Cohort 2


Giorgio Alfarano
Project Title:
Investigating the role of pulsatile hypothalamic signals in regulating the dynamics of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Lead Supervisor: Dr Jamie Walker.

During my education I completed a Bachelor in Cognitive Psychology and a Masters in Neuroscience, both from University of Padua, Italy. The research projects I have been involved in during my studies investigated abnormal cognition of mood disorders such as depression and bipolar spectrum disorder (MRC CBSU, Cambridge, UK; Gent University, Belgium). My current PhD project investigates the role of pulsatile hypothalamic signals in regulating the hormonal dynamics of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, using mathematic theory of dynamical systems and neuroendocrinology/neurophysiology experiments. A disrupted activity of the HPA axis due to stress is thought to be involved in the aetiology of many kinds of psychopathology, and especially in mood disorders.


Imogen Birch
Project Title:
Overnight therapy: treating PTSD through sleep engineering.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Penelope Lewis.

I completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of York, where I developed an interest in memory and the clinical applications of neuroscience. I then received a scholarship from the University of East Anglia to study an MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience. As part of the MRC doctoral training partnership, I am now based in CUBRIC at Cardiff University, working in the sleep lab with Professor Penny Lewis, investigating fear memory in relation to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This project is in conjunction with Professor Matt Jones at Bristol University, where I will translate the physiological and neuroimaging results obtained from people, to animal models. We are primarily investigating targeted memory cueing during sleep as a tool to reduce the fear associated with negative memories, with a focus on how individual differences in trait anxiety may mediate such an effect.


Erica Brady
Project Title:
Circuit mechanisms of disrupted neuronal network function in Alzheimer’s disease.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Michael Craig.

I am PhD student studying under the Neuroscience and Mental health theme at the University of Exeter. I obtained a BSc in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Dundee and an MSc in Integrative Neuroscience from the University of Edinburgh. My PhD project will be investigating the circuit mechanisms that underlie the disruptions seen in network oscillations in Alzheimer’s disease, specifically focusing on the role interneurons play in impairing slow wave oscillations. I will be using both electrophysiological techniques and viral targeting technologies to record and manipulate interneurons in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease with the aim to study their network and intrinsic properties.

You can find out more about Erica’s research by following her on Twitter.


Sophie Cook
Project Title:
Investigating the impact of metallic nanoparticles and nanotherapeutics on the brain.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Emyr Lloyd-Evans.

I have previously completed a four-year undergraduate degree in Biotechnology at Cardiff University. This included a one-year placement in the cell biology laboratory of Professor Dr. Hauck at the University of Konstanz in Germany and two three-month placements in the laboratory of Dr. Lloyd-Evans at Cardiff University. I am now a PhD student in the Lloyd-Evans laboratory at Cardiff University. My project, titled ‘Investigating the impact of metallic nanoparticles on biological systems and lysosomal function’, aims to determine the effect of heavy metal nanoparticles on inducing lysosomal dysfunction and Alzheimer-like phenotypes in cellular and zebrafish models. This should reveal whether environmental exposure to nanoparticles can lead to infiltration of these nanoparticles into the brain with subsequent lysosomal dysfunction and induction of Alzheimer like pathology.


Jennifer Cox
Project Title:
Towards personalised behavioural obesity treatment in children and adolescents.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Elanor Hinton.

I am based in Bristol University working with Elanor Hinton (Bristol), Natalia Lawrence (Exeter), Jeff Brunstrom (Bristol) and Julian Hamilton-Shield (Bristol). My research is exploring personalised interventions for childhood obesity, working with the clinical population in Bristol Royal Hospital for Children and school populations. I hold a BSc in Psychology, and an MSc in Health Psychology and my research now sits within the Population Health Theme.


Kaiseree Dias
Project Title:
Increasing physical activity in pre-school aged children: systematic review, individual participant meta-analysis and intervention pilot.
Lead Supervisor: Dr Ruth Kipping. 

I obtained a Medical Sciences (BMedSc) degree followed by a Master in Public Health (MPH) from the University of Birmingham. Following my studies, I worked as Research Associate in Public Health Research at the University of Bristol where I was jointly funded by DECIPHer and the NIHR SPHR. My role involved working on different studies ranging from substance misuse to sexual health topics and I applied various research methods such as literature searches, systematic reviews, qualitative methods, primary data collection and quantitative analysis. I am now very grateful to be undertaking a GW4 BioMed MRC DTP Studentship at the University of Bristol. My project falls under the Population Health theme and will be looking at increasing physical activity levels in pre-school aged children. I will be using epidemiology, systematic review and qualitative methods to look at associations between physical activity and pre-school/home environments to design an intervention to increase physical activity.


Anna Duckworth
Project Title:
Epigenetic profiling of circulating DNA as a marker of dysregulated tissue repair in lung disease.
Lead Supervisor: Dr Chris Scotton.

