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PhD Studentship

Bioelectronics for bioelectricity: developing a platform to interrogate the role of bioelectricity in biological phenomena, including cancer

Application deadline: Friday, June 28, 2024

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Cells are electric! Bioelectricity within living organisms plays a role in multiple biological behaviours, from the electrophysiology of our nerves and muscles, to wound healing, organ development, and pathologies such as cancer. Bioelectronic devices allow us to sense and stimulate these bioelectric signals.

We are familiar with cardiac pacemakers and neural stimulators, which have improved the quality of life for many people. However, efforts are typically focussed on neural interfaces, and on the measurement and stimulation of action potentials, rather than on the effect of lower frequency, cross-membrane or cross-tissue voltage gradients.

The challenge

Many biological behaviours linked to bioelectricity are hard to investigate, because of the difficulty of stimulating and resolving small changes in membrane and tissue voltages with both high spatial and temporal resolution.

For example, in cancer biology, the voltage across cancer cell membranes is often smaller than those of non-cancerous cells. This shift in cancer cell voltage might be an indicator of malignancy, or might be responsible for promoting cancer proliferation, migration and invasion. But probing and understanding these behaviours in multiple cells, over large areas, can be very challenging using existing tools.

The opportunity

To develop a new bioelectronic platform, suited to interrogating these bioelectric phenomena, that can become a research tool applicable to both cancer cell biology, and also a wide range of other bioelectric phenomena.

In this project: you will be developing a new platform using materials and techniques from the field of organic bioelectronics 1. Working closely with biological collaborators, you will iterate this design to create a system to interrogate the role of specific cancer cell ion channels 2, and, as you progress towards research independence, broader biological questions.


You will be using a range of microfabrication technologies to iteratively develop the platform. This will include designing and evaluating a range of device architectures, fabrication processes and material choices, both in terms of electronic performance and biocompatibility.

You will then, working with biologists, use cell culture assays to assess the efficacy of the platform. This will involve high-throughput image-based cell profiling 3, 4, a technique that combines microscopy with image analysis and big data techniques, to analyse subtle cell responses.

The team

You will be joining the Complex Interface Team, a new interdisciplinary research group led by Dr Stuart Higgins (School of Physics, Engineering and Technology), working to better understand the role of bioelectricity and its application in healthcare. The team is supported by ~£2 million in funding, providing a well-resourced environment to deliver your research.

You will be supervised by Stuart and Dr William Brackenbury (Department of Biology), giving access to Will’s team’s expertise in the biology of cancer cell ion channels. We are exploring the opportunity to include a further non-discipline specific Supervisor to provide mentorship.

Beyond the lab

We are committed to best practice in academia and will support your professional development. Stuart is an award-winning supervisor, with over 8-years’ experience advocating for best practice in academia 5. You will have the opportunity to engage in award-winning science communication and public engagement.

The Complex Interface Team is creating a new national network to unite bioelectricity and bioelectronics expertise across the UK. Through this, you will have the opportunity to present and interact with both research, industrial and clinical teams, allowing you to develop your professional skills and build a network.

You will be

Either a scientist, engineer or interdisciplinarian. 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. You’ll be comfortable working collaboratively with other researchers as part of the team.

By the end of this studentship

You will have highly-desirable biotechnology expertise, a broad network, and transferable professional skillset, ideally suited for a future career in academic or industrial biomedical roles.

Want to know more? Visit the website of the Complex Interface Team to read more about our work, ethos and values. Find out more about Will’s research on his website.

How to Apply

Application deadline: Friday, June 28, 2024

Project start date: September 2024

We are committed to building a diverse and inclusive team, and welcome applicants with diverse career paths and backgrounds, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

Please apply via the University’s online application system. Please read the application guidance first so that you understand the various steps in the application process. To apply, please select the PhD in Engineering for September 2024 entry. Please specify in your PhD application that you would like to be considered for this studentship.

Within your application, please:

  • provide a personal statement of between 500 – 1000 words, contextualising your relevant experience to date, motivation for applying for this project, and what you hope to achieve from pursuing a PhD,

  • provide a CV of no more than 2 A4 pages, detailing your academic and employment background and other relevant experience and skills,

  • do not submit a research proposal as part of your application (this is an ‘advertised research project’).

Applications will be evaluated using a standardised rubric, and shortlisted candidates will be invited to an interview via video conferencing (with the opportunity for reasonable adjustments, as required). If you have any questions about this process, please reach out to Stuart.

Apply via the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology website

Funding notes

This PhD studentship will cover the tuition fee at the home rate (£4,786 for the 2024/25 academic year), an annual stipend at the standard research council rate for a period of up to 3.5 years (£19,237 for the 2024/25 academic year) and a research training and support grant (RTSG). Although there are a limited number of fully funded international awards available each year, at this particular time we can only accept applications from students who qualify for UK home fees. Please refer to UKRI website (View Website) for full eligibility criteria.

Fully-funded studentship | Learn more

This means that this specific project already has funding secured for the studentship. If you are accepted by the programme/university, you will receive funding.

Accepted students will typically have their tuition fees paid and will receive a stipendium to support living costs.

Depending on the funding source, there may be restrictions. For example: UKRI studentships are available for international students, but only at home fees level. Furthermore, the proportion of awards that can be made to international students for a given programme is limited to 30% per year. This means that the availability of eligible funding can vary over time, depending on how many international students have already been admitted onto the programme.

These factors should be indicated in the advert or you can always contact the team if something is unclear.

  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.