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Photosynthesis on Exoplanets: What might it look like? Can it be detected?


   School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

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  Dr Christopher Duffy, Dr Thomas Haworth  No more applications being accepted  Awaiting Funding Decision/Possible External Funding

About the Project

  • Supervisors: Dr Christopher Duffy and Dr Thomas Haworth
  • Funding: China Scholarship Council (CSC)
  • Deadline: 31st January 2023

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 180 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

A successful candidate will be based with Dr Duffy at the Digital Environment Research Institute (DERI) in Whitechaple, a new and very active centre of research into simulation based science, data modelling and machine learning. The student will have access to significant training in computational physics, data modelling and analysis, and high-level code development. Additionally, they will have access to the Apocrita (CPU-based) and Andrena (GPU-based) supercomputing clusters. 

Project description

In exoplanet surveys one of the key potential biosignatures is the ‘vegetation red edge’, an enhanced reflectance at wavelengths >700nm, which on Earth signifies oxygenic photosynthesis. Unfortunately, most known exoplanets orbit small, very red stars, prone to UV flaring. Yet, Earth’s anoxygenic photoautotrophs exploit dim, near-infrared light (800-1000nm) and our biosphere is full of UV screening and repair mechanisms. Should we then search for signatures of strange UV-hardened, anoxygenic biospheres? 

This project will be supervised by theoretical biophysicist Chris Duffy (CD, SBBS), co-supervised by astrophysicist Thomas Howarth (TH, SPCS) and in collaboration with bacterial photosynthesis expert Conrad Mullineaux (CM , SBBS), astrophysicist Edward Gillen (EG, SPCS) and video game AI expert Diego Perez Liebana (DPL, DERI). 

Objective 1 (with CM): Develop a generalized systems model of terrestrial photosynthesis, in which subsystems such as light-harvesting, photochemistry, repair, etc. form a metabolic network, with particular focus on how competing metabolic costs and the spectrum of available light define the optical properties of the antenna. This will be validated against known plants, algae, and bacteria.

Objective 2 (with EG): Apply the model to stellar and atmospheric models of exo-planets (e.g. Trappist I) to determine whether a self-sustaining system is feasible and what its optical properties would be. 

Objective 3 (with DLP): While systems models predict average properties, the evolution of complex systems is chaotic. Hence, with the video game AI group at DERI, we will gamify the model to simulate millions of hypothetical organisms growing, competing, and evolving. This allows us to sample unlikely, yet potentially highly successful, solutions to the thriving under an alien sun. 

The outcome will be a framework for understanding photosynthesis, its relationship to light and its potential limits. By exploring novel forms of photosynthesis, we can contribute to the search for extra-solar life by proposing new target bio-signatures. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must be:

- Chinese students with a strong academic background.

- Students holding a PR Chinese passport.

- Either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas.

- Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship. 

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in Physics, Mathematics, Chemisty, or Biology. An MSci will be view favourable but is not essential.

The candidate should have string interest in computational and theoretical science with some experience in coding and mathematical modelling. 

Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/international-students/englishlanguagerequirements/postgraduateresearch/

Informal enquiries about the project can be sent to Dr Christopher D. P. Duffy at [Email Address Removed]. Formal applications must be submitted through our online form by 31st January 2023 for consideration, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. 

Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship along with academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements.

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor.

For September 2023 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2023. 

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme. For further information, please go to: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/scholarships/items/china-scholarship-council-scholarships.html

Apply Online


Funding Notes

This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants.
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