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DfE Projects 2016-17

DfE Funded Projects 2016-17

Applying for a DfE funded PhD project in the School of Psychology

These funded awards are made by Northern Ireland Department for the Economy (DfE).  Eligibility for both fees and maintenance (£14,296 in 2016/17) depends on the applicant being either an ordinary UK resident or an EU residents who has lived permanently in the UK for the 3 years immediately preceding the start of the studentship. Non UK residents who hold EU residency may also apply but if successful may receive fees only. For further details re eligibility criteria (including academic, citizenship and residency criteria) please click here.

How to apply

If you are interested in applying for one of our DfE funded PhD projects, then you must contact the project supervisor before submitting an application. You may apply for more than one project at a time – please indicate on your application the topics in which you are interested (in order of preference in the ‘additional information’ section of the online form).

Queen’s uses an on-line application system. Full details of this can be found on the Applying to Queen's pages.

Please alert your potential referees to the fact that you are applying as once your application is submitted an automatic system generates an email to them requesting a reference.


Applicants will be interviewed by their potential supervisor(s) and also by the Schools Postgraduate Research Selection Panel. You will also be asked to give a short (10 minute) presentation on a research related topic.

Following the interview applicants are contacted by the University with the outcome of the process. If successful you may be accepted for a place to study with funding. Alternatively you may be offered a place to study but without funding, in the current competitive environment we are unable to offer funding to all applicants.

Please note that, as the selection process occurs before you may have your final degree classification, any offers made at this stage are conditional on you achieving the required degree class.

Application Timeline for Funded Studentships

The closing date for applications for DfE studentships for 2017-18 is 5 pm Friday 24 February 2017. Interviews will take place in the first two weeks of March.

DfE Supervisors and Projects Available

Gender and Intergroup Contact

Supervisors: Dr Ioana Latu and Professor Rhiannon Turner

Intergroup contact has been largely studied as an effective way to reduce prejudice towards racial, religious, disability, elderly, and sexual orientation groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). However, little is known about mixed gender interactions and the value of contact. Indeed, attitudes towards women are usually positive (Eagly & Mladinic, 1994) and mixed-gender interactions are frequent and interpersonally close (e.g., family, romance). Still, negative stereotypes of women persist especially in workplace domains, with important consequences for women, such as underperformance in male-typical domains, biased evaluations of workplace performance, underrepresentation in leadership (Eagly & Carli, 2007).

Using the theoretical framework of integrated threat theory (Stephan et al., 2009), the successful student will investigate how and when intergroup contact can reduce gender bias towards women in workplace and leadership domains. Survey and experimental methodologies (including virtual reality) will be utilized in order to answer the following research questions:

(1)    Do competent women pose a realistic threat (e.g., take away power) or a symbolic threat (e.g., challenge traditional gender roles) to men?

(2)    Under what conditions do mixed-gender interactions lead to intergroup anxiety?

(3)    Under what conditions does intergroup contact (real and imagined) reduce gender bias towards women in the workplace?

These studies are theoretically important because they investigate, for the first time, the value of intergroup contact in the context of male-female interactions. From a practice standpoint, these studies are important because they can point to effective ways of reducing negative stereotypes of women in workplace and leadership domains. 

For more information about this project, please contact Dr Ioana Latu (i.latu@qub.ac.uk).


ALLUSION (vALidating attentionaL measUres as indiceS of executIve functiOniNg)

Supervisors: Dr Kostas A. Papageorgiou and Dr Kate Woodcock

Papageorgiou and colleagues (2014) have shown that infants’ fixation duration—assessed using eye-tracking—predicts effortful control, extraversion and hyperactivity-inattention in childhood. Fixation duration appears to be a measure of infant’s executive attention, predicting children’s executive control. These results hold implications for using duration-based measures in infancy, as indices of children’s executive functioning. A better understanding of the relationship between eye-tracking measures and executive abilities in childhood could have significant theoretical and applied implications for developmental research in infancy.  For example, future research could use infants’ eye-tracking measures—that associate strongly with executive abilities in childhood—to identify populations at risk of developing disorders characterised by deficits in executive attention. Further, the research may pave the way for early intervention approaches that train visual attention in infants with a view to decreasing the development of behavioural problems linked to executive deficits.

