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Single-molecule bioscience with nanostructured photonic device. Physics PhD Studentship

College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences

About the Project

Join a world-leading, cross-continental research team

The University of Exeter and the University of Queensland are seeking exceptional students to join a world-leading, cross-continental research team tackling major challenges facing the world’s population in global sustainability and wellbeing as part of the QUEX Institute. The joint PhD programme provides a fantastic opportunity for the most talented doctoral students to work closely with world-class research groups and benefit from the combined expertise and facilities offered at the two institutions, with a lead supervisor within each university. This prestigious programme provides full tuition fees, stipend, travel funds and research training support grants to the successful applicants. The studentship provides funding for up to 42 months (3.5 years).

Eight generous, fully-funded studentships are available for the best applicants, four offered by the University of Exeter and four by the University of Queensland. This select group will spend at least one year at each University and will graduate with a joint degree from the University of Exeter and the University of Queensland.

Project Description

The detection of single-molecule processes and dynamics inside cells requires optical sensors of extraordinary sensitivity and that are miniature in size. This proposals seeks to develop a state of the art sensing approach based on silicon nanosensing structures that can be fabricated on chip and attached to the end of a fiber. The needle like sensor can be inserted into a single cell. In contact with the cell, they can interlaise them in their cytoplasm. By developing advanced optical techniques for reading out the sensor signals, we will develop the first single-cell single-molecule sensors that are label-free and operate on microsecond timescales. This will allow us to track dynamics process such as the conformational movements of enzymes, and the contacts with specific proteins inside of cells that mediate biological signals. The colaboration between the Bowen (silicon nanochip sensors) and Vollmer (single-molecule sensing and cell analysis) will enable us to translate state-of-the art sensing techniques into a chip-scale platform that we use for fundamental studies of proteins structure, dynamics and folding, and for developing applications such as in vivo and single cell sensing in collaboration with Alan Rowan, who's the director of the AIBN in UQ.


1. develop silicon chip sensor for single-molecule sensing of biomolecules and their dynamics, combining silicon microcavities and optical fiber as a first testbed of the technology that can be inserted into single cells; the sensor probe is attached to the end of an optical fiber; read out resonance shift from reflected /transmitted light.

2. develop readout of the sensor with free space beam (Bowen/Vollmer). Specialised sensors structures are fabricated on chip and shipped to Exeter. The nanosensors will be picked off chip and dispersed in cell culture medium. Sensors signals will be acquired from the cell culture and from sensors taken up by single cells in processes called endycytosis and pinocytosis. The sensors will be modified (functionalised) with specific proteins and enzymes to test how the enzymes funcition, how the proteins recevie and mediate signals and how they change conformationa and fold inside the cell. We expect sensitivity similar to the one of state of the art single molecule sensors developed in the Vollmer lab.

3. The microsensors will be custom functionalised for specicfic detection tasks in vivo and in cells. The in vivo sensing applications will be tested in Vollmerlab with cells as well in organisms such as in experiments ongoing at the LSI with small rag worm Platynereis Dumerilii and Zebrafish. The goal is to acquire physiological sensing signals in cells and in living organims.

Approach and Expertise:

The approach involves a combination of both state-of-the-art nanofabrication, and precision optical probing of biosystems. At UQ, the primary focus will be to develop a new class of nanocavity devices for biosensing. A key parameter in these sensors is the ratio of their quality factor ""Q"" to their mode volume ""V"". The Q quantifies how long they are able to store light for, and the V quantified the size scale in which it is stored. UQs nano- and photo-lithography tools, within the CMM and ANFF-Q are capable of fabrication of devices with resolution as small as a few tens of atoms. Bowe's lab has extensive expertise in using these machiens to create extremely small optical cavities with very high quality factors. In this project we will develop the capability to fabricate ""snap-off"" cavities on a silicon chip, that can be release onto the end of an optical fibre for robust sensing application. Thousands of cavities could be fabricated on a single silicon chip. The devices will be engieered to maximise the signal from biomolecules.

The fabricated devices will be shipped to Exeter where the QUEX student will use them for single-molecule sensing experiments.The student will prepare biomolecular samples, develop methods to attach them to the sensor, integrate the sensor with and use microfluidics and perform sensing in organisms. They will leverage expertise in Vollmers lab in optical sensors, biointegration with cells and organisms , preparation of the sensors with biomolecular samples and analysis of the single molecule signals.

Find out more about the PhD studentships

Successful applicants will have a strong academic background and track record to undertake research projects based in one of the three themes of: Healthy Living, Global Environmental Futures and Digital Worlds and Disruptive Technologies.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 24 May 2021 (BST), with interviews taking place week commencing 12 July 2021. The start date is expected to be 10 January 2022.

Please note that of the eight Exeter led projects advertised, we expect that up to four studentships will be awarded to Exeter based students.

Funding Notes

The QUEX Institute studentships are available for January 2022 entry. This prestigious programme provides full tuition fees, stipend of £15,609 p.a, travel funds of up to £15,000, and RTSG of £10,715 over the life of the studentship. The studentship funding is provided for up to 42 months (3.5 years).

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