I have an MA in Physics from Cambridge University and a PhD in laser spectroscopy, obtained while working in the electricity supply industry. I have worked in applied research, engineering, project, programme and change management and have a coaching business. Thanks to this MRC GW4 Biomedical research award, I have made the transition to the medical field where I hope to make a valuable contribution. My PhD is at Exeter University, working with Dr Chris Scotton, together with Dr Katie Lunnon (also in Exeter) and Professor Mark Lindsay (in Bath). I shall be exploring the genomics of lung disease Pulmonary Fibrosis, which is currently incurable, difficult to diagnose and carries a prognosis worse than many cancers. My work will include both genetics and epigenetics via culturing cells, next generation sequencing and bioinformatics. I hope to make a difference to patients and their families.


Rhys Dunphy
Project Title:
Structure-informed design of therapeutics and vaccines based on a Staphylococcus aureus immune evasion protein.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Jean van den Elsen.


I am currently undertaking my PhD at the University of Bath, under the supervision of Prof Jean van den Elsen (Bath) and Prof Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel (Bristol). My project falls within the “Infection, Immunity and Repair (IIR)” theme and aims to improve our understanding of how Staphylococcus aureus can evade our immune system. This will involve determining the structure and function of the supra-molecular structure that facilitates the evasion of our immune system. This complex is comprised of a Staphylococcus aureus immune evasion protein (Sbi) and components of our immune system. By better understanding this mechanism of immune evasion it may be possible to design more effective treatments.


Samantha Garay
Project Title:
Placental programming of infant neurodevelopment in the context of maternal care.
Lead Supervisor: Professor Rosalind John.

I obtained a BSc (Hons) in Psychology and an MSc in Health Psychology from the University of Bath. I am undertaking a PhD based at Cardiff University within the School of Bioscience in the division of Biomedicine, under the supervision of Professor Rosalind John (Cardiff University, Bioscience), Professor Stephanie van Goozen (Cardiff University, Psychology) and Dr Rebecca Pearson (University of Bristol, Social & Community Medicine). My PhD falls under the Neuroscience and Mental Health theme. It will investigate placental programming in infant neurodevelopment in the context of maternal care, utilising both the Grown in Wales (GIW) cohort and the ALSPAC cohort.


James Garbutt
Project Title:
Dietary patterns and the progression of type 2 diabetes.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Laura Johnson.


I completed my dietetics degree at Cardiff Metropolitan University and am now based in the Exercise, Nutrition and Health Science centre at the University of Bristol, under the GW4 Population Health theme. My research is focused on investigating the role of dietary patterns in modifying the progression of Type 2 diabetes, responsiveness to diabetes medication and development of diabetes complications. These findings will hopefully go on to inform the development of individualised approaches to the treatment of Type 2 diabetes.


Simonas Griesius
Project Title:
Genetic risk factors involved in brain circuit changes caused by early life adversity.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Jack Mellor.


Early life adversity (ELA), such as abuse or neglect in childhood, has been shown to result in a number of changes in the brain that increase susceptibility to a range of psychiatric disorders in adulthood, including major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction, among others. Based at the University of Bristol, I, together with collaborators from Cardiff University, aim to investigate genetic risk factors involved in those brain circuit changes caused by ELA. I will primarily employ electrophysiological and behavioural approaches in animal models of ELA to characterise the changes in neurophysiology caused by the interaction of the genes of interest with ELA. Elucidating these genetic risk factors will hopefully lead to the eventual clinical treatment and prevention strategies for patients affected by ELA.

You can find out more about Simonas’ research by following him on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.


Viivi Hirvonen
Project Title:
General and efficient computational assays for antibiotic breakdown by β-lactamases.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Marc van der Kamp.

I am a PhD at the University of Bristol, and my project falls under Infection, Immunity and Repair theme. Prior to arriving in Bristol, I obtained my undergraduate degree from the University of Helsinki, and MSc in theoretical and computational chemistry from the University of Oxford. My research focuses on tackling the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is mainly due to enzymes called β-lactamases: these enzymes can hydrolyze the β-lactam ring structure present in many antibiotics, which leaves the drug inactive. Utilizing high-performance computing, we can model this process using combined quantum mechanics/molecular mechanics simulations (QM/MM). Additionally, the project will include experimental work in enzyme kinetics for validating computational results. The final aim of my project is to develop efficient and accurate computational assays for determining if a drug will be broken down by a β-lactamase.


Catherine Hobbs
Project Title:
A neurocognitive investigation of the role of reinforcement learning in updating dysfunctional self-schema in depression: A putative mechanism for antidepressant action?
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Katherine Button.

