Skip to main content
School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Genetics of social interactions and social learning

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

Prof. Brennan is Director of Research for SBBS, Professor of Molecular Genetics, and Member of the Royal Society Industry Research Fellows’ College. Prof. Brennan's group uses zebrafish as a model to explore the genetics and cell biology of behaviour with a focus on cognition and mental health. The group currently consists of 2PDRA, 3PhD students and a research technician with additional dedicated technical support for fish breeding and maintenance. Dr Malachini is an expert in human behavioural genetics with a focus on mental health and education. Her group consists of 3 PhD students.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

The project will provide training in human genetic analysis and all aspects of using zebrafish as a developmental, behavioural and genetic model species. The student will conduct bioinformatic analysis of human gene association datasets, and human and zebrafish gene expression datasets, learn gene-editing techniques (CRISPR), and developmental, cell biological and behavioural analysis in zebrafish (e.g. immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridisation).

Project description

Social behaviours define our culture, governmental policies, use of social networks or, even, our response toward a threatening pandemic outbreak. The social learning theory is the fundamental principle driving these interactions in humans and many other animals1,2. This theory supports the existence of interplay between the perceived environment and an innate physio-psychological mechanism that moderates our behaviour. Our current social nature originated from biologically based precursor-behaviours that are still attached to the evolutionary foundation of our social interaction3,4. Nonetheless, the biological roots driving such interactions remain largely unknown. We aim to identify neuronal pathways underlying different aspects of social interaction combining human genetic analysis and studies in zebrafish. We will carry out a genome-wide association study using existing human data sets (UKBiobank) to find genetic variants associated with pro-social v. antisocial traits (e.g: empathetic concern, social support, social cohesion v. social isolation, loneliness, fear, aggression) (year 1). Resulting summary statistics will be integrated with gene expression datasets to infer differentially expressed genes that can be tested for causal associations with social behaviour in fish (years 2-3). Secondly, we test the hypothesis that BAZ1B, a gene associated with the evolution of human craniofacial features and pro-social behaviour5, regulates social behaviour, including social learning, through regulation of neural crest development (year 1), and use molecular and genetic analysis in zebrafish to identify downstream pathways (year 2). Studies in baz1b loss-of-function (LOF) mutant fish (available in house) will analyse the impact of baz1b LOF on social behaviour and gene expression. Results of human genetic analysis will be overlaid with human and zebrafish baz1b LOF differential gene expression analysis to identify pathways controlling social behaviour.

This research will deepen knowledge of biological and genetic pathways driving variation in social interactions and social learning leading to greater understanding of the biology of social behavioural disorders and development of potential therapeutics


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Be Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas. 
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project such as Genetics, Biology, Psychology, Cognitive and Behavioural Neuroscience. A masters degree is desirable, but not essential. Applicants must have experience in conducting behavioural and / or cell biological analysis in animal models, and must have a strong motivation to develop expertise in working zebrafish. Knowledge of statistical analysis is required. Experience in analysis of genetic datasets, developing experimental designs and / or writing scientific publications is desireable, but not essential.

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


  1. Boone, T., et al SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY Albert Bandura Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1977. 247 pp., paperbound. Gr. Organ. Stud. (1977) doi:10.1177/105960117700200317.
  2. Grusec, J. E. Social learning theory and developmental psychology: (2004). doi:10.1037/10155-016.
  3. Pierce, B. D. & White, R. The evolution of social structure: Why biology matters. Acad. Manag. Rev. (1999) doi:10.2307/259358.
  4. Frith, U., Frith, C. The social brain: Allowing humans to boldly go where no other species has been. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2010) doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0160.
  5. Zanella, M. et al. Dosage analysis of the 7q11.23 Williams region identifies BAZ1B as a major human gene patterning the modern human face and underlying self-domestication. Sci. Adv. (2019) doi:10.1126/sciadv.aaw7908


Back to top