Sounds Dangerous: Using Sonification Techniques to Detect Precursors to Large Wave Activity in Space Plasmas (Ref: NUDATA24/EE/MPEE/RATLIFF)

   Faculty of Engineering and Environment

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  Dr Daniel Ratliff, Prof Paul Vickers  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Overview of the CDT

This project is being offered as part of the STFC Centre for Doctoral Training in Data Intensive Science, called NUdata, which is a collaboration between Northumbria and Newcastle Universities, STFC, and a portfolio of over 40 industrial partners, including SMEs, large/multinational companies, Government and not-for profit organisations, and international humanitarian organisations. Please visit for full information.

Project Description

Prediction remains at the heart of the study of physical systems, as there is always a need for insight into the conditions one might be exposed to in such systems. This is especially true when it comes to dangerous events that may cause damage or harm – when do these happen, how often and how much warning can I expect to have of such events happening? This is becoming a vital need for operations in near-Earth space, where solar and electromagnetic wave activity can energise electrons to dangerous levels (dubbed “killer electrons”) that can damage space-faring objects like satellites. Thus, there is a stakeholder need, not just academic curiosity, driving the development of models or procedures that alert operators to emerging high risk scenarios.

The student undertaking this project will be tasked with analysing space mission data, including the Van Allen, THEMIS, WIND and MMS missions using sonification approaches. Such approaches take advantage of the human ear’s sensitivity to subtle changes in sounds (such as one’s ability to notice problems in their car simply from it sounding “off” or picking up on changes in someone else’s tone to identify their mood), instead of the human eye’s propensity to miss nuances in complex data sets. The aim will be to use these techniques, successful in uncovering patterns within datasets that elude conventional data analysis techniques, to literally “sound out” features preceding known large amplitude or energisation events. Principally, we will focus on power spectral density, magnetic field and temperature datasets but may explore other parts of the mission data including particle densities and wave ellipticity. There is scope to augment the aural-based techniques with machine learning approaches to further uncover hidden trends that might signal dangerous events or use the insight from the sonification to propose new ways of modelling these large amplitude space waves. The supervision team is particularly keen to support candidates who wish to explore public engagement opportunities, using this work to engage with local outreach programmes including Pint of Science, NUSTEM, Talking Maths in Public (TMIP) and exhibitions at Newcastle’s LIFE centre.

This project is suitable for applicants with a background in either physics or computer science. An understanding of either plasma physics is advantageous but not essential. Experience in scientific computing or data analysis is beneficial, but we will provide you with the necessary computational training and support required for this project. We value the experience, skills and viewpoints of students joining us from varied backgrounds and pathways. The Solar and Space group in which you will be based, with expertise in space weather and plasma physics, provide a welcoming and inclusive environment to all students. Your PhD experience will be supplemented with regular research seminars, professional development courses and summer schools. The department will work to support you in attending UK and international conferences to experience recent advances first-hand from experts in the field as well as to present your own work to the space physics and computer science communities.

Academic Enquiries

This project is supervised by Dr Daniel Ratliff. For informal queries, please contact [Email Address Removed]. For all other enquiries relating to eligibility or application process please contact Admissions at [Email Address Removed]. 

Recruitment Event

You will join a strong and supportive research team. To help better understand the aims of the CDT and to meet the PhD supervisors, we are hosting a day-long event on campus on Monday 15th January 2024. At that event, there will be an opportunity to discuss your research ideas, meet potential PhD supervisors, as well as hear from speakers from a variety of backgrounds (academia, industry, government, charity) discussing both STFC and data science as well as their personal paths and backgrounds. Click here for details.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Academic excellence i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities with preference for 1st class honours); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above);
  • Appropriate IELTS score, if required.

To be classed as a Home student, candidates must:

  • Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have settled status, or
  • have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirements), or
  • have indefinite leave to remain or enter.

If a candidate does not meet the criteria above, they would be classed as an International student. 

Applicants will need to be in the UK and fully enrolled before stipend payments can commence and be aware of the following additional costs that may be incurred, as these are not covered by the studentship.

For further details on how to apply see  

In your application, please include the advert reference (e.g. NUDATA24/...).

Deadline for applications : 31st January 2024

Start date of course :  23rd September 2024

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our postgraduate research students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University holds a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Leader, a member of the Race Equality Charter and are participating in the Stonewall Diversity Champion Programme. We also hold the HR Excellence in Research award for implementing the concordat supporting the career Development of Researchers and are members of the Euraxess initiative to deliver information and support to professional researchers.

Computer Science (8) Mathematics (25) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

The 4-year studentship is available to Home and international (including EU) students and includes a full stipend at UKRI rates (for 2023/24 full-time study this was £18,622 per year) and full tuition fees. Studentships are also available for applicants who wish to study on a part-time basis in combination with work or personal responsibilities.


M. Debashi & P. Vickers, Sonification of Network Traffic flow for monitoring and situational awareness, PLOS ONE, 2018
Archer et al., Listening to the Magnetosphere: How Best to Make ULF Waves Audible, Frontiers, 2022

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