In 2016 I graduated from the University of Bath with a BSc (hons) in Psychology. As part of this I worked for a year as an honorary research assistant at the University of Reading within the Child and Adolescent Depression and Anxiety Clinic on a long-term follow-up of parent-led CBT for offspring anxiety disorders. I subsequently completed an MSc in Clinical Mental Health Sciences at UCL, where my research work focused on disparities between changes in self-report measures of depression and patients’ perceptions of changes in mood. I worked for a year as a research assistant at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, examining healthy ageing in relation to concussion in former professional rugby players. I am currently completing a PhD at the University of Bath examining self-referential processing and social reinforcement learning as potential mechanisms for antidepressant action. We hope to better understand who will benefit from antidepressants at an early stage by examining changes in self-referential emotional processing. My project falls under the ‘Neuroscience and Mental Health’ category of the GW4 MRC DTP.


Shilpa Joshi
Project Title:
Serum nitrate as a biomarker of infection in gastroenteritis patients.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Paul Winyard.


I am a medical doctor and a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists. My PhD project at the University of Exeter Medical School (under the Infection, Immunity and Repair theme) is on ‘Serum nitrate as a biomarker of infection in gastroenteritis patients’. Patients with infective diarrhoea exhibit an increase in serum nitrate concentration secondary to high nitric oxide synthesis. The proposed study will investigate if serum nitrate concentration reveals the cause of acute diarrhoea in patients admitted to the hospital emergency department and whether an innovative point of care analyser can measure serum nitrate quickly and robustly. The findings could potentially lead to the introduction of a simple, cheap, diagnostic test for gastrointestinal infections which could decrease the turnaround time for diagnostic results. My supervisors for this project are Professor Paul Winyard (Exeter), Dr Miranda Smallwood (Exeter), Professor Nigel Benjamin (Exeter & Torbay Hospital) and Professor Frank Marken (Bath).


Matthew Lee
Project Title:
What lies behind the causal impact of body mass index level and change on human health? Added value from complementary study design and deep metabolomic phenotyping.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Nicholas Timpson.

My PhD has a really long title but is essentially looking at associations between BMI and disease. We know BMI is associated with many diseases (e.g. cancer, diabetes, all-cause mortality) but the exact mechanisms that lead from abnormal BMI to disease states is unknown. Under the supervision of Professor Nic Timpson and Drs Kaitlin Wade and Laura Corbin at the University of Bristol, my research is focused on identifying these mechanisms. Before getting this PhD I completed both my BSc Sports and Exercise Science and MSc Biotechnology degrees at the University of Essex. I also did time as a research tech looking at the tumour microenvironment.


Francesca Polveraccio
Project Title:
Stem Cell Exosomes: a system for initiating tissue repair and regeneration in diverse disease settings.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Jason Webber.

Before applying for this PhD position, I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in Biological Science at the University of Pavia and my interest in science at a molecular level drove me to obtain my Master’s Degree in Functional Genomics at the University of Trieste. Here, the aim of my thesis project was the wide characterization of induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC) derived from cord blood mesenchymal stem cells (CBMSC), isolation of extracellular vesicles and identification of their regenerative potential in an in vitro model. Now, the aim of my PhD project is to reveal the restorative effects of small nano-vesicles (exosomes), derived from stem and progenitor cells, as system for initiating tissue repair and regeneration in diverse disease settings. Exosomes may represent valid therapeutic alternatives to the direct injection of stem and progenitor cells.


Elisa Salis
Project Title:
In vivo modelling of human microglial alterations associated with Alzheimer’s disease polygenic risk.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Julie Williams.

My research theme is Neuroscience and Mental Health. I will be working at the DRI Centre in the Hadyn Ellis building with Prof. Julie Williams and Prof. Nick Allen at Cardiff University. I am interested in understanding the impact of polygenic risk genotype on the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). For my project, I will establish novel microglia models from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individuals identifies at the extremes of polygenic risk of AD. Cells derived from high and low AD risk will be compared using multiple functional assays. Understanding how the polygenic risk plays a role in the pathophysiology of the disease will hopefully provide novel potential therapeutic targets.


Elena Simonazzi
Project Title:
Understanding how ABI3 contributes to the aetiology of Alzheimer’s disease.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Phil Taylor.

I started studying neurodegenerative diseases during my BSc in Biotechnology in Rome and I immediately fell in love with the subject. For this reason, for my MSc thesis in Medical Biotechnologies, I focused on the role of the Histone Deacetylase 4 in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. After my graduation, I applied to the “Unipharma Graduates” project, winning a 6-months-long research grant to work at the Institut Pasteur of Paris where I investigated the role of the Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors in Alzheimer’s Disease. Being awarded a MRC GW4 Biomed DTP, I am currently working in the Infection & Immunity Division at Cardiff University, under Prof. Philip Taylor. Since a rare coding variant of ABI3 has been recently identified as associated to Alzheimer’s diseases, my project aims to understand its contribution to microglial function and AD development. Hopefully this will lead to a better understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms and to the identification of a druggable target.


