saab (Social and Applied Psychology)

Intergroup relations, collective action, meta-science

Hello! I am a social psychologist with expertise in intergroup relations. I would be particularly interested in supervising research projects in the area of collective action. I am open to different research directions in this area, but I am currently pursuing projects in the following directions: a) the social psychological dynamics surrounding uprisings and revolutions, b) the social psychological factors that motivate individual(s) to found a social movement, and c) the social psychological tactics used by expert campaigners to mobilize individuals. While I am open to research in different contexts, I have a particular interest in the Arab region. Within the region, I am also interested in studying specific forms of prejudice, namely sectarianism, and its intersection with other forms of prejudice. Please note that those wishing to work with me on the Arab region would need to know Arabic. Finally, I am also interested in meta-science, particularly the marginalization of scholarship from the Global South in the mainstream literature in social psychology and the reproduction of these power dynamics in the study of the Global South, and ways to resist these inequalities and to build a more equitable, representative, and informative social psychology. 

Prof Julia Simner (Sensory Systems Strategic Focus Area, Cognitive Psychology Group)

Possible co-supervisor: Prof Jamie Ward

A different way of sensing the world

A PhD with Prof Julia Simner will focus on “special populations” -- people who experience the world differently to others. Some of these special populations have synaesthesia, in which everyday activities like reading or listening to music trigger unusual sensations such as colours, tastes or textures. Other special populations have sensory hyper-sensitivities/ overload (e.g., lights are too bright, smells are too strong) including extreme responses to sounds, known as misophonia (e.g., anger or anxiety from everyday noises like chewing). Others have differences in how imagine the sensory world, including people with aphantasia, who cannot form pictures in their mind’s eye, and people with dysikonesia, who cannot mentally image tastes, smells, and so on.

Projects address the consequences of these sensory differences, as well as in their development and co-morbidities. For all research, we already have a large potential pool of participants (synaesthetes, aphantasics, misophonics, dysikonesics) but research can also be done on typical student volunteers. For instance, we might show how the senses interact in the average person in surprising ways (e.g., do high pitch sounds feel bright or dark? Angular or smooth?)

You can find out more from this team’s research links (including citations: follow ‘researcher’)

www.syntoolkit.org

www.misophonia-hub.org

Dr Ediz Sohoglu (Cognitive Psychology)

Predictive brain mechanisms supporting speech perception

Research in my group is focussed on revealing the neural basis of auditory perception. Auditory neuroscience is a fascinating area of research, not least because the two sensory signals that mark us out as a human species – speech and music – are perceived primarily through the auditory system.

Much of my research is motivated by the influential idea of predictive coding. That is, rather than passively processing auditory input, the brain actively generates predictions for what it might hear next. While there is broad consensus that prediction (of some kind) supports perception, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unknown. 

I am interested in supervising PhD projects addressing this issue in the context of speech processing. I have expertise in EEG and our facilities include a 128-channel system with active electrodes. I am also an advocate of modern (multivariate) analysis methods to reveal neural processes that traditional methods cannot detect. This opens new avenues for investigation with possible questions like: How are predictions and sensory input combined in auditory cortex? What is the relationship between prediction and other cognitive processes such as attention? How are predictions updated over time to support longer-term perceptual learning? 

You can read more about our work at our lab website. Please get in touch with me by email initially (E.Sohoglu@sussex.ac.uk) to discuss your application.

Prof Clara Strauss

SENSS collaborative studentship with guaranteed funding for one student. Further details coming soon

Prof Jamie Ward (Cognitive Psychology)

Understanding Anomalous Perceptual Experiences

We don’t all experience the world in the same way but the mechanisms that explain how and why we differ are not well understood.  In the broadest sense, our perceptual experiences are a blend of top-down information (memory, beliefs, etc.) and bottom-up sensory signals.  Top-down information can sometimes create experiences in the absence of any input and these can range from essentially normative experiences (imagery) to atypical ones (synaesthesia, hallucinations) but, beyond superficial similarity, we know little about how they are related mechanistically.  Other neurodiverse groups may be less biased by top-down information, as claimed for autism.  I would be interested in supervising PhD students who are able to develop and apply experimental paradigms (e.g., perceptual learning) to different populations (such as those mentioned previously) to help explain the variety of anomalous perceptual experiences (where a one-size-fits-all explanation is unlikely).  In addition to experimental data, a symptom-network approach could also be applied to understand how anomalous experiences are related to other traits that vary across individuals (e.g., imagery, illusion-proneness).  There would be limited opportunity to collect novel neuroimaging data, although access to large secondary datasets may be possible.

Prof Martin Yeomans (Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience)

Understanding human appetite and food preferences

Taking approaches founded in Experimental Psychology and Behavioural Nutrition, research in the Sussex Ingestive Behaviour Group (PI: Martin Yeomans) explores a wide range of topics relating to human food choice and appetite control.  Past PhD students in the SIBG lab have explored diverse topics ranging from how we learn to like novel foods, how our expectations influence our perception of new foods and drinks, how individual differences in taste preferences, most recently focussed on sweet liking, relate to our everyday food choices and body composition, and how expectations about how filling foods will be influence our responses to nutrient ingestion.  We are open to new projects at the cutting edge of our understanding of human behaviour with food but would particularly welcome projects in two broad areas. Firstly, projects focussed on questions related to appetite control and food choice:

  • Why do we like carbohydrate-rich foods?
  • What is the role of memory, and particularly the hippocampus, in our experience of hunger?
  • How does our habitual diet impact cognition, particularly in relation to impaired memory from overconsumption of fat and sugar?

Secondly, projects looking at sensory processes in flavour perception:

  • How do we learn to like novel food odours?
  • How do individual differences in taste response relate to oral tactile sensitivity?
  • How does perceptual load influence our ability to perceive changes in flavour?

Prof Nicola Yuill (Developmental and Clinical Psychology)

Comparing online and in-person interactions  

During Covid-19 restrictions a small-scale project looked in detail at the potential differences between online and in-person therapeutic interactions. How do small-scale verbal and non-verbal behaviours differ when people meet online? How does this affect the therapeutic relationship and connectedness, positively or negatively? If negatively, what modifications would support a better interaction? Might it affect some groups, e.g. autistic people, differently?

https://arc-kss.nihr.ac.uk/research-and-implementation/starting-well 

Dr Özden Melis Uluğ (Social and Applied Psychology)

Allyship in conflict and authoritarian contexts 

In social psychology, allyship has been mostly studied in collective action research and mostly in democratic contexts. Those studies have primarily focused on identifying the factors that mobilize majority group members to advocate for social change in such contexts (e.g., Leach et al., 2006; Selvanathan et al., 2018). However, we have limited knowledge of how allies can play a critical role in conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes in conflict societies as well as in bringing about democratic change in authoritarian societies by leveraging their majority and/or advantaged status.

In this PhD programme, the candidate will draw on contemporary social psychological work on allyship, solidarity, collective action, as well as conflict studies to compare allyship in conflict and non-conflict contexts as well as in democratic and authoritarian contexts. In designing their research programme, candidates may use qualitative, quantitative, or mixed-methods approaches.