Are genetic risk scores useful in developing precise public health guidelines that aim to reduce the risks of Vitamin B12 deficiency among vegan pregnant women or women of child-bearing age? (FoodBioSystems DTP)

The FoodBioSystems Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) brings together six university partners: University of Reading, Cranfield University, University of Surrey, Queen’s University Belfast, Aberystwyth University, and Brunel University London. The Partnership’s vision is to develop the next generation of bioscientists with in-depth knowledge and technical expertise of food systems and biological processes across the Agri-Food system from pre-farm to post-fork. They will become the urgently needed experts - able to transform the food value chain and address challenges of sustainability, efficacy, authenticity and safety in food production systems whilst delivering better nutrition and concomitant health benefits for society. The DTP is currently advertising 52 projects.From these, it is expected 26 studentships will be awarded to the strongest application to start their studies in October 2021.

Start date

1 October 2021


4 years

Application deadline

Funding source

BBSRC FoodBiosystems Doctoral Training Partnership

Funding information

Funding is for the full 48 months of the studentship

Stipend: £15,609 per annum with annual increases for inflation

Fees:  Studentship fees are covered for UK /EU citizens only.  Up to 30% of the studentships may be awarded to international students. For international FoodBioSystems DTP studentships based at the University of Surrey, the University will be covering the difference in the UK/Republic of Ireland fees and International Fees for international UKRI funded students

Full eligibility, funding and application details can be found at the FoodBioSystems DTP page.

This research project is one of a number of projects at this institution. It is in competition for funding with one or more of these projects. Usually the project which receives the best applicant will be awarded the funding.


We invite applications for a PhD research programme to test the utility and applicability of polygenic risk scores (PRS)( as a tool for formulation and delivery of precise public health nutrition policy. The programme of research will provide a unique opportunity for the successful candidate to engage in cutting-edge cross-disciplinary research that combines training in genomic epidemiology, social psychology, econometrics, and health risk communication in public health policy.

Recent estimates suggest high rates of vitamin B12 deficiency among the vegetarian and vegan populations, particularly in pregnant women or women of child-bearing age who, for ethical and health reasons, have been shifting towards a higher consumption of plant-based food. There is strong evidence showing that vitamin B12 deficiency is (1) associated with increased risk of a number of diseases (neuro, vascular, immune, inflammatory); and (2) important during pregnancy and in early development (first 1000 days of life) affecting both the epigenetic machinery and the composition and diversity of the gut microbiome of both mother and child. However, current “recommendations”, “policy” and “guidelines” for pregnant or vegan/vegetarian mothers are piecemeal. A targeted approach is needed to formulate precise public health measures for vegan/vegetarian mothers-to-be.

Precision nutrition (PN) is a growing new paradigm for public health nutrition, promising to revolutionise the preventative approaches to human health, through personalised nutritional advice that includes information on genomic or PRS that promises to deliver the right dietary advice to the right population. Aided by the advent of AI technology, PN interventions are becoming increasingly plausible. Their effectiveness however depends on their appropriate utilisation.

Whilst this new technology is being heavily primed for clinical use, its utility in changing public health or preventative practice remains unclear and under-researched. Many questions about the utility, efficacy and ethics of PRS-based PPH approach remain unanswered, including the way the uncertainties associated with the PRS are understood and communicated by both the experts and lay people, and what possible consequences (ethical, societal, nutritional) that may arise from its practice.

This PhD will explore the utility of PN in the context of the potential nutritional risk of traditional vegan diet in pregnancy in more detail. The aim of our proposal is to provide evidence and analysis of the public health utility of the PRS approach to public health nutrition policy. In particular, we aim to understand the processes of risk governance and communication that need to be in place for this approach to be successful. Through a suite of empirical studies, stakeholder workshops and documentary analyses the student will receive training to explore the utility of PN in the context of nutritional risk of traditional vegan diet in pregnancy.

The PhD will provide an interdisciplinary training program through targeted access to in-house MSc modules as well as bespoke external courses covering Statistical Genomic Epidemiology, Nutrition & Public Health communication, Food Policy & Consumer Behaviour, as well as Health Economics.

Related links

FoodBioSystems DTP website

Eligibility criteria

We expect successful applicant to hold a BSc degree (with at least UK 2:1 honours, or equivalent) or an MSc degree with distinction in a discipline relevant to the specific project.

This project would be suitable for students with a degree in biology, genetics, nutrition, public health epidemiology, psychology or a closely related subject.

This studentship is available for UK and international students.

IELTS requirements: The standard requirement is for a score of 6.5 or above (or equivalent) with 6.0 in each individual category, in an IELTLS Academic test taken in the last 2 years. 

How to apply

To apply, please use the FoodBiosystems online application system. References requirements set out in the online application system.

Successful applicants for the Surrey-based studentships will subsequently be required to complete the University of Surrey online postgraduate researcher application.

Interviews will be conducted remotely over Zoom.

Application deadline

Contact details

Kourosh R Ahmadi
19 AY 03
Telephone: +44 (0)1483 684502

Studentships at Surrey

We have a wide range of studentship opportunities available.