PhD Projects 2019-20

Funded projects

Improving human-robot coordination through mutual action understanding

Supervisor: Dr Joost Dessing (

The use of electronic devices in human society is increasing all the time. Nowadays, this includes the use of robots to take on a range of human tasks, such as vacuum cleaning, waiting on restaurant customers, and performing medical operations. For a much longer time, robots have played a role in optimization and automation of production processes in plants. While this has involved stand-alone robots without human interaction, the current trend is to integrate robots interacting with humans on factory floors. This trend comes with several scientific and engineering challenges. On the technical side, an important question is how to shape a robot’s behaviour to afford the optimal and most natural and safe interaction with humans. The same question can be asked for the human of course: how should they behave to optimally interact with the robot? These questions predominantly relate to movement control, but have a so-far unsolved psychological component as well: what is needed for humans to fully accept the robot as part of the team? It is anticipated this may require the robots to be deliberately imperfect. In general, human-robot interactions will benefit from a mutual understanding - by the robot as well as the human - of action capabilities of the counterpart. Research has examined how robots can adjust their movements based on learned knowledge of human action capabilities; much less attention has been given to how humans adapt to the robot’s action capabilities. Traditionally, robots move in a stereotypical and sometimes jerky manner, but the human understanding of its action capabilities is likely helped if the robot moves to some degree in a human-like fashion. However, it is unknown which human-like features of the movement are essential in this regard. This PhD project will examine motor coordination in human-robot interactions, focusing on strategies to improve and capitalize on mutual action understanding and the resulting improved team work. This will be studied in the context of assembly tasks akin those performed on factory floors; the knowledge generated thus will likely also be relevant for the manufacturing industry.

Improving psychological outcomes after a diagnosis of Upper GI Cancer

Supervisor: Dr Lisa Graham-Wisener (

Upper GI cancer is of increasing incidence, with those achieving an early diagnosis requiring aggressive curative treatment, associated with an arduous post-surgical recovery, a sustained impact on health related quality of life and risk of recurrence.  The majority of individuals however will receive a late diagnosis, with Upper GI cancer the fourth most common cause of cancer death in the UK.  As with many cancers of the digestive tract, there is a dearth of evidence on which to inform the best model of supportive care, of which psychological support is a key component.

This clinical health psychology project may involve establishing an evidence base to understand psychological adjustment in i) post-treatment gastric cancer survivors and their carers, or ii) longer-term Upper GI cancer survivors, or establishing an evidence base to understand supportive and palliative care needs in Upper GI cancer.

The PhD will involve collaborating with HSC Trusts and patient associations, and utilising a range of methodologies including a systematic review, qualitative semi-structured interviews and quantitative methods as part of a prospective study.

Applied canine olfaction training, welfare, and owner well-being

Supervisor: Dr Catherine Reeve (

The project will explore the conditions under which olfactory detection dogs are best trained and evaluated, and how this translates into performance in real-world applications such as biomedical detection and alert, wildlife conservation detection, forensic search, and narcotics detection. The welfare implications associated with training and real-world applications will also be examined. There is further scope to explore the nature of the relationship between dogs and their owners/handlers in these applied contexts.

Developing a psychological intervention to enhance well-being and mental health in parents and children/adolescents with diabetes.

Supervisor: Dr Emma Berry (

Adjusting to life with diabetes can be emotionally overwhelming for individuals and families living with the condition. Parents of children with diabetes report significant distress related to their child’s diabetes, often experiencing challenging feelings such as guilt and shock. This is important because poor psychological adjustment among parents impacts on family relations and children/adolescents’ mental health and medical outcomes. Psychological therapies and interventions are one potentially effective way to improve psychosocial adaption and mental health in families. However the evidence-base for parental and family-based interventions in diabetes is limited. One promising type of intervention, which seems particularly suitable for improving mental health and coping with chronic conditions, is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Via self-reflection, conversation with the therapist and mindfulness-based strategies, ACT helps a person to improve their capacity to experience and more skilfully respond to challenging internal (thoughts, emotions) and external events to make choices that support their overarching goals and values . Encouragingly, ACT has shown promising results in context of adults with Type 2 diabetes. However it has yet to be explored in paediatric diabetes, where parents are involved.

In collaboration with Clinical Psychologists (Dr Chris Graham, QUB; Dr Rebecca Houghton, HSC Northern Trust)  and NHS/HSC paediatric diabetes teams, this project aims to design and preliminary test an ACT intervention for improving parent and child well-being in this population. A crucial feature of this project will be to work closely with diabetes clinicians and with families living with diabetes, to co-develop an intervention that is both meaningful and implementable in clinical practice. The PhD will involve systematic review work, clinician and service user co-design and case series methodologies. This project is suited to a passionate and inquisitive individual who foresees a career as an applied health researcher or as a clinical psychologist or health psychologist.  Alongside expertise in applied research methods (e.g. systematic reviewing, statistics, case study methodology), we expect the successful candidate to develop experience in in child mental health within a paediatric clinical environment, as well as with applying new psychological therapies such as ACT.

Understanding the evolutionary mechanisms underlying infant features in cats and their implications for animal welfare

Supervisor: Dr Grace Carroll (

Infant features are physical traits that are characteristic of human infants and include facial features such as a large forehead, large and low-lying eyes, and a small nose and mouth. Animals possessing high levels of infant features are perceived as ‘cute’ and elicit care-giving responses in humans. The overall aim of this project is to assess the impact of possessing high versus low levels of infant features on cat welfare.  The relationship between infant features in cats and cat temperament, health and the strength of the pet-owner bond will be explored. In addition, the role that infant features play the adoptability of shelter cats will be evaluated.

