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Education and trainingMental health and society

Integrating high-quality mental health research and undergraduate teaching

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 counsellors.

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 females, 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!