Living Well – PhD profile

PhD student Tom Di Virgilio has spent the past three years working with two leading University of Stirling academics - cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart, Faculty of Natural Sciences, and Reader in Exercise Physiology Dr Angus Hunter, Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport.

Their research into the true impact of heading a football – supported by Stirling neuropsychologist Professor Lindsay Wilson in consultation with leading University of Glasgow Medical School Neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart – was the first to detect direct changes in the brain after players are exposed to everyday head impacts, as opposed to clinical brain injuries like a concussion.

brain activity headsets

Tom di Virgilio and Alan Shearer

Working with former England football captain, Alan Shearer, Stirling academics also showcased their findings in BBC One documentary, ‘Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me’. The footage saw Shearer undergoing tests in a lab at Stirling with Tom and his supervisors, and demonstrated clear results to support their study – with direct evidence of changes to Alan’s brain activity immediately after heading a ball. 

I was very lucky to be involved in this research, because I have always had an interest in brain trauma and brain health. It was a fantastic experience to work on this project alongside people who are highly regarded in their fields of research.

Tom Di Virgilio, Former PhD student, turned Lecturer

infographic: Global media

Global media

covered the study, including Sky News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera.

An optimal research environment

Tom first came to the University as an undergraduate studying for a degree in Sport and Exercise Science. He fell in love with the campus and stayed on to do a Masters degree, upgrading to a PhD in Neuropsychology in 2015. He is currently employed as a full-time temporary lecturer and is applying for a full lectureship. 

'My experience has been very positive both in terms of the support provided by the University and the facilities and supervisors,' he says. 'You are well taken care of here. There are lots of workshops available to postgraduate students on how to write, how to present, how to survive a viva and so on. These aid the development of researchers.'

Tom is fortunate to be dual-supervised by Magdalena (primary) and Angus (secondary), who have both had a significant impact on his development. 

'The faculties work well together and both have been equally supportive in providing the materials and funding I needed. It’s been a very positive experience. If I could do it again, I would.'