The primary aim of the project is to validate duration-based eye-tracking measures, as indices of executive functioning ability in childhood. These eye-tracking measures can then be used confidently as early indicators of executive abilities in childhood. The association between eye-tracking measures with parent-report measures of executive control will also be explored. 

The project will:

  1. Collect cross-sequential eye-tracking data from two cohorts of typically developing 6- and 8-year-old children, who will complete a battery of computerised executive functioning tests
  2. Collect longitudinal eye-tracking data from infants at 7- and 12-months of age.
  3. Collect parent-report measures of executive control in infancy; and executive control and symptoms of psychopathology in childhood

For more information about this project, please contact Dr Kostas Papageorgiou (K.Papageorgiou@qub.ac.uk).


Using interactive sounds to improve gait in people with Parkinson’s disease

Supervisors: Dr Matthew Rodger and Professor Cathy Craig

Among the most apparent and adverse symptoms of Parkinson's disease (PD) are disturbances in gait, including shuffling, instability, freezing of gait, and general disfluencies in walking movements. Limitations of pharmacological approaches to improve gait disturbances, have led to interest in non-pharmacological means of enhancing walking in PD, to complement drugs-based approaches. Sensory cueing, in which perceptual guides for movement are presented visually, acoustically, or haptically, is one such approach. In particular, listening to rhythmic sounds such as music or metronomes while walking can improve step timing and other gait-related symptoms in PD. Research carried out on this topic in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast has shown further improvements in walking stability in people with PD when listening to action-related rhythmic sounds (recordings of footsteps on gravel) and also when motion capture technology is used to generate sounds in real-time from participants’ own steps (‘movement sonification’). This proposed project will further investigate the effects of auditory feedback on gait performance in people with PD. Movement sonification will be used to provide listeners with real-time auditory feedback of their stepping actions, and to compare the effects of different movement-to-sound mappings on gait measures in people with PD and healthy age-matched controls. Experiments will compare discrete vs. continuous auditory feedback, action-related vs. artificial sounds, and self-generated feedback vs. pre-recorded auditory guides. Results of these experiments will provide insight into the underlying mechanisms which support auditory enhancement of gait in PD, as well as inform the design of new assistive technologies.

For more information about this project, please contact Dr Matthew Rodger (m.rodger@qub.ac.uk).


The Development of Counterfactual Emotions: Regret and Relief

Supervisors: Professor Teresa McCormack and Dr Aidan Feeney

Counterfactual emotions are those that involve thinking about “what might have been”. The most commonly-studied counterfactual emotion is regret, a negative emotion that is experienced when one realizes that if one had chosen differently, a better outcome would been achieved (e.g., if I hadn’t chosen to switch off my alarm this morning, I would have caught the bus today).  A number of recent studies, including those by the proposed supervisors, have examined when children first experience regret, and how this affects their decision making. This project will further examine the development of counterfactual emotions, focusing on gaps in our existing knowledge. One gap is that we do not know anything currently about the development of regret in the context of prosocial or moral decisions. Sometimes regret is felt about a choice not because of its effect on oneself, but because of its negative effect on another person. When do children experience this sort of regret, and how does its development affect their interpersonal or moral decisions? Another gap is that we know relatively little about the development of relief. Relief is often assumed to be the opposite of regret – it is a positive emotion one experiences when one has avoided a potentially negative or unwanted outcome (e.g., one could be relieved that one managed to avoid getting fired). However, we also talk about someone being relieved when an unpleasant or painful event is over (e.g., relieved that a painful dental procedure is completed). Are there two types of relief, and if so what is the developmental profile of each type of relief?

For more information about this project, please contact Professor Teresa McCormack (t.mccormack@qub.ac.uk).


