Medical Humanities PhD research studentship, Glasgow Caledonian University

Glasgow School for Business and Society. Reference Number: S2015GSBS004

Studentship Project Title: Stress, Starvation, and Epigenetic Change: the historic origins of chronic ill-health amongst the Irish Diaspora.

Applications are invited for a full-time PhD research studentship at Glasgow Caledonian University within the Glasgow School for Business and Society. The studentship is for a period of three years, subject to satisfactory progress and provides payment of tuition fees at the UK/EU rate plus an annual stipend of £14,800 [please note that students from outside the EU are required to pay the difference between International and EU fees, currently this would amount to £7,100 per annum]. The successful candidate will carry out up to 6 hours of academic-related work per week as part of their research training.

Research Discipline

This is an interdisciplinary research project, which draws upon methodological approaches from History and Medicine. The primary discipline is History.

Research Theme

The project addresses the University’s societal challenge of ‘Healthy Lives’ in its focus upon the causes, and best means of prevention, of chronic illness. Moreover, it does so through two of the University’s research themes of Social Innovation and Equalities and Justice, and Public Health and Long-term Conditions. The studentship will use an historic case study of epigenetic change to explore health inequalities in Western Scotland, especially the health deficit suffered by communities of Irish descent. It will also examine the Irish diaspora in Canada, especially in New Brunswick. GCU’s commitment to the Common Weal is strengthened in this project through the examination of the ‘Glasgow Effect’, and the presentation of research findings that suggest means of alleviating the effects of deprivation in vulnerable cohorts. This work will have public health policy implications, in indicating means through which the worst effects of nutritional deprivation, and pre-natal stress, may be alleviated, and life-long chronic health conditions avoided.

Research Project Summary

The project is a highly innovative interdisciplinary examination of the impact of starvation and stress upon populations, and the long-term consequences of nutritional deprivation for quasi-closed communities. There are a number of key large-scale projects on historic epigenetic change that will help to shape the parameters of this work, including the Dutch Hunger Winter Study (University of Leiden), the Överkalix Cohort Study in Sweden, the series of projects on the transmission of Holocaust trauma and deprivation, and the growing body of work on the Chinese Famines of 1958-61. The findings of these projects, which confirm significant and inter-generational changes in long-term health profiles, will be applied to the post-Famine population in Ireland, and in the Irish diaspora in Scotland and Canada.

The Great Irish Famine of 1845-51 saw mass starvation and an extraordinary excess mortality rate – over a million died of hunger and disease in six years – and set a pattern of mass migration that halved the population over the course of 50 years. But it also had a less visible, but arguably equally devastating, consequence. The high levels of malnutrition and psychological stress suffered throughout this traumatic event, as well as periodic food shortages in the post-Famine era, ensured that epigenetic change occurred on a large scale. The general health profile of the Irish at home, and as migrant communities abroad, altered considerably as a result. Mental illness (especially schizophrenia) rose sharply, and a consistent pattern of abnormally raised rates of cardiovascular disease and type-two diabetes emerged. This profile expressed itself in disproportionately high levels of admission to psychiatric hospitals, and to the persistence of chronic physical illnesses, despite improving standards of living and the availability of better nutrition. Areas where the Irish settled in large numbers, for example in the West of Scotland and in New Brunswick, Canada, produced similar health profiles as the population in Ireland, suggesting strongly that epigenetic inheritance dominated over environmental factors.

Using longitudinal Vital Registration Data, as well as archival material from asylums and general hospitals, this project will provide evidence of the important role played by stress and nutrition in determining health profiles for specific communities. This has a direct application for modern health policy, given the recent disturbing findings from the United States that many poorer communities are simultaneously obese, yet malnourished. This study will indicate the circumstances under which health profiles in the cohort began to improve, offering insights into the best means to combat persistent patterns of ill-health.

Supervisory Team

How to Apply

Applicants should complete the University Research Application Form. Please email the form, stating the studentship project title and reference number, with a CV, copies of academic qualifications, references, and any other required documentation.

The closing date for applications is Monday 13 April 2015


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