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The Group

A Collaborative & Diverse Group

Who are we?

We are a group of researchers interested in understanding how brain, physiology and behaviour all link up. We study several bird species to understand how all these factors interact to affect an individual's ability to respond to challenges, such as climate change, stress and anthropogenic disturbance.


Karen Spencer - Principal Investigator

I Graduated with a degree in Zoology from the University of London and then went on to do a PhD in Ecological Physiology at the University of Stirling under the supervision of Prof. David Bryant. I then moved into bioacoustics, sexual signalling and endocrinology whilst at the University of Bristol, working with Professor Clive Catchpole, Dr Arthur Goldsmith and Dr Kate Buchanan. After that I moved to Glasgow to take up a post-doc working with Prof. Pat Monaghan and then an independent BBSRC David Phillips Research Fellowship, which I moved to St Andrews in 2011. I am now a Lecturer in Psychology and Neuroscience. My main research interests lie in the fields of behavioural neuroendocrindocrinology, behavioural ecology and developmental programming. My work utilises multi-disciplinary approaches to gain a greater understanding of the mechanisms that underlie complex patterns of animal behaviour, bringing together information at the molecular, physiological and whole organism level to facilitate this.

I completed my PhD in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at the Complutense University, Madrid (Spain) by playing with in silicon proteins! I had previously graduated with my BSc in Chemistry in 2005 from Complutense as well. Besides that, I hold a Master's Degree in Biomedical Science obtained in 2011 (University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain) and a Master's Degree in Education (UCJC, Madrid, Spain).

I've been a part of the MoB group since 2014 when I joined as a lab tech and I am now a research assistant. I study the neuro-endocrine-physiology of stress response. That means I look at the consequences of early life experiences through cognitive, behavioural and social traits later in life and the neuro physiological mechanisms underneath developmental programming. I also do public engagement using a game that I’ve developed with collaborators to help illustrate the collaborative nature of interdisciplinary science which should be borderless! Click here to learn more about it! Or follow me on Twitter or through the #BrainyRolesGame ! 

If I wasn't a researcher I'd be...

A Secondary School Chemistry Teacher

Post Doc Research Assistant

Dr Maria Larriva-Hormigos


Email me:


I completed my undergrad and postgrad diplomas at the University of Otago (New Zealand), and I completed my PhD at La Trobe University (Australia). Following that I continued my research and learning, as a postdoc, at the University of Georgia (USA) and I was also a lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. 

I’ve been a part of the MoB lab since March of 2018 as a research fellow working on mitigating stress in captive birds. More specifically, my main area of research is reproductive physiology and fitness, life history trade-offs, and responses to anthropogenic environmental changes; ideally, I’d like to see this information incorporated into wildlife conservation and captive breeding. Much of my work has focused on the role of stress and hormones and hormones can pass from mother to offspring, and affect the offspring’s physiology and behaviour. I am currently working on a project that aims to create a soundscape to reduce stress in lab animals, thereby improving their welfare. 

If I wasn't a researcher I'd be...

I used to work in an endangered species breeding facility, so either that or I would have opened a jewellery store selling handmade and ethically sourced jewellery (I also used to work in retail management!)

Post Doctorate Research Fellow

Dr Niki Khan


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I completed my undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews and now I’m continuing my education in the school of Psychology and Neuroscience with my PhD. I’m in my third year of my PhD and I utilize multiple models to investigate the effects of hormones on ageing and to investigate damage on tissues and cells. I like birds, toads and human cells. 


I’m also a rep for the post graduates at the university.









If I wasn’t a researcher, I’d be…

A professional quail egg omelette maker. 


I like to go on train rides as you can gather from my picture above. 

3rd Year PhD Student

Mizuki Morisaki


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Ben Turnbull

PhD Student

I graduated from the University of Birmingham with an undergraduate masters (MSci) in Human Biology, specialising in behavioural, cellular, and structural biology.


I joined the University of St Andrews to commence my PhD on the mechanisms of behaviour in September of 2013. I am interested in animal behaviour at multiple levels of organisation – from gene expression to neuroendocrinology through to development and all the way to output. I enjoy investigating the mechanisms underlying variation in cognitive abilities using songbirds as a model.

If I wasn’t a researcher, I’d be…

A professional musician.

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Jessica Harvey-Cox

2nd Year PhD Student

I completed my BSc (Hons) in Medical Neuroscienceat the University of Sussex. I then continued my training at the Imperial College on London, earning my MRes in Experimental Neuroscience. 

I joined the MoB lab in September of 2017 and I am in the second year of my PhD and I’m funded by EastBio (BBSRC). I am investigating the effects of developmental stress on the formation and execution of both daily and seasonal behaviours. My research questions, alongside the MOB lab, allow me to follow the whole spectrum of behaviour; from studying the molecular biology to behavioural assays. I am currently designing novel CRISPR and movement tracking assays. During February 2019 I will be undertaking a three month placement at GSK to fulfil the BBSRC funding requirements. I am also volunteering with MWSR doing big data modelling.


