Development of rapid, easy to use and cost-effective tests for tropane-alkaloids in food


   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr C Cao, Dr Simon Haughey  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

We are inviting applications from highly motivated individuals for a three-year PhD studentship in a multidisciplinary field. The focus of this opportunity is the development of rapid, user-friendly, and cost-effective tests for tropane-alkaloids (TAs) in food. This project is an integral part of the doctoral training programme, BIOTOXDoc, which aims to pioneer innovative control, mitigation, and risk assessment methods for biotoxins. Funding for BIOTOXDoc is provided by the European Research Executive Agency (REA) under the delegation of powers by the European Commission (grant agreement No. 101119901) and the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI grant EP/Y02964X/1). For more details, please visit the BIOTOXDoc website at https://www.biotoxdoc.eu/ .

Exposure to plant toxins like TAs can pose health risks, especially for children and individuals consuming specific plant-based foods in larger quantities. It is crucial to have fast spectroscopic screening tools that offer direct information about biotoxin contamination in samples. These tools can provide insights into spatial distributions, which is particularly relevant for identifying TAs - a potential emerging threat according to EFSA, attributed to global warming.

Developing innovative tools to detect TAs poses challenges in design, result interpretation, and addressing on-site and big data perspectives. The student working on this project will address these challenges. Prediction models guide sampling, but chemical analysis remains vital for detecting, identifying, and quantifying biotoxins. Rapid, user-friendly, and cost-effective biotoxin tests are crucial for the food industry, especially for TAs, where such tools are currently lacking.

This project aims to fill this gap by utilizing commercially available hyperspectral imaging, a portable spectroscopic technique, and Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) for developing rapid screening tests for TAs relevant in human and animal nutrition. The spectroscopic tests will be validated, compared against each other, and confirmed using mass spectrometry. Additionally, the potential integration of Artificial Intelligence, employing Machine Learning and/or Deep Learning techniques, will be explored to ensure the developed tests meet the required performance standards.

The student involved in the project will undergo training in mass spectrometric determination of TAs for benchmarking purposes. The ultimate goal is to apply the developed tests to a wide range of plant ingredients in the food safety chemical laboratory of a leading pasta maker. The student will receive training on various analytical techniques, visit development and production facilities, and gain exposure to the operational environment of an international food company.

Overall objectives of the project are:

1.    Develop rapid screening tests for TAs in food using commercially available hyperspectral imaging.

2.    Investigate the application of Artificial Intelligence to ensure the tests meet the required performance characteristics.

3.    Explore molecular spectroscopy, specifically Surface Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), as a potential low-cost portable tool for screening contaminants.

4.    Validate and apply spectroscopic methods for determination in a range of food and feed samples.

Supervisors: The student will work under the supervision of Dr Cuong Cao and Dr Simon Haughey at the cutting-edge £60 million research facility located within the Institute for Global Food Security, School of Biological Sciences, QUB.

Requirements: Applicants can be from any country of the world and shall comply with the following conditions:

1.    Applicants should not have resided or performed their main activity (work, studies, etc) in the country of the host institution for more than 12 months in the 3 year period immediately prior to the start date of the PhD research.

2.    Applicants for the PhD position should be in the first 4 years (full-time equivalent) of their research careers and not yet have been awarded a doctorate. This 4 year period is measured from the date of obtaining the degree which would formally entitle to embark on a doctorate.

3.    Applicants be available to work full-time and exclusively for the action (positions are funded for 36 months).

In addition, the successful applicant should have:

1.    Master degree, 1st class or 2.1 Honour Degree or equivalent in chemistry as well as a strong interest in analytical chemistry or related disciplines such as food sciences.

2.    Demonstrable and/or hand-on experience of hyperspectral imaging and molecular spectroscopy. 

3.    Demonstrable and/or hand-on experience of the application of Artificial Intelligence and data analytics in analytical science.

4.    Demonstrable and/or hand-on experience of the validation and application of spectroscopic methods.

Starting date: as soon as possible.  

Location: Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University of Belfast

Application procedure: Apply using online facility at: (Postgraduate Applications Portal). The assessment of the applicants will be made by an assessment committee. All applications will be reviewed to generate a short list of candidates. Potential candidates will be contacted for interview. Closing date for applications: 07/January/2024 at Queen’s University Belfast. Further information may be obtained from Dr Cuong Cao (email: [Email Address Removed] )


Biological Sciences (4) Food Sciences (15) Medicine (26)

Funding Notes

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI grant EP/Y02964X/1).