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  Computational modelling to understand the key drivers of placental evolution


   Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences

   Saturday, August 31, 2024  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Supervisory Team:   Bram Sengers (SoE), Rohan Lewis (Medicine)

Project description

This project will use computational modelling in combination with 3D multiscale multimodal imaging to improve our understanding of placental evolution, in close collaboration between Engineering and Medicine.

While the mammalian placenta only evolved once, it is remarkable just how many different types of placentas there are in different animals. The variety of placental structures is much more pronounced than for any other organ. This is particularly striking, given that the placenta essentially fulfils the same function of providing oxygen and nutrients to support the growth and development of the fetus in the womb until their time of birth. This provides a fascinating opportunity to study how different structural adaptations can maintain a core function while also responding to species specific requirements.

Maternal and fetal blood circulations do not mix, therefore current theories of placental evolution centre on the tissue layers comprising the placental barrier and try to infer how their organisation relates to the concept of placental efficiency. However, this “placental efficiency” is not well defined.

Building on imaging data we are collecting this PhD project will use modelling to establish for the first time a quantitative understanding of placental oxygen and nutrient transfer in different species and determine how this links with different evolutionary strategies.

To achieve this, we will use volume electron microscopy and X-Ray histology to image actual placental structures at the micro and macro scale, and convert these into computer models of nutrient transfer and blood flow to determine the placental transfer capacity for different species (human, sheep, mouse, zebra etc).

This project has significant implications for reproductive health in humans and other animals. Determining why the placenta has evolved as it has in each species will help identify the key determinants of reproductive success in each species.

The project can accommodate a range of different backgrounds, but you need to be familiar with computational modelling techniques and have a strong interest in applying these to biological problems. Relevant experience includes, but is not limited to, biomedical engineering, biochemical engineering, biophysics, applied mathematics, finite element analysis, image analysis and physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) modelling.

Note that studentship funding for this PhD opportunity is awarded competitively based on the qualifications of the candidate as decided by the Graduate School.

Entry Requirements

A very good undergraduate degree (at least a UK first class honours degree, or its international equivalent).

Closing date: applications should be received no later than 31 August 2024 for standard admissions, but later applications may be considered depending on the funds remaining in place.

Funding: Competitive based on qualifications of the candidate. For UK students, Tuition Fees and a stipend of £18,622 tax-free per annum for up to 3.5 years.

How To Apply

Apply online: Search for a Postgraduate Programme of Study (soton.ac.uk). Select programme type (Research), 2024/25, Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering, next page select “PhD Engineering & Environment (Full time)”. In Section 2 of the application form you should insert the name of the supervisor Bram Sengers

Applications should include:

Research Proposal

Curriculum Vitae

Two reference letters

Degree Transcripts/Certificates to date

For further information please contact:


Biological Sciences (4) Engineering (12) Mathematics (25) Physics (29) Veterinary Sciences (35)

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