If I wasn’t a researcher I’d be….

Cuddling marine megafauna


Becky Lakin

2nd Year PhD Student

I completed both my psychology BSc (2015) and Biodiversity and Conservation MSc (2017) at the University of Leeds.


I joined the MoB group in September of 2017 and I have a strong interest in seabird ecology and behaviour, and conservation science. My current research is a NERC-funded Case partnership between St Andrews and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO Scotland). The research is focused on investigating the factors influencing the physiological and behavioural development of wild Herring and Lesser black-backed gull chicks. In particular, we are interested in assessing the role of parental foraging behaviour, chick diet and anthropogenic disturbance during the early stages of chick development. The research aims to better understand the mechanisms underlying gull’s adaptation to urban environment in an attempt to shed light on how these species have come to thrive in our towns and cities.  

If I wasn’t a researcher I’d be….

Something in the field of conservation or public engagement related!

I graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2017 with an honours degree in Biology and I recently completed my Masters of Research degree in Neuroscience with the MoB lab. 


I joined the lab in the summer of 2016 as an intern investigating the role of pre-natal acoustic stimuli and its effects on the early life development or dysregulation of neuroendocrine function and behaviour. I'm currently investigating the links between the gut-brain axis and HPA-axis in the context of probiotics and chronic early life stress in Japanese Quail. In order to determine if there are any protective effects of prebiotics against chronic early life stress I’m measuring immune function, stress hormone levels, and microglial abundance and I’m analysing the microbiota of the gut and various stress related behaviours. Overall, I'd like to assess if probiotics can help cultivate a more robust gut micro biome which is protective or ameliorative against the negative effects of chronic early life stress on microglia function linked to the influence of the gut and neuroendocrine function. I’ve also created this website and I’m managing our social media accounts!


If I wasn’t a researcher I’d be…

An adventurous couples and elopement photographer or I’d swim with dolphins

MRes Student & Website Designer

Catherine Dunlavey


I started my journey in neuroendocrinology as an undergraduate Psychology research intern at Newcastle University, where our team used a multidisciplinary approach to measure the effects of chronic stress on welfare. As I learned more about hormone measurements and analysing the brain, I became interested in the neural mechanisms which control behaviour. Then, I completed my master’s in Animal Behaviour with the same team, where I explored my research interests and developed skills in the lab and the field. I investigated seasonal changes in the neural song system of two species of wild songbirds in Finland.I became interested in how plastic the brain is and how it responds in an adaptive way to the environment, which led me to pursue a PhD project in that area! I’m currently investigating the importance of the early life environment for a bird’s development, and I’m very interested in how stressful experiences can give birds an adaptive behavioural and physiological advantage under certain conditions. My main aim is to discover how this might be true for avian social behaviour, and the neuroendocrine mechanisms which control it.

If I wasn't a researcher I'd be...

To be determined 

4th Year PhD Student

Joint with the Roslin Institute

Georgia Longmoor


I am still completing my undergraduate degree here at St. Andrews and I am in my fourth and final year.


I am in my final undergraduate year at University of St. Andrews pursuing a Neuroscience degree. Therefore, I am completing my senior honours dissertation in the MoB lab. Starting this year, I will be working alongside Jess to determine the best method of measuring avian circadian rhythm activity through the attachment of tracking devices. Circadian rhythms are the biological clocks in organisms that regulate multiple physiological functions to promote health and survival. Hopefully, I will be able to characterize various movements to create an inventory of behaviours based on both video and tracking device feeds. From this groundwork, I will go on to manipulate avian circadian activity to mimic the changing of seasons, introduction of prey, and other alterations to their environment in order to see how their movements are modified. Learning how birds entrain their circadian rhythms to new cues can give insight into how they are able to adjust their circadian activity.


If I wasn’t a researcher I’d be…

learning how to build robots, writing poetry, or crafting pottery.

4th Year UG - Dissertation

Julia Marche

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Henry Lee is a fourth year senior honours dissertation student. He is working in the Mechanisms of Behaviour lab as a public engagement and outreach officer. By creating informative videos in the form of an engaging mini series for high school aged students, he endeavours to spread awareness and information about the relevance of music to the field of neuroscience. 

If he wasn't a researcher, he'd be...

To be determined. 

4th Year UG Dissertation


Gen Turner is a fourth year senior honours dissertation student. She is working with the MoB lab as a public engagement and outreach officer. She is designing educational classroom lessons and hands on practicals for young students which explain and impress the importance of myelination for nerve conductance. She will deliver these classes and tutorials to educated students on why myelination is important for every day function and some of the implications of myelination going awry. 


If she wasn't a researcher, she'd be...

To be determined. 

4th Year UG Dissertation

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One of our MsC conversion students in the school of Psychology who will be engaging in conservation and ecology work with gulls. She is still designing the details of her project. 

MSc Conversion Students

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