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Characterisation of interfacial biological materials: from membranes to phase separated systems

   Department of Physics and Astronomy

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  Prof Philip Jones  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

A four-year full-time PhD position is available from 1 October 2022 (or sooner) to work under the supervision of Prof Philip Jones (UCL Physics & Astronomy) & Dr Yuval Elani (Imperial Chemical Engineering) at UCL & Imperial.

Soft interfaces play a crucial role in bioengineered systems and in biology as a whole: from the COVID vaccines and liposomal anti-cancer delivery vehicles, to membraneless organelles and cellular biomembranes. A deep understanding of their material properties is central to our ability to engineer the next generation of drug delivery vectors, vaccines formulations, cell therapies, and regenerative tissues, and will contribute to our understanding of the ‘rules of life’. Despite their importance and biomedical significance, our understanding of these systems is limited due to the unsuitability of traditional advanced characterisation methods, which tend to focus on ‘hard’ materials. In this project, we will use state-of-the-art optical and microfluidic technologies to manipulate and characterise biomedically relevant biointerfaces. 

The Nobel Prize winning technique of optical tweezers permits remote, non-contact manipulation and force transduction on microscopic materials. Their ‘light touch’ eliminates mechanical damage whilst enabling measurements with sub-micron position and femtonewton force resolution.

In this project, the student will use bespoke optical trapping strategies, pioneered in our labs, to determine the mechanical properties (tension, bending energies, Young’s modulus, adhesion energies) of a suite of biointerface materials including raft-like lipid domains, lipid vaccine particles, liposome drug delivery models, biological condensates, and model cell membranes. 

Once determined, these will be related to their morphological features (derived using fluorescence and cryogenic electron microscopy) and their functional properties (determined using in-vitro assays). Our ability to relate the composition of soft interfaces to their mechanical properties and functionality will allow us to engineer the next generation of soft biodevices for biomedicines and therapeutics.

The studentship is part of the CDT in Advanced Characterisation of Materials under the Biomaterials and Regenerative Medicine theme, and the student will have the opportunity to fully participate in the CDT’s training programme throughout the PhD.

The project is jointly supervised by Prof Philip Jones and Dr Yuval Elani. Prof Jones’ group in UCL Physics & Astronomy work on optical trapping methods, and their applications to a range of nanoscale, soft matter and biological systems. Dr Elani’s group in Imperial Chemical Engineering are specialists in developing platform technologies for engineering novel membranes for applications in biomedicine, biotechnology, and synthetic biology. 

As part of the project, the student will undertake a three-month placement with Dr Guido Bolognesi within the Particle Microfluidics Group ( at Loughborough University. The group research focuses on the production and manipulation of functional particles in micron-scale flows, on the investigation of their fundamental properties and behaviour, and on the development of new applications in the healthcare, food and energy sectors. 

Person Specification: The successful applicant should expect to achieve a 1 or 2.1 MSci degree in Physics, Chemisty, Chemical Engineering or a related discipline. Candidates should also have excellent written and verbal communication. Previous experience with optics, microscopy, microfluidics or synthetic biology may be an advantage.

Eligibility: Please refer to the following websites for eligibility criteria:

The start date is 26 September 2022. The studentship will cover all university fees and includes funds for maintenance at the standard UK rate and for participation in international conferences and workshops. 

Application procedure: Interested candidates should submit a supporting statement, a full CV (including including full details of all University course grades to date and contact details for at least two academic referees) and a copy of transcripts to-date to Prof Phil Jones: [Email Address Removed].

A personal statement (750 words maximum) outlining:

(i) your suitability for the project with reference to the criteria in the person specification,

(ii) what you hope to achieve from the PhD, and

(iii) your research experience to-date. 

Please include a contact telephone number and an email address where you can be easily reached. References will be taken up for all short-listed candidates.

Successful candidates will be invited to submit a formal application to UCL and also to the Advanced Characterisation of Materials CDT.

The closing date for applications is 14 February 2022, but early applications are welcome, and interviews will be held as soon as possible after the application deadline. The project will commence in September 2022. Any inquiries or further information about the studentship should be emailed to Prof Phil Jones: [Email Address Removed].

Funding Notes

The studentship is open to UK (including Irish) students, and EU students with settled status.
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