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PhD Studentship (MRC DiMeN)

MRC DiMeN Doctoral Training Partnership: Bioelectronics and bioelectricity of cancer cells: developing a platform to investigate the role of ion channels using organic bioelectronics and high-content image analysis

Applications closed

Applications for this position are now closed. See our current opportunities.


Cells are electric! Fascinatingly, the voltage across cancer cell membranes is often smaller than those of non-cancerous cells. There are also differences in the membrane ion channels (the structures that control the flows of ions, and hence charge, into and out of the cell). This shift in cancer cell voltage might be an indicator of malignancy, or might be responsible for promoting cancer proliferation, migration and invasion (the processes by which cancer spreads).

The problem

These mechanisms are poorly understood, because it is challenging to stimulate and resolve small changes in membrane voltage with both high spatial and temporal resolution.

The solution

A new approach to investigating cancer cell bioelectricity that allows the targeted bioelectric stimulation and sensing of ion channels, to probe these processes. Understanding bioelectricity will inform fundamental understanding and focus the development of new treatments. At the same time, you’ll be building a toolset widely applicable to other biological problems.

In this project: you will be developing a new technology platform to study cancer cell bioelectricity. This will be based on organic bioelectronics,1 devices that use plastics that conduct both electrons and ions.


You will be using a range of microfabrication and additive manufacturing technologies to build the platform, targeting specific cancer cell ion channels.2 You will then use various cell culture assays to investigate fundamental bioelectric behaviours. You’ll be taking advantage of high-throughput image-based cell profiling,3,4 a technique that combines microscopy, with image analysis, big data (and yes, machine learning!) techniques to analyse complex cell behaviours.

The team

You’ll be supervised by the cross-disciplinary team of Dr Stuart Higgins (School of Physics, Engineering and Technology) and Dr William Brackenbury (Department of Biology), based primarily with Stuart. We will provide the broad expertise and core technologies to support your research. You’ll be joining a rapidly growing new team, well-supported by generous funding sources.

Beyond the lab

We are committed to best practice in academic research and will support your professional development throughout your studies. Stuart is an award-winning supervisor, with over 8-years’ experience advocating for best practice in academia.5 Joining the team, you will have the opportunity to engage in award-winning science communication, public engagement, and be at the heart of an exciting new national interdisciplinary network.

You will be

A biologist, chemist, physicist, material scientist or electronic engineer, looking to move beyond your discipline into a truly multidisciplinary research environment. This project unites cancer biology, electronics, biochemistry and materials science, image analysis and data science techniques. We don’t expect you to be an expert in each of these areas – we are looking for a candidate with strong self-motivation and an appetite for new knowledge and skills.

By the end of this studentship

You will have a highly-desired data-driven biotechnology skillset, ideally suited for a future career in academic or industrial biomedical research, and a highly transferrable professional skillset.

Want to know more? Contact Stuart for an informal conversation.

Stuart’s website

Will’s website


Benefits of being in the DiMeN DTP: (text provided by MRC DiMeN DTP)

This project is part of the Discovery Medicine North Doctoral Training Partnership (DiMeN DTP), a diverse community of PhD students across the North of England researching the major health problems facing the world today. Our partner institutions (Universities of Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, York and Sheffield) are internationally recognised as centres of research excellence and can offer you access to state-of the-art facilities to deliver high impact research.

We are very proud of our student-centred ethos and committed to supporting you throughout your PhD. As part of the DTP, we offer bespoke training in key skills sought after in early career researchers, as well as opportunities to broaden your career horizons in a range of non-academic sectors.

Being funded by the MRC means you can access additional funding for research placements, international training opportunities or internships in science policy, science communication and beyond. See how our current DiMeN students have benefited from this funding here:

Further information on the programme and how to apply can be found on our website:

Funding Notes

Funding notes (text provided by MRC DiMeN DTP)

Studentships are fully funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) for 4yrs. Funding will cover tuition fees, stipend (£18,622 p.a. for 2023/24)) and project costs. We also aim to support the most outstanding applicants from outside the UK and are able to offer a limited number of full studentships to international applicants. Please read additional guidance here:

Studentships commence: 1st October 2024

Good luck!

Competition-funded studentship | Learn more

This means that this project is being offered alongside others from different academics as part of the same funding scheme. Only a subset of these projects will be funded. There are (broadly speaking) two stages to the application process:

  1. Apply and be accepted to the programme (but without a guarentee of funding).

  2. Be allocated funding from a selection panel, based on the strongest accepted candidates.

Each scheme has slightly different requirements, you can always contact Stuart if something is unclear.

Apply now

Applications closed

Applications for this position are now closed. See our current opportunities.

  1. S. G. Higgins, A. Lo Fiego, I. Patrick, A. Creamer, and M. M. Stevens, ‘Organic Bioelectronics: Using Highly Conjugated Polymers to Interface with Biomolecules, Cells, and Tissues in the Human Body’, Adv. Mater. Technol., vol. 5, no. 11, p. 2000384, Nov. 2020, doi: 10.1002/admt.202000384. 

  2. A. D. James et al., ‘Sodium accumulation in breast cancer predicts malignancy and treatment response’, Br. J. Cancer, vol. 127, no. 2, Art. no. 2, Jul. 2022, doi: 10.1038/s41416-022-01802-w. 

  3. J. C. Caicedo et al., ‘Data-analysis strategies for image-based cell profiling’, Nat. Methods, vol. 14, no. 9, pp. 849–863, Sep. 2017, doi: 10.1038/nmeth.4397. 

  4. L. Wiggins et al., ‘The CellPhe toolkit for cell phenotyping using time-lapse imaging and pattern recognition’, Nat. Commun., vol. 14, no. 1, Art. no. 1, Apr. 2023, doi: 10.1038/s41467-023-37447-3. 

  5. S. G. Higgins, ‘Understanding scientists is key for science’, Nat. Mater., vol. 18, no. 10, Art. no. 10, Oct. 2019, doi: 10.1038/s41563-019-0432-2.