Project Description

This project offers the opportunity to develop a synergistic approach between the geoscientists and medical scientists and public health practitioners.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that 23% of all global deaths are linked to the environment, that equates to roughly 12.6 million deaths per year. Therefore, understanding what’s in our environment and how potential environmental toxins impact on human health becomes increasingly important. Potentially harmful environmental elements may be naturally occurring (geogenic) or formed through human activities such as industrial practices (historical and modern), atmospheric air pollution or traffic pollution. Air pollution, traffic and brake wear emissions have been cited as sources for heavy metals (Afsar et al. 2019)

Both As and Mo have been linked to atmospheric pollution deposition including traffic pollution and brake wear emissions have been cited as a potentially important source of Sb and Mo. Studies have shown that ultrafine particles (including Pb, Mo and Sb) may become blood-borne and translocate to other tissues such as the liver, kidneys and brain (Oberdörster et al. 2005). Several studies suggest that atmospheric pollution deposition including traffic pollution and long-term PM2.5 exposure negatively affects chronic disease.

Soils show the evidence of air pollution deposition and the potential impact of the modern pollutants. Implications from previous work (McKinley et al. 2020) are that PTEs in urban soils may be used as a proxy for the availability of toxins for human intake from environmental pollution. The design of the environment, noise pollution and air pollution are each hypothesised to negatively impact on cognitive health and healthy ageing. For example, high-density environments are associated with potentially harmful levels of air, traffic and noise pollution, yet paradoxically these same environments might increase scope for social connections, which are good for cognitive health.

This PhD project aims to adopt a holistic approach to understanding spatial variability in opportunities for healthy ageing in Northern Ireland. The successful applicant will have access to an innovative open urban environment geo-portal ( and the Northern Ireland Cohort of Longitudinal Ageing (NICOLA) cohort data (Waves 1 and 2). NICOLA includes a suite of individual level demographic, social, economic and health data), alongside linked spatial environmental data (including Geographic Information System (GIS) data, remote sensing and soil geochemistry tracer data, modelled air and noise pollution data). They will use these data to explore the impact of socio-economic inequality in experiences of the rural and urban environment (residential environment and daily mobilities) and how these vary by different geographies.

The successful applicant will also have the opportunity to form part of the SPACE (Supportive environments for Physical and social Activity, healthy ageing and CognitivE health) project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge. The programme of research is focused on investigating the impact of the urban and rural environmental factors on cognitive health in older adults in Northern Ireland.


Essential skills:

  • Degree at undergraduate or Masters level in a relevant environmental subject (Geography, Geoscience, Planning, Architecture, Public Health or other relevant disciplines in the Social and Health Sciences).
  • Strong quantitative skills are required.
  • Experience in using statistical software packages (e.g. ArcGISPro/ QGIS)
  • Willingness to engage with partner organisations

Desirable skills:

  • Experience in using soil geochemistry and/ or air pollution data.
  • Experience working with large health related datasets
  • Experience in R programming
  • Experience in spatial statistical data analysis techniques

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash


Jennifer McKinley

Primary Supervisor:

Profile: Jennifer McKinley
Institution: Queen's University, Belfast
Department/School: School of Natural and Built Environment

Secondary Supervisor:

Professor Ruth Hunter, Queen’s University Belfast, Centre for Public Health


Gareth Norton

Additional Supervisor:

Profile: Gareth Norton
Institution: University of Aberdeen
Department/School: School of Biological Sciences


Afsar B, Elsurer Afsar R, Kanbay Aet al. . Air pollution and kidney disease: review of current evidence. Clin Kidney J 2019;12:19–32. 10.1093/ckj/sfy111.

McKinley, J.M, Mueller, U., Atkinson, P.M., Ofterdinger, U., Cox, S F., Doherty, R., Fogarty, D., Egozcue, J.J., Pawlowsky-glahn, V. (202a0) Chronic Kidney Disease Of Unknown Origin Is Associated With Social Deprivation And Environmental Urbanisation In Belfast, UK., Environ Geochem Health (2020b). Https://Doi.Org/10.1007/S10653-020-00618-y

Oberdörster G, Oberdörster E, & Oberdörster J., 2005. Nanotoxicology: An Emerging Discipline Evolving From Studies Of Ultrafine Particles. Environ Health Perspect 113:823–839


  • biodiversity
  • earth-systems
  • environmental-management


To be confirmed

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