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Novel physics arising from phase transitions in biology

   Department of Bioengineering

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  Dr C F Lee  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Phase transitions, such as the freezing of water and the magnetisation of a ferromagnet upon lowering the ambient temperature, are familiar physical phenomena. Intriguingly, such a collective change of behaviour at a phase transition is also of importance to living systems. From cytoplasmic organisation inside a cell to the collective migration of cell tissues during organismal development and wound healing, phase transitions have emerged as key mechanisms that underlie many crucial biological processes. However, a living system is fundamentally different from a thermal system, with driven chemical reactions (e.g. metabolism) and motility being two hallmarks of its non-equilibrium nature. In this theoretical project, we will elucidate the novel physics arising from biological processes that are intrinsically out of equilibrium [1]. This research direction has proven to be extremely fruitful and has led to the discovery of new physical states of matter [2–4] and universal dynamics [5–7]. The specific tasks of the theoretical project to be carried out (ranging from simulation studies to analytical renormalization group calculations) are flexible and can be tailored to the student’s interest.

Research in the Lee group expands the horizons of physics and biology by studying biological problems that demand the development of novel physics. We enjoy close collaborations with biologists (Department of Life Sciences) and bioengineers (Department of Bioengineering) at Imperial College, and biologists (Dunn School of Pathology) at the University of Oxford.

We seek a highly motivated applicant who has obtained, or is about to obtain, an Honours Degree at 2.1 (or equivalent) or higher in physics, mathematics, or a closely related discipline. The successful applicant will perform both numerical simulations and analytical calculations. Imperial College has a vibrant biological physics community and meets weekly at journal clubs and seminars during term time ( The successful candidate will also have opportunities to engage with the Imperial College Network of Excellence: Physics of Life ( The start-date of the project is flexible with the earliest being in October 2020.

How to apply
Informal enquiries to Dr Chiu Fan Lee ([Email Address Removed]) are welcome. The application should include a full CV, names and addresses and contact details of two academic referees, a personal statement (500 words max) and a covering letter. Completed applications should be submitted to Dr Lee via email by 6 pm on the 10th July 2020.

Funding Notes

The 3.5-year studentship covers an annual tax-free stipend at the standard Research Council rate £17,285 (to be confirmed for 2020-2021 and typically increases annually in line with inflation), and tuition fees at the UK/EU rate.


[1] Lee C F and Wurtz J D 2019 Novel physics arising from phase transitions in biology J. Phys. D. Appl. Phys. 52 023001
[2] Chen L, Toner J and Lee C F 2015 Critical phenomenon of the order-disorder transition in incompressible active fluids New J. Phys. 17 042002
[3] Chen L, Lee C F and Toner J 2020 Moving, reproducing, and dying beyond Flatland: Malthusian flocks in dimensions d > 2. E-print: arXiv:2001.01300
[4] Chen L, Lee C F and Toner J 2020 A novel nonequilibrium state of matter: a d = 4 - ϵ expansion study of Malthusian flocks. E-print: arXiv:2004.00129
[5] Weber C A, Lee C F and Jülicher F 2017 Droplet ripening in concentration gradients New J. Phys. 19 053021
[6] Wurtz J D and Lee C F 2018 Chemical-Reaction-Controlled Phase Separated Drops: Formation, Size Selection, and Coarsening Phys. Rev. Lett. 120 078102
[7] Weber C A, Zwicker D, Jülicher F and Lee C F 2019 Physics of active emulsions Reports Prog. Phys. 82 064601

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