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Mass Spectrometry imaging and spectroscopic detection of counterfeits and forgery

   Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre

  Dr Robert Bradshaw, Prof Simona Francese, Dr Marjory Da Costa Abreu  Friday, September 30, 2022  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This multidisciplinary doctoral project will be based in the world-renowned Centre for Mass Spectrometry Imaging (CMSI) at the Biomolecular Sciences Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University. Collaborators include sector experts and law enforcement agencies (the Portuguese Police, West Yorkshire Police (Yorkshire and Humber Regional Scientific Services Support) and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute).

The project is based on the detection and identification of counterfeit products and document forgeries which are criminal offenses that can significantly impact businesses, individuals, and political entities punishable with up to 10 years imprisonment.

Currently, suspected counterfeit products, such as whisky, are mostly analysed through the composition of the liquid. This requires products to be opened, and hence reduces their value. This is particularly problematic for rare/expensive examples where maintaining quality is important. Examination of documents on suspicion of manipulation (forgery) is often investigated using non-destructive optical methods as well as spectroscopic methods, these can lack specificity.

In this project you will become expert in the use of the wide range of state-of-the-art analytical techniques and instrumentations that are available within the CMSI. These will be used to analyse ink/substrate composition of counterfeit product labels (specifically whisky) and forged documents. Predominantly, you will use mass spectrometry profiling and imaging techniques such as matrix-assisted laser desorption ionisation (MALDI) and desorption electrospray ionisation (DESI) for confirmatory testing, through the identification and visualisation of specific ink/substrate components. Spectroscopic methodologies such as Fourier transform infrared (FTIR), Raman imaging, handheld-Raman and Atomic force microscopy (AFM)-Raman will be explored to provide the initial non-destructive, rapid chemical information.

Specific research aims include: (a) generation of ink/substrate spectral databases for automatic identification of molecular targets indicating counterfeiting/forgery activity (b) development of a multimodal analytical workflow (incorporating machine learning approaches) to maximise intelligence recovered from samples (c) fingermark visualisation to prove document/product handling (d) investigation into the potential of determining the age of the ink (to reconstruct a forensic timeline) and (e) insights into methodology transfer to similar counterfeit products (wine, currency etc).

You will gain a deep understanding of both the chemistry and operational aspects of the analytical techniques employed. You will also gain an appreciation of the operational and regulatory requirements for the deployment of the protocols in forensic laboratories and for end-users in a commercial setting. The breadth of the project and the participation of relevant stakeholders to the research will significantly enhance your employability, by enabling you to develop independence and problem-solving skills. 

GTA Information

This project is offered as a Graduate Teaching Assistant role. Graduate Teaching Assistants undertake certain teaching duties associated with the student experience, in addition to working towards a PhD qualification. Contributing to up to 180 hours of support for research or teaching related activity per academic year. This activity forms part of the scholarship award and there is no additional payment for it.


As a minimum, applicants should possess a 1st or 2.1 Honours degree in chemistry or related discipline. A Master’s degree in a relevant subject area would be an advantage. If English is not your first language then English language score of IELTS 7, or equivalent. This qualification should have been taken within the last two years, with a score of at least 6.5 in all areas.

Currently enrolled doctoral students are not eligible to apply.

How to apply

We strongly recommend you contact the lead academic, Dr Robert Bradshaw, , to discuss your application.

Start date for studentship: February 2023

Interviews are scheduled for: TBC

Your application should be emailed to by the closing date of 30 September 2022

Application Guidance

Applicants must submit the following as part of their formal application:

1.      Formal application to University (Note a research proposal as noted in the application form is not required for this application – the letter of intent below is instead of a research proposal)

2.      A letter of intent (Maximum 1500 words) detailing:

(a) which project you are applying for,

(b) why you are interested in this project and your academic understanding of the project

(c) why you feel you would be the ideal candidate for such a project, pulling details from your prior achievements and experience which are important to PhD study in general and the specific project area in particular.

(d) why you are particularly interested in a graduate teaching assistant position, and potential areas you can contribute to within the subject group of the director of studies and positioning of the project application.

·        BMRC – Department of Biosciences and Chemistry

3.      Two letters of reference, one must be from an academic and both must be dated within the last 2 years, these should be independent from the proposed supervisory team. (If you are not able to collate these by the application deadline please include referee details and these can follow afterwards).

4.      Copy of the highest degree certificate (If available)

5.      Non-UK applicants must submit IELTs results taken in the last two years and a copy of their passport.

Applications including references should be submitted by midnight on the 30 September 2022. Late applications will not be accepted.

You are encouraged to find out more about our staff and their research to inform the development of your proposal. 

Selection process

Interviews will take place TBC

Applicants are required to give a 10 minute presentation followed by an interview. Interview panel members will include the Head of Research Degrees for the Institute or the Postgraduate Research Tutor for local area, the Head of Research for the disciplinary area the prospective Director of Studies and a representative from the teaching department.

Sheffield Hallam welcomes applications from all candidates irrespective of age, pregnancy and maternity, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or belief, or marital or civil partnership status. We particularly invite candidates from under represented groups.

Funding Notes

3.5 year fixed-term studentship from February 2023 to include Home tuition fees and an annual stipend of approximately £16,500 (equivalent to the net Real Living Wage, which will be confirmed in September 2022). International applicants please note that the bursary will cover only the Home fee rate. The shortfall between the Home and Overseas fee must be covered by the student (£10,299 yearly).

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