Understanding polygenic and pre/post-natal environmental influences – and their interplay – in cognitive and behavioural development

Principal Supervisor:        Dr Emma Meaburn

Co-Supervisor:       Dr Bonamy Oliver

Project Description

Advances in polygenic score research have been considerable in recent years, but nevertheless demonstrate that genetic studies are not free from environmental confounding, and causal paths remain uncertain.  

The studentship will build on recent theoretical and technical advances to better understand the interconnected influences of DNA sequence variation and environmental influences on children’s development. The studentship has four specific objectives. Firstly, to apply psychiatric, cognitive and behavioural polygenic scores for parents and children in the context of structural equation models to systematically partition polygenic influence into direct and indirect (environmentally mediated) effects. Secondly, to perform a series of pre-specified mediation analyses to examine specific (and mechanistically plausible) pre- and post-natal environments that mediate indirect paths identified.  Thirdly, to utilise existing longitudinally and cross-sectional datasets to examine developmental change and stability. Finally, individual differences in response to intervention are well recognised, yet little is known about polygenic effects that might moderate intervention response. The studentship will identify potential intervention datasets to detect the presence of polygenic score–intervention interactions.


Healthy behavioural development is predictive of a wide range of important social, economic, physical and mental-health outcomes and understanding the causal pathways between genes, family environment and child development and behaviour is fundamental and timely. An enhanced understanding of the strength of non-genetically mediated paths between pre- and postnatal rearing environments and child development will have far-reaching implications for understanding causation, and for social policy. It will also provide more precise estimates of the magnitude of direct genetic effects, which will be crucial for evaluating the viability of using polygenic scores as prediction tools for health and behavioural outcomes. Finally, it will offer important information for understanding the ‘pure’ environmental mechanisms of intervention, and the possible moderating impact of background polygenic liability.

Candidate requirements

Graduates with a good first degree and/or Masters degree in psychology, psychiatry, quantitative biology, or other relevant sciences. Applicants with an interest and aptitude for genetics, as well as for child and adolescent behavioural development and quantitative methods are encouraged to apply. Knowledge, understanding or interest in family processes or intervention would also be an advantage. You should be comfortable with managing large files within a programming environment, and with using code in a statistical (eg RStudio) or scripting (eg Python) language. The project will require advanced statistical analysis skills (e.g., experience in linear modeling, structural equation modeling).

Subject Areas/Keywords


Polygenic scores



Behavioural development

Gene-environment interplay

Key References

Hart, S.A., Little, C. & van Bergen, E. Nurture might be nature: cautionary tales and proposed solutions. npj Sci. Learn. 6, 2 (2021).

Laurel Raffington, Travis Mallard, K. Paige Harden. Polygenic Scores in Developmental Psychology: Invite Genetics In, Leave Biodeterminism Behind. Annual Review of Developmental Psychology (2020) 2:1, 389-411

Selzam S, Ritchie SJ, Pingault JB, Reynolds CA, O’Reilly PF, Plomin R. Comparing Within- and Between-Family Polygenic Score Prediction. Am J Hum Genet. (2019)

Kong A, Thorleifsson G, Frigge ML, Vilhjalmsson BJ, Young AI, Thorgeirsson TE, Benonisdottir S, Oddsson A, Halldorsson BV, Masson G, Gudbjartsson DF, Helgason A, Bjornsdottir G, Thorsteinsdottir U, Stefansson K. The nature of nurture: Effects of parental genotypes. Science. (2018)

Meaburn, E.L., and Donati, G. What has behavioural genetic research told us about the origins of individual differences in educational abilities and achievements? in Thomas, M., Mareschal, D., Dumontheil, I. (Eds) Educational Neuroscience: Development Across the Life Span. Frontiers of Developmental Science series. London: Routledge. (2020)

Further details about the project may be obtained from

Principal Supervisor:        Dr Emma Meaburn. https://cbcd.bbk.ac.uk/people/scientificstaff/emma-meaburn

Dr Emma Meaburn (GEL Lab Co-director)

Co-Supervisor:       Dr Bonamy Oliver.



Further information about PhDs at Birkbeck is available from


Application forms and details about how to apply are available from:

How to apply

Please follow the online application process for the full-time Psychology PhD at Birkbeck  (https://www.bbk.ac.uk/study/2022/phd/programmes/RMPPSYCH ), clearly stating your interest in the ‘Bloomsbury PhD Studentship’ with Dr Meaburn.

Please use the ‘Supporting Statement’ in the application to outline why you are applying for this project, and why you are a suitable candidate for it.

Queries about the PhD and training should be sent to Dr Meaburn (e.meaburn@bbk.ac.uk)

Submission of application

Closing date for applications: 11/02/22

Deadline by which all references must be submitted: 18/02/22

Interview date: w/c 28/02/22

If you have questions regarding the application process, please contact Ms Ida Akhtar (i.akhtar@bbk.ac.uk).