Multidisciplinary approach to understand how a pregnant woman’s lifestyle affects her child’s health.

   School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition

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  Prof Paul Fowler, Dr S Bhattacharya  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

The unborn baby is exposed to many environmental toxins in the mother’s womb and these can have lasting effects on their health in the future. Foremost amongst these toxic chemicals is exposure to cigarette smoke which has been shown to be associated with prematurity and low birthweight in the short term and cardiovascular disease and reproductive failure in the longer term in the offspring. More recently chemicals like Bisphenol A present in plastics have been implicated in adverse health outcomes. The extent of these effects on the unborn baby is currently unknown. It is also difficult to disentangle the effects of chemical exposures from socio-economic deprivation and maternal overweight and obesity as all these factors typically coexist in the mother. The challenge is to establish how much of a threat these factors are to the developing human fetus and how the health of the individual in adult life may be affected.

Typically, there are two main approaches to answer these challenges. The first is laboratory-based studies of human samples and animal models. The second is epidemiology (population level analysis)-based studies of human outcomes as a result of exposures or lifestyle factors. It is becoming clear that both approaches are essential and that the researchers need to be trained in both approaches to better understand how future health may be damaged in the womb. In this project the laboratory-based studies of the first and second trimester human fetus by the Fowler group will be directly linked with the epidemiology-based, data linkage, studies of human health outcomes from pregnancy events that are the focus of the Bhattacharya group. The successful candidate will receive interdisciplinary training and will conduct a combined study to lead to a PhD.

The epidemiological analyses will be based on data from established studies, including the Aberdeen Maternity & Neonatal Databank, and the ALSPAC and Millenium cohorts. Other information, such as UK air pollution levels from DEFRA and Air Quality in Scotland (SEPA), levels of deprivation, prescribing data and health outcomes can be linked with these data. The human fetal analyses will be based on the SAFeR (Scottish Advanced Fetal Research) project. In the SAFeR study maternal lifestyle data are available to be linked with very detailed analysis of a wide range of tissue samples collected from 7-20 weeks of gestation (1st and 2nd trimesters of pregnancy) human fetuses obtained from terminations of pregnancy for non-medical reasons. The Fowler group also collects placentas, cord blood and neonatal and maternal data from normal pregnancies at term (COT Study). These two studiues have full ethical approval and include both the collection and storage of a wide range of samples and adata.

Putting these two approaches together will enable the research project to answer questions around whether specific factors, like maternal occupation, exposure to air pollution, affect birth and adult health and function outcomes (such as birthweight and adult fertility) and then analyse human fetal and placental samples for a biological “footprint” of those exposures. The main areas of interest for the project are air pollution, obesity, deprivation and exposure to plastics and other environmental chemicals and pollutants.

The Fowler and Bhattacharya groups have extensive collaborative links that will enable the PhD student undertaking the project to be exposed to a wide range of studies.

The project falls within research area of existing funding to Fowler – especially the FREIA H2020 project, 2019-2023 and PROTECTED MSCA-ITN.

This project is advertised in relation to the research areas of MEDICAL SCIENCES. Formal applications can be completed online: You should apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Sciences, to ensure that your application is passed to the correct person for processing.


Candidates should contact the lead supervisor to discuss the project in advance of submitting an application, as supervisors will be expected to provide a letter of support for suitable applicants. Candidates will be informed after the application deadline if they have been shortlisted for interview. Interviews are expected to take place on 23rd or 24th July 2019.

Funding Notes

This project is part of a competition funded by the Institute of Medical Sciences. Full funding is available to UK/EU candidates only. Overseas candidates can apply for this studentship but will have to find additional funding to cover the difference between overseas and home fees (approximately £15,680 per annum).

Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered provided they have a Merit/Commendation/Distinction at Masters level.


Maternal smoking and high BMI disrupt thyroid gland development. Filis P, Hombach-Klonisch S, Ayotte P, Nagrath N, Soffientini U, Klonisch T, O'Shaughnessy P, Fowler PA. BMC Med. 2018 Oct 23;16(1):194. doi: 10.1186/s12916-018-1183-7.

Effects of maternal smoking on offspring reproductive outcomes: an intergenerational study in the North East of Scotland. Tweed S, Bhattacharya S, Fowler PA. Hum Reprod Open. 2017 Jul 12;2017(2):hox006. doi: 10.1093/hropen/hox006.

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