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Stress and health: Lifespan stress and cardio-metabolic disease risk pathways through cardiovascular stress reactivity

   Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport

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  Prof Anna Whittaker, Dr P Coffee  Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

An exciting opportunity for a full-time PhD period of study is available in the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, University of Stirling.

High and low physiological reactivity to psychological stressors is implicated in the development of cardiovascular (CV) disease, or CV risk factors, but what determines the magnitude of an individual’s reactivity to stress is less well understood. Childhood adversity is a potential key factor in predicting adult stress reactivity, and independently predicts disease risk. However, what is not known is how childhood adversity and adulthood stressors interact to predict CV risk. What is even less well understood is how stress across the lifespan might interact with stress reactivity to predict CV and cardio-metabolic disease risk. This knowledge would help us to identify individuals at greatest risk of future disease through stress screening, and by understanding which type of stress is most important as well as the mechanisms of its impact (i.e. high or low CV reactivity). This project will address this gap in knowledge by examining the interaction between childhood and adulthood stress and its association with stress reactivity as well as cardio-metabolic risk factors. It will examine whether stress reactivity mediates any association between lifespan stress and cardio-metabolic risk in a cross-sectional experimental laboratory study and existing cohort datasets. There is also potential to explore other associations such as the link with social networks, physical fitness and exercise dependence.

The primary supervisor (60%) Whittaker is a Professor of Behavioural Medicine and HCPC Health Psychologist working on interdisciplinary ageing research. She has considerable experience of psychophysiological and neuroendocrine measurement, and multi-disciplinary research. She is internationally renowned for research on cardiovascular stress reactivity. Whittaker has led an EC Marie Curie ITN training PhD students in interdisciplinary research into physical activity in ageing and is Director of Research Development for Sport at Stirling. Coffee (40%) the second supervisor is an expert on the psychology of sport, specifically group memberships and social networks, and has extensive PhD supervision experience and is a HCPC Sport and Exercise Psychologist.

This interdisciplinary expertise means the student will receive training in psychosocial assessments, psychophysiological testing, stress testing, neuroendocrine sampling and assays, physiological function tests, analysis of multi-disciplinary data, and public participant involvement among many other techniques, resulting in creating a PhD graduate with a broad range of interdisciplinary skills applicable for many settings. They will use Stirling’s Research COMPASS tool to identify training needs annually.

Hosted within the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, the student will be provided with facilities, including their own desk in an office, and full access to all software and equipment as required. The student will participate in the faculty’s internal research group ‘Stirling Physical Activity Research, Knowledge & Learning Exchange - SPARKLE’. The research group has regular meetings, provides a forum for PhD students to discuss their research and gain support and advice from the broader teams. In addition, the student will have access to subject-specific training on a one-to-one basis with the supervisors and with other academics within the Faculty, and through their participation in internal and external subject-specific training events, including those designed by the PhD students in the Faculty.

Funding Notes

The successful candidate should have:
-1st or 2:1 degree in Psychology or a Health/Natural Sciences subject with a statistical component and experience of working with human participants
-MSc in a relevant topic area
-an interest in working with older adults; in the research areas and methodologies involved in the project; willingness to work on an interdisciplinary project.
-good command of a statistical computing package

The project is self-funded, however the opportunity may occasionally arise for paid tasks relating to teaching and research within the Faculty.

Further information relating to fees and funding can be found: