17 February 2020
Dr William Davies, Schools of Medicine and Psychology
A major challenge in mental
health research is to disseminate our emerging findings to relevant stakeholder
groups – these include fellow academics, patients and support organisations, clinicians,
funders and charities, and healthcare professionals such as genetic
Another key stakeholder group are
undergraduate students, who, through being well-informed citizens should be
well-positioned to effect positive societal change, whether that be through
performing their own research or through multiple other mechanisms.
As an academic involved in both
research and teaching, I believe that it is incumbent upon people like me to
ensure that students are provided with the most up-to-date and robust
information regarding topics like mental health, and that they are given the
skills to critique and interpret research findings. As such, it was extremely
gratifying to be recently awarded the ‘Excellence in Teaching (Undergraduate)’
award from the School of Medicine.
My teaching role is varied, and
involves lecturing to large student cohorts, facilitating smaller tutorial
sessions (e.g. in so-called Case-based Learning),
and one-to-one project supervision, across two Schools within the University. My
research is concerned with understanding why males and females behave
differently, and why
the genders are differentially vulnerable to certain mental health conditions;
I am particularly interested in the role of the sex (X and
Y) chromosomes, and in why some
women develop psychiatric disorders shortly after giving birth. Discussion
of these topics, together with an assessment of possible future applications of
behavioural genetics research, comprises a main thread of my lectures on the ‘Biological
Psychology and Individual Differences’ and ‘Behavioural Genetics’ modules
within School of Psychology.
Undergraduate research projects
allow students to experience life as a bona fide researcher, with all
the attendant excitement (and stress!). Through working on an important and
novel question, and through interacting with practising and highly skilled
investigators, undergraduate students can rapidly gain an appreciation of the
challenges, complexities and nuances involved in developing and testing
hypotheses, and generating and contextualising data.
A welcome innovation is the University’s internship schemes SPRInt (School of Psychology) and the on campus research internships, which enable students to perform paid research work alongside an academic mentor for a short period, usually in the Summer vacation – my last SPRInt student recently had a high-impact paper published where she is the first author; this paper demonstrated that individuals with a particular genetic mutation on the X chromosome are at increased risk of mood and heart problems, and, as such, should provide additional important information for affected individuals, their families and clinicians, and genetic counsellors.
Research projects are a core
component of many degrees, including the Intercalated B.Sc. degrees completed
by some medical students – a high proportion of these yield important scientific
and clinical insights. Studies led by Intercalated students within my group
have characterised behavioural features associated with the genetic skin
condition X-linked ichthyosis in males
and have shown that variation within
the sex-linked STS gene is associated with attention.
In addition to academic skills,
project work teaches several vital transferable skills including networking and
collaboration, data presentation and communication, and the ability to critique
evidence and consider potential ethical implications surrounding the work.
To summarise my experience, research-led
teaching at institutions like Cardiff University has profound benefits, not
only for undergraduate students (who profit from being integrated into a
dynamic and vibrant research environment), but also for their supervisors (who
typically benefit from their students’ productivity and enthusiasm in the laboratory),
and for wider society (which benefits from enhanced student knowledge, skills
and expertise and from the findings of undergraduate projects). The more
opportunities undergraduate students have to engage in ongoing research, and
the more opportunities early-career researchers (e.g. postgraduate students and
Research Fellows) have to mentor such students and refine their supervisory
skills, the better!