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Sensing, motility and information processing in brainless organisms, Biological Physics – PhD (Funded)

About This PhD Project

Project Description

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in March 2020. UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,009 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. The student will be based in the Living Systems Institute, and in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Location: College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Streatham Campus, Exeter, University of Exeter
Project Description

For centuries, scientists have been intrigued and surprised by the behaviour and habits of tiny microorganisms that inhabit drops of pond and sea water. At the level of individuals, these organisms are capable of rapid bodily movement, controlling an assortment of motile appendages to swim forwards, backwards, to glide on surfaces, and interact with boundaries. Increasingly, it has been recognised that apparently complex behaviours can arise from a set of relatively simple rules (think of Conway’s game of life [1]). Decentralised interactions at the level of populations can even lead to the emergence of global order in many forms of active living matter [2], with classical examples including the schooling of fish, or the flocking of birds. However, we still do not yet understand the physiological and cellular processes that determine these physical rules or interactions.

In this project, the student will use movement as a unique window into information processing in aneural organisms. They will devise and construct behavioural assays to interrogate and record novel motility phenomena (e.g. [3,4]). Key objectives are to reconstruct the ethology of different species, investigate short-time excitability and long-time adaptation to environmental perturbations, and decode the intracellular signalling processes contributing to these response dynamics. Particular emphasis will be placed on measurement resolution, automation, and data-driven modelling. Finally, we will explore how these results relate to the evolution of motility, and the function of ancient structures such as the cilium.

The Wan lab was recently awarded an ERC Starting Grant (EvoMotion) to develop novel interdisciplinary approaches to uncover the general principles by which unicellular organisms integrate sensory cues and information obtained from the environment with cellular pathways, to control behaviour [5]. It is expected that this studentship will help establish a new set of phylogenetically-informed species as model organisms for biophysical studies of cell motility.

The team will be based at the Living Systems Institute (LSI) at the University of Exeter, a flagship research institute located in the South West of England. This successful student will benefit from the stimulating, multi-disciplinary environment of the LSI, and will be given the freedom to develop their own ideas within the scope of this project. Prior experience in techniques including bioimaging, programming, optical physics, electrophysiology, and microfluidics are highly-desirable.

Applicants are strongly encouraged to contact Dr Kirsty Wan () in the first instance to discuss details.


This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend. For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £15,009 per year tax-free stipend. Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend.

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years of full-time study to commence in March 2020, or as soon as possible thereafter. The collaboration with the named project partner is subject to contract. Please note full details of the project partner’s contribution and involvement with the project is still to be confirmed and may change during the course of contract negotiations. Full details will be confirmed at offer stage.

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