School adjustment and achievement of majority and minority students

Supervisor: Dr Gülseli Baysu (

Schools aim to help children develop to their full potential. However, certain students such as ethnic, racial and religious minority students are more at risk of maladjustment and underachievement in school compared to their majority peers. What can be done to boost the adjustment and achievement of at-risk students? One way of achieving this is through social support. The PhD project will focus on various aspects of students' interactions with peers, teachers and school as potential resources for social support that can boost school adjustment and achievement of students from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The project may involve analysis of existing large longitudinal datasets across several countries and collection of new survey data.

Loneliness across the lifespan: Understanding and addressing the causes through intergenerational contact

Supervisor: Dr Jenny Groarke (

Loneliness is highly prevalent in the UK and affects people in every age group. It has been identified as a significant public health issue and is associated with increased mental health problems and risk of mortality. This research will explore and structure the causes of loneliness across the lifespan and assess whether an intergenerational intervention is effective at reducing loneliness in younger and older adults. 

Despite its high prevalence and negative effects, there is still a limited understanding of the subjective causes of loneliness. This research will use the collective intelligence methodology, Interactive Management to identify and structure the causes of loneliness in groups of secondary school-aged children, younger adults, and older adults. These findings will inform the second study, which aims to reduce loneliness in younger and older adults.

Adults under 25 and over 65 demonstrate the highest levels of loneliness in the UK and intergenerational programmes which bring together these age groups are most successful. Younger and older adults will co-design an eight-week intergenerational programme for addressing loneliness in these groups. An RCT will assess whether this programme is effective at reducing loneliness and improving related psychosocial outcomes. This research will provide a lifespan perspective on causes of loneliness and shed light on how the UK might ameliorate loneliness in the most affected age groups.

Fathers and the intergenerational transmission of parenting

Supervisor: Dr Katrina McLaughlin (

Parenting plays a fundamental role in child development. There is compelling evidence that healthy father-child relationships have a positive influence on children’s health, behaviour, social and academic success (Cabrera et al., 2011; Fletcher et al., 2014), with research highlighting the unique contribution fathers make to children’s cognitive development, prosocial behaviour and social competence (Feldman et al., 2013). One important influence on parenting is its intergenerational transmission, ie, the influence of parents’ own experiences on how they parent their children. Research suggests an average of 35-45% of parenting behaviour is transmitted to the next generation (Madden et al., 2015). However, the majority of this research focuses on mothers’ experiences of parenting, usually with an emphasis on negative parenting behaviours. The aim of this research will be to explore the intergenerational transmission of parenting of fathers (both positive and negative parenting behaviours) and the impact on their children, from a range of high and low risk populations. By highlighting the mechanisms that contribute to either positive or negative parenting behaviours, the research will inform interventions, practice and policy.

Assessing alcohol-related problems in young people

Supervisor: Dr Paul Toner (

Alcohol-related problems cause major health and social issues in Northern Ireland and globally. Previous research conducted by the primary supervisor has explored the range of alcohol-related consequences experienced by young people. This PhD offers the opportunity to work with clinical services to capture the continuum of alcohol-related harm in young people and assess therapeutic change in relation to alcohol harm minimisation. The project involves using advanced quantitative techniques concurrently with qualitative analysis of implementation data. Therefore offering rigorous methodological training while making a societal impact with a particularly vulnerable group.

Improving attitudes towards gender equality initiatives: An examination of long-term effects of interventions

Supervisor: Dr Ioana latu (

The successful candidate will join an EPSRC Inclusion Matters research team that is investigating how we can improve attitudes towards gender equality initiatives in STEM academic fields. The successful student will examine the long-term effects of high-tech training tools (such as apps, Virtual Reality toolkits, or multimedia tools) designed to improve attitudes towards gender equality initiatives and accelerate culture change in STEM academic departments.  More information about the EPSRC Inclusion Really Does Matter project at Queen's can be found here


Psychology of learning and playing new digital musical instruments

Supervisor: Dr Matthew Rodger ( 

New immersive and interactive technologies allow for exciting opportunities in the development of digital musical instruments (DMIs). However, technological advances alone are not enough for DMIs to become embedded in musical cultures and practices; new devices must also be usable, learnable and meaningful for people if they are to take hold. There is thus a need to understand how amateur and professional musicians make sense of DMIs, learn about how they behave, and how they may come to master them. Psychological research in perception, action and skill acquisition is required to inform these questions and to help unlock the potential in the science, design and practices of DMIs.

This project, which will be co-supervised by researchers in the Schools of Psychology and Electronics, Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, will involve investigating participants interacting with and learning to play DMI prototypes designed to vary in the alignment between players’ actions on them and the types of sounds they produce. The sound synthesis technique of Physical Modelling allows the designer to manipulate the extent to which digital instruments do or do not behave like their real-world acoustic counterparts, being made to sound like traditional instruments, like something completely novel and unfamiliar, and everything in between. This then allows for experimental measurement of the effects that variations in instrumental configurations have on musicians’ experiences and success in learning new DMIs. The understanding gained through this research will have implications not just for digital musical instruments, but for interactive technologies more generally, as well as the psychology of perception, action, skill learning and digital tool use.

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