Faculty of Health and Life Sciences

   Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Vision is probably our most important sense. Vision starts in the retina, the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. It is a well-layered structure with synaptic (connections of neurons) and nuclear (cell bodies) layers. The synaptic layers are key for our visual experience (the ability to respond to light, patterns, colour, etc). The onset of visual experience happens in humans around birth (infants can already react to light stimuli) and in mice after eye-opening, which is around two weeks after birth.

Such early light responses are far from mature, and they progressively acquire their adult features while the retina develops. We have investigated the ontogeny of light-driven responses in mouse retinal ganglion cells (Hilgen et al., 2017) and expression of electrical synapses (Hilgen 2022).  Our study revealed a complex developmental profile for the maturation of light responses and spatial differences between dorsal and ventral areas. At eye-opening, dorsal areas were more responsive to light, perhaps indicating an environmental priority to nest viewing for pre-weaning pups. However, we couldn’t reveal the anatomical origin (i.e., which cells are responsible) of these differences.

So far, no study has provided a comprehensive atlas of the anatomical building blocks to explain the ontogeny of light-driven responses in single cells and on a pan-retinal level. This project aims to create this atlas and use the gathered information to create a retinal network model to functionally explain the developmental spatial differences. The outcomes of the project can provide valuable insights into retinal development and neurodevelopment.

During this PhD program the successful candidate will:

·        Learn and apply state-of-the-art cell and protein labelling strategies to visualise expression of specific cell and synapse proteins level at different stages in retinal development. Confocal microscopy will be used to assemble 3D tiles from both plexiform layers on a pan retinal level.

·        Patch Clamp and calcium imaging can be used to measure the activity of neurons. The successful candidate will learn these techniques to study and compare the light-driven activity of dorsal and ventral retinal neurons during development.

·        The stitched tiles and the functional data will be used to modify existing network compartment models to simulate the RGC response differences during retinal developmental.

This project will use state-of-the-art cell-labelling strategies, high-resolution microscopy, Patch-Clamp, calcium imaging, computational methods. The ideal candidate does not need to have skills in these techniques but should show a great portion of motivation and self-organisation. Northumbria University is a research-intensive modern university with a global reputation for academic excellence. The student will be integrated in the research team of Dr Gerrit Hilgen ( ) with access to state-of-the-art laboratory and facilities. The project will make extensive use of the expanding departmental top-notch imaging capacities.

Please note eligibility requirement:

•      Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non- UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above)

•      Appropriate IELTS score, if required

For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see


Please note: All applications must include a covering letter (up to 1000 words maximum) including why you are interested in this PhD, a summary of the relevant experience you can bring to this project and of your understanding of this subject area with relevant references (beyond the information already provided in the advert). Applications that do not include the advert reference (e.g. SF22/…) will not be considered.


Deadline for applications: Ongoing

Start Date: 1st October and 1st March are the standard cohort start dates each year.

Northumbria University is committed to creating an inclusive culture where we take pride in, and value, the diversity of our doctoral students. We encourage and welcome applications from all members of the community. The University hold a bronze Athena Swan award in recognition of our commitment to advancing gender equality, we are a Disability Confident Employer, 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.

Informal enquiries to Dr Gerrit Hilgen()

Biological Sciences (4) Computer Science (8) Medicine (26)

Funding Notes

This project is fully self-funded and available to applicants worldwide. Tuition fees will depend on the running cost of the individual project, in line with University fee bands found at View Website. The fee will be discussed and agreed at interview stage.
Please note: to be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:
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.


Hilgen G (2022) Connexin45 colocalization patterns in the plexiform layers of the developing mouse retina. J Anat. doi:10.1111/joa.13651.
Hilgen G, Pirmoradian S, Pamplona D, Kornprobst P, Cessac B, Hennig MH, et al. (2017) Pan-retinal characterisation of Light Responses from Ganglion Cells in the Developing Mouse Retina. Sci Rep 7. doi:10.1038/srep42330.

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