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Imaging the neural mechanisms of distance estimation in insects

Biosciences Institute

Prof J Read , Dr O Riabinina , Prof A Trevelyan , Dr Damon A Clark Friday, January 22, 2021 Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Newcastle United Kingdom Biochemistry

About the Project

Telling how far away objects are is key to survival for just about any animal. Stereopsis or “3D vision” is a particularly neat solution, where you compare the images of an object seen in the two eyes in order to triangulate its position. However, although simple in principle, it turns out to be surprisingly hard to reliably match up images of the same object in different eyes, especially in complex environments. For this reason, human-made robots such as autonomous cars generally rely on more energy-intensive active sensing, such as lidar or ultrasound. It was long believed that only complex animals such as primates had evolved stereopsis. However, we now know this is wrong and in fact even an insect, the praying mantis, has this ability. It is therefore of great interest to understand how tiny insect brains achieve this.

In this project, you will work with experts in optical processing, neural imaging and genetics to develop new ways of imaging activity in the brain of a praying mantis as it views 3D stimuli designed to tease out how its stereopsis works. You will work mainly with supervisors in Newcastle and Durham, but will also spend some months in the US, interning at a leading insect lab at Yale University.

You will use a powerful two-photon microscope to visualise individual neurons in the mantis brain. You will explore different techniques for making the activity of these neurons visible: first, loading them with artificial dyes, and later, learning gene manipulation techniques for creating transgenic animals in which certain classes of neurons fluoresce when they become active. When you have successfully learnt how to record neural activity in this way, you will work with your supervisor to develop the most informative stimuli, which will help test different hypotheses about how insect stereopsis works. Finally, you will develop computer models which summarise how neurons combine information from left and right eyes.

This project will, therefore, train you in multiple cutting-edge scientific techniques including two-photon neural imaging, transgenic manipulation and computational modelling, equipping you for a successful career in the biosciences and beyond.

Informal enquiries may be made to


Applications should be made by emailing with a CV and a covering letter, including whatever additional information you feel is pertinent to your application; you may wish to indicate, for example, why you are particularly interested in the selected project/s and at the selected University. Applications not meeting these criteria will be rejected. We will also require electronic copies of your degree certificates and transcripts.

In addition to the CV and covering letter, please email a completed copy of the Application Details Form (Word document) to ,noting the additional details that are required for your application which are listed in this form. A blank copy of this form can be found at:

Funding Notes

Studentships are funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for 4 years. Funding will cover tuition fees at the UK rate only, a Research Training and Support Grant (RTSG) and stipend. We aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of bursaries that will enable full studentships to be awarded to international applicants. These full studentships will only be awarded to exceptional quality candidates, due to the competitive nature of this scheme.
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