Additional projects for which funding may become available

Changes in functional brain connectivity that mediate the relationship between grip strength trajectories and cognitive decline

Supervisor: Professor Richard Carson

By 2050 the number of people aged 60 years and older will reach 2 billion. With this increase in the ageing population, age-related problems that cause a decrease in well-being become a pressing concern. A characteristic feature of ageing is decline in grip strength. This does not occur at the same rate in all people. In spite of the fact that it appears to be a simple measure of physical capacity, the rate at which it decreases is a very good indicator of many health outcomes. It predicts deterioration of cognitive abilities such as memory and attention. Yet the reasons for these associations remain poorly understood.

The aim is to identify the specific facets of functional brain connectivity that account for the association between grip strength and cognitive decline. This will be accomplished through use of an advanced neural imaging methodology “resting state” fMRI, together with innovative analysis techniques, to resolve neural connections in the living human brain. The project will capitalize upon the unique resource provided by a cohort of individuals for whom rsfMRI was undertaken in the Irish Longitudinal Study of Ageing, in conjunction with serial measurements of grip strength and cognitive function.

The objectives of the proposed research are: 1) To resolve changes in brain connectivity accompanying grip strength decline; 2) To determine the changes in brain connectivity that mediate the relationship between grip strength trajectories and cognitive decline; 3) To define the aspects of brain function for which grip strength provides the most robust early biomarkers.

For more information about this project, please contact Professor Richard Carson (r.g.carson@qub.ac.uk).


Motion extrapolation for manual interception

Supervisor: Dr Joost Dessing

Of our actions in daily life, those that involve moving objects are among the more challenging to control. Catching a ball, for instance, requires moving the hand to intercept the ball not only at an adequate location, but also within an adequate time that depends on how the ball moves through space relative to one’s body. This spatiotemporal requirement distinguishes interception from regular movements to stationary objects. Although much is known about the visual information and control mechanisms by which humans accomplish this spatiotemporal control, many questions remain. For instance, at present it is unknown to what extent prediction or extrapolation are used to control interception in full vision conditions, and by what mechanisms ball motion is extrapolated during occlusion (e.g., online internal tracking or prediction of future positions). Moreover, it is unknown how predictive and non‑predictive strategies may be in parallel, as suggested by some researchers. This PhD project will employ state-of-the-art interception paradigms developed by Dr. Dessing over the last years and focus on both the (visual) information underlying interception, how this information is used (e.g., extrapolation) and how it is ultimately linked to movement (perception-action coupling). This will involve psychophysical studies, as well as – in the later stage of the project – neurophysiological investigations using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. We will aim to publish all studies as Registered Reports. This means that the student will submit hypotheses and methods for review and that (once accepted) publication will be independent of the results obtained.

For more information about this project, please contact Dr Joost Dessing (j.dessing@qub.ac.uk).


Identifying the source(s) of postural control deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD): Sensory information, sensory integration and cognitive resource allocation

Supervisors: Dr Mihalis Doumas and Dr Kate Woodcock

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disorder affecting social interaction, communication but also sensory and motor behavior. One of the key aspects of sensory and motor behavior that is impaired in individuals with ASD is postural control, however the nature and mechanisms of this impairment are not well understood. Recent studies suggest that these deficits are most evident when one or more of the sensory channels (visual, vestibular and proprioceptive) involved in this task is compromised (e.g. Doumas et al. 2016). Thus, this deficit is likely to be either due to impaired sensory acuity, due to impaired sensory integration or both.

The aim of this project is to investigate the source(s) of this deficits, by assessing three key aspects of postural control: sensory acuity, sensory integration and cognitive resource allocation in individuals with ASD and Typically Developing (TD) controls.

This project comprises four phases. Phase 1 involves a systematic review of the literature on postural control deficits in ASD. Then, phase 2 investigates whether the origin of the ASD-related balance deficits is peripheral (acuity of individual sensory channels) or central (sensory integration). Phase 3 focuses on sensory integration by asking whether ASD-related deficits are sensory-modality specific by contrasting adaptation to inaccurate visual and proprioceptive environments. Finally, phase 4 adds a posture-cognitive dual-task performance element to assess whether these deficits could be partly explained by impaired cognitive resource allocation, similar to results shown in clinical groups, for instance patients with major depression (Doumas et al. 2012).

For more information about this project, please contact Dr Mihalis Doumas (m.doumas@qub.ac.uk).