EPSRC CDT in Metamaterials (PhD studentship): Testing fluctuation relations of conformal changes of biomolecules Ref: 2843

About the award

The studentship is part of the UK’s Centre of Doctoral Training in Metamaterials (XM2) based in the Departments of Physics and Engineering on the Streatham Campus in Exeter.  Its aim is to undertake world-leading research, while training scientists and engineers with the relevant research skills and knowledge, and professional attributes for industry and academia.

XM2 studentships are of value around £90,000, which includes £11,000 towards the research project (travel, consumables, equipment etc.), tuition fees, and an annual, tax-free stipend of approximately £14,500 per year for UK/EU students.

Exeter has a well-established and strong track record of relevant research, and prospective students can consider projects from a wide variety of fields:

  • Acoustic and Fluid-dynamical Metamaterials
  • Biological and Bio-inspired Metamaterials
  • Graphene and other 2D Materials, and related Devices
  • Magnonics, Spintronics and Magnetic Metamaterials
  • Microwave Metamaterials
  • Nanomaterials and Nanocomposites
  • Optical, Infra-red and THz Photonics and Plasmonics
  • Quantum Metamaterials
  • Wave Theory and Spatial Transformations

Please visit www.exeter.ac.uk/metamaterials to learn more about our centre and see the full list of projects that we have on offer this year.

International students are welcome to apply: fees and project costs will be paid, but the stipend can only be provided in exceptional circumstances.  We encourage international scholarship applicants or recipients to contact us directly prior to making their application (metamaterials@exeter.ac.uk).

Statement of Research

Joint supervisors: Prof Frank Vollmer, Dr Janet Anders

The project aims to reveal the overall energy change associated with the structural fluctuations of proteins which compete with thermal fluctuations. By applying light of various intensities, the dipole force applied to the proteins can be varied while the random thermal forces are constant. The envisaged experiments are expected to provide a method to study to which extend the applied and the random forces play a role for biological function, such as enzyme activity [2], and allow us to test fundamental fluctuation relations [3] and perform free energy measurements [4] in an entirely new way.

Optoplasmonic sensors are made up of an optical cavity that is coupled to a plasmonic nanostructure, such as a gold nanorod, to which proteins and other biomolecules can be fixed. With the protein’s centre of mass being immobilised, the conformal changes of the protein can be revealed with the optoplasmonic sensor [1]. This is achieved by measuring in time the overlap of the protein with an externally applied light field concentrated at the nanoscale, which is observed as a shift of the resonant frequency/wavelength in time. The sensor reveals conformal motions of the protein with or against the local light field gradient. By changing the light intensity we can increase the field gradients. The proteins are then subject to larger dipole forces and will be pulled apart/squeezed together more. Resonance frequency shifts arising from these effects can be observed with optoplasmonic sensors due to their exceedingly high sensitivity, which can detect even single atom changes.

The project is ground-breaking because it will establish optoplasmonic sensors as a technique to study fluctuations at the nanoscale in a quantitative manner. The aim of the PhD project is to develop these experiments and their analysis in several directions including a) testing the (quantum) limits of optoplasmonic sensors, b) testing fluctuation relations [3], and c) use fluctuation relations to read out energy landscapes [4] associated with conformal changes of proteins that respond to tiny forces (zepto-Newtons). The ambition is to show that nanoscale forces comparable to thermal forces can affect the function of biomolecules in a measurable way. Extending and testing humankind’s knowledge of the efficiency of biomolecular functions and turnover rates is needed to realise the optimal synthesis of biomolecules in the future.

The student will be part of the vibrant Metamaterials CDT community, which has broad expertise in the physics and engineering of synthetic and natural materials. The student will also greatly benefit from interactions with researchers in the newly established Living Systems Institute (LSI).

[1] E. Kim, M. Baasked, F. Vollmer, Advanced Materials 28, 9941 (2016); E. Kim, M. Baaske, I. Schuldes, P. Wilsch, F. Vollmer, Scientific Advances 3, e1603044 (2017).
[2] S. Jevtic, J. Anders, Journal of Chemical Physics, to appear (2017).
[3] J. Liphardt, S. Dumont, S. Smith, I. Tinoco Jr., C. Bustamente, Science 296, 1832 (2002).
[4] A. Alemany, A. Mossa, I. Junier, F. Ritort, Nature 8, 688 (2012); News + Views: J. Liphardt Nature 8, 638 (2012).

About XM2

Metamaterials are fabricated microstructures having properties beyond those found in nature. They are an important new class of electromagnetic and acoustic materials with applications in many technology areas: energy storage and improved efficiency, imaging, communications, sensing and the much-hyped ‘cloaking’. Having recruited nearly 70 new PhD researchers in its first four years, the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (XM2) hosted by the University of Exeter (www.exeter.ac.uk/metamaterials) will admit its fifth cohort of PhD students in September 2018.

The first year of the studentship includes an assessed, stand alone project, and a substantial programme of training. Students will choose from a wide range of taught modules, and participate in academic and personal development skills-based workshops, together with creativity events and conference-style meetings. The cohort will also be expected to disseminate their results to the international community via high-impact publications and international conferences. They will spend time working with our academic and industrial partners.  Full details of the programme are available here, or download a copy of our prospectus.

The University of Exeter combines world class research with excellent student satisfaction. It is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities. Formed in 1955, the University has over 20,000 students from more than 130 different countries. Its success is built on a strong partnership with its students and a clear focus on high performance. Recent breakthroughs to come out of Exeter's research include the identification and treatment of new forms of diabetes and the creation of the world's most transparent, lightweight and flexible conductor of electricity. Exeter is ranked amongst the UK’s top 10 universities in the Higher Education league tables produced by the Times and the Sunday Times. It is also ranked amongst the world’s top 200 universities in the QS and Times Higher Education rankings.


Application deadline:31st January 2018
Number of awards:1
Value:Approximately £90,000, including research and travel budget, tuition fees and stipend (approximately [£14,500/£16,500] payable to UK or EU students only)
Duration of award:per year
Contact: Prof. Alastair Hibbins (Admissions Tutor)metamaterials@exeter.ac.uk

How to apply

Application criteria

During the application process you will need to upload the documents listed below. Please prepare these before starting the application process.

  • A statement describing why you would like to study for a PhD in Physics or Engineering,
  • A statement describing why you are considering a PhD programme that offers a cohort-based doctoral training model,
  • An academic CV,
  • A cover letter that discusses your preferred area(s) of study and/or your interest in a particular project/supervisor,
  • A document outlining your research interests and any relevant expertise,
  • Degree transcript(s) giving information about the qualification awarded, the modules taken during the study period, and the marks for each module taken,
  • The contact details of two academic referees.

Please note that of all the projects advertised we expect, as a Centre, to fill 15-20 posts only.

Shortlisting and interviews

Applications will be reviewed by members of the XM2 management board and candidates will be short-listed against a set of agreed criteria to ensure quality while maintaining diversity. Failure to include all the the elements above may result in rejection. Criteria will include:


  • Excellence in a lower degree in a relevant discipline;
  • Excellence in written and oral skills in English;
  • Evidence of knowledge of XM2 ethos, research themes and/or supervisors.


  • Specialist knowledge about one or more XM2 topics;
  • Research outputs (e.g. papers) and/or has undertaken training in research methodology (e.g. undergraduate research projects);
  • Ability to work collaboratively

Short-listed candidates will be interviewed by a panel of two academic members of staff drawn from the management board. If successful, a second interview will be undertaken by the potential academic supervisors for the student concerned. Offers are normally made shortly after a successful second interview.