David Sunderhauf
Project Title:
Eradicating antimicrobial resistance genes from human pathogen communities using CRISPR-Cas9.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr William Gaze.

After studying Biology and later Immunology at the University of Aberdeen, my interest in bacteria and their phages brought me to the University of Exeter for a Masters by Research degree in Biosciences. Based on the University’s Cornwall campus, I am now researching antibiotic resistance for my PhD. In my project, I aim to develop a novel CRISPR-based technology to eradicate antimicrobial resistance genes from complex bacterial communities.

You can find out more about David’s research by following him on Twitter, LinkedIn and ResearchGate. You can also read about David’s research on the van Houte Lab Blog.


Gemma Wilkinson
Project Title:
An in vitro human cell assay to investigate the effects of psychiatric risk gene CACNA1C dosage on neuronal network activity.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Adrian Harwood.

My PhD is based at the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute at Cardiff University in the Harwood lab. My research involves looking at a gene (CACNA1C) that has been linked to a range of psychiatric diseases including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder. I will alter the expression of this gene in neuronal cells and look at the effect this has on their electrical activity. This will help us to understand the role of this gene in psychiatric diseases.


Samuel Williams
Project Title:
New antimicrobials from deep-sea sponges.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Paul Curnow.


I completed my master’s degree in Pharmacy at the University of Manchester and have been working as a Clinical Pharmacist at Southmead hospital in Bristol for the past two years. I was awarded the MRC GW4 Biomed DTP and I am now based at the University of Bristol under the supervision of Dr. Paul Curnow. My project is under the theme of ‘Immunity, Infection and Repair’; it involves bioprospecting deep sea sea-sponges for novel antimicrobials to fight the growing global issue of antimicrobial resistance. Initially, my project involves culturing rare sponge-associated bacteria to isolate promising antibiotic producers from this previously untested and isolated environment. I will use classical microbiology, genomic analysis and protein purification techniques to identify lead compounds and test them against multiple strains of resistant bacteria.

You can find out more about Sam’s research by following him on Twitter, LinkedIn and ResearchGate.


Marta Williams
Project Title:
Development of Cytomegalovirus-Based Vectors in Cancer Vaccination.
Lead Supervisor:
Dr Ian Humphreys.

I am based at Cardiff University School of Medicine, under the Immunity, Infection and Repair theme. My research is focused on developing cancer vaccines based on replication-deficient human cytomegalovirus known to have a unique ability to stimulate potent T-cell responses. This approach will investigate if immune-modulatory strategies can be harnessed to induce robust and protective T cell responses against tumours. I will develop and optimise these viral vectors and then determine vector-induced anti-tumour protection based on in vivo models of lung and bowel cancer. Together this will hopefully generate a safe and effective anti-cancer viral vaccine.


Carissa Wong
Project Title:
Addressing cellular interactions in tumours in vivo to control tumour immunity.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Awen Gallimore.

I am a recent graduate of the University of Bristol where I studied for a BSc in Cancer Biology and Immunology. My project is based at Cardiff University under the supervision of Professor Awen Gallimore, within the theme of Infection and Immunity in collaboration with Professor Christoph Wuelfing and Dr Mike Ashby at the University of Bristol. I am undertaking a project investigating cellular interactions between tumour cells and immune cells, focusing largely on T-cells of the immune system, and a type of T-cell called regulatory T-cells. I will be using two-photon microscopy which enables imaging of these interactions in vivo in mice. The project aims to elucidate mechanisms regulating the interactions between tumour cells and T-cells to support the development of anti-cancer immune therapies.


 Bleddyn Woodward
Project Title:
The selfish brain: using high resolution 7 Tesla MRI of the human brain to investigate hypertension.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Richard Wise.


My research theme is Neuroscience and Mental Health. I am based at Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) at Cardiff University. My PhD project involves the development of structural and functional high-field MRI techniques, including time-of-flight angiography and arterial spin labelling, to study whether impaired brainstem perfusion leads to hypertension.


Simona Zahova
Project Title:
De-risking Prader-Willi Syndrome drug development through preclinical screening.
Lead Supervisor:
Professor Anthony Isles.

I obtained a BSc degree in Genetics from Cardiff University, where I am also continuing for my PhD. My project is based in the Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics in the team of professor Anthony Isles. My interests lie in imprinted genes and the various disorders associated with imprinted clusters. For my PhD I will have the opportunity to study Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS), a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a disturbance in the imprinting of a cluster of genes in chromosome 15. I will be performing various behavioural tests on different mouse models of Prader-Wili Syndrome, in order to achieve better understanding of how individual genes in the cluster might affect specific behavioural phenotypes. My project will hopefully also contribute towards the establishment of a platform for testing of drugs that might ameliorate some of the symptoms of PWS.

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