Centre for Genomic & Experimental Medicine
Centre for Genomic & Experimental Medicine

Dr Robert Hillary awarded best thesis in population genetics by Genetics Society

Dr Robert Hillary from the Marioni Group won the Sir Kenneth Mather Memorial Prize for his PhD thesis developed at CGEM. The prize is awarded annually by the Genetics Society and the University of Birmingham to a student in a UK institution who has shown outstanding performance in quantitative or population genetics: January 2022

Robert Hillary

Dr Robert Hillary was recently announced as the recipient of the annual Sir Kenneth Mather Memorial Prize at 55th Genetics Society Population Genetics Group meeting (January 2022). The prestigious prize is awarded by the Genetics Society and the University of Birmingham to a project report, dissertation or thesis on quantitative or population genetics submitted during the past academic year.

Robert undertook his PhD at the Centre for Genomic and Experimental Medicine under the supervision of Dr Riccardo Marioni. His thesis was carried out as part of the Wellcome 4-year PhD Programme in Translational Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. Robert’s thesis was titled "A multi-omics approach to understand the role of plasma proteins in cognitive ageing and dementia”.

In his thesis, Robert used blood, lifestyle and health record data from volunteers in two large, Scottish population studies. These studies were the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 and Generation Scotland. He was interested in understanding whether changes in our blood could tell us about our future risk of developing dementia.

Our blood contains many proteins that keep us healthy and these proteins are the targets of many drugs. The levels of some proteins in our blood are linked to cognitive decline and dementia. However, we do not know why these changes occur. If we understood whether changes in blood protein levels are a cause or consequence of poorer brain health, we might identify new biomarkers and drug targets for cognitive decline and dementia.

Robert studied how our biological factors, such as genetics, cause us to differ in our blood levels of over 400 proteins. Using a variety of statistical tools, he found that having lower levels of two proteins, called TBCA and TREM2, might increase our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia. Robert also focussed on the relationship between someone’s biological age and their brain health. If someone’s biological age is higher than their actual age, it might mean they are at risk of health problems. A major biological age measure is called DNAm GrimAge. It is based on: (i) whether someone is a smoker, (ii) blood levels of seven proteins, (iii) and a biological process called DNA methylation, which can switch genes on or off. He showed that having a higher DNAm GrimAge, or biological age, was associated with poorer thinking skills and signs of brain ‘wear-and-tear’ in later life.  

Robert’s PhD research resulted in six first-author publications and three further co-first author manuscripts. He is now working as a postdoctoral research fellow with Dr Riccardo Marioni and is hoping to pursue fellowships to continue his work in molecular epidemiology.

Robert was also given the opportunity to present his PhD research to 300 other researchers at the annual Genetics Society’s Population Genetics (PopGroup) meeting, held virtually on January 6th 2022. He notes that in addition to his supervisors, he is very grateful to the volunteers and team members of the Lothian Birth Cohorts and Generation Scotland for making his PhD research possible.

I am very grateful to the Genetics Society and University of Birmingham for awarding the prize and for the opportunity to present my work at the annual PopGroup meeting. I also want to extend my gratitude to my thesis supervisors – Dr Riccardo Marioni, Dr Kathy Evans, Prof Craig Ritchie and Prof Ian Deary - and my thesis chair Prof Caroline Hayward who nominated me for the award.

Dr Robert Hillary