Biomineralisation at Soft-Hard Tissue Interface for Craniofacial Reconstruction Surgery Design and Optimisation, Engineering - PhD (Funded) Ref: 3050

About the award

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences/Medical School is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2018 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £14,553 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in Engineering in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.


Engineering, Streatham Campus, Exeter

Academic Supervisors:

Dr Junning Chen, University of Exeter
Professor Peter Winlove, University of Exeter
Professor Christopher Smith, University of Exeter

Project Description:
Craniofacial surgery is a specialised procedure to treat both congenital and acquired deformities of skull, face, jaw and neck as well as associated structures. Trauma and tumour are the common causes leading to acquired craniofacial defects, and the congenital causes, such as craniosynostosis, are less aware to the public but affecting more than 65,000 babies in the world every year. Although there has been rapid growth in the field of craniofacial surgery, it is a relatively young discipline which is actively evolving and facing significant clinic challenges, including post-operational bone flap resorption and cranioplastic failure. The aetiology behind these challenges remain poorly understood, but accumulating evidences suggest the soft tissues may play a critical role in biomineralisation and maintaining health and quality in the adjacent bones.

This project investigates biomineralisation across a soft-hard tissue interfaces at the calvarial suture at different ages of mice and its biomechanical and physiological implication for load transfer and neurocranial growth, by combining microCT, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM) and finite element analysis (FEA). The nanoscopic mineral particles are embedded in organic collagen matrix of both hard and soft tissues, and their forms and extents serve as the footprint of biomineralisation process in the extracellular matrix (ECM). It has been discovered that the minerals in ECM closely interact with bone cells, and the different amounts, sizes, and arrangements of mineral particles contribute to bone material properties through a hierarchical structure in bone. In return, these ECM mineral conditions affect consequential remodelling events.

Compared to the emerging findings of ECM mineral conditions in long bone, very little is yet known for craniofacial regons, including calvaria. The calvaria bones are joined by fibrous sutures (Sharpey’s fibres). Not only providing the cranial flexibility during birth, this soft-hard (suture-bone) tissue interface is also the primary site of intramembranous bone growth to accommodate the rapid expansion of neurocranium through embryonic development and early postnatal growth. These sutures transmit biomechanical signals and balance the proliferation of osteogenic cells and their differentiation to form new bone. Interestingly, sutures must keep their patency from ossification to maintain their functionalities in extending calvaria bone fronts. Premature closure of sutures (craniosynostosis) by ossification lead to abnormal facial and cranial appearances; in the worse scenarios, it will cause increased intracranial pressure leading to visual damage, sleeping disorder, masticatory malfunction, impaired mental development, and even sudden death without surgical intervention.
Investigating into the mechanical stimulation-cell-mineral interaction can provide some temporal and spatial insights in suture morphogenesis and bone formation, which potentially helps elucidating possible mechanisms involving these clinical conditions in craniofacial surgery, for its non-tissue-specific nature and needs of dealing with both hard and soft tissues.

This project is structured to answer the following two closely related fundamental questions,
1) What is the mineral content in cranial bone, in calvarial suture and at their interfaces between two age groups (young and adult),
2) What is this nanoscopic heterogeneity contributing to the biomechanical behaviour of associated tissues and affecting stimulus distribution across this tissue interface?

This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees, the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £14,777 per year tax-free stipend.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend. 

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years of full-time study to commence in September 2018.

Entry requirements:
Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or good Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in mechanical engineering, medical engineering, material science or biophysics.

A successful candidate should process outstanding inter-personal and communication skills to work in an interdisciplinary team and international collaborators and sufficient knowledge of various types of imaging and image analysis.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.0 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents:

• CV
• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).
• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)
• Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English

The closing date for applications is midnight on 28th May 2018.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus the week commencing 18th June 2018

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 722730.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:28th August 2018
Value:£14,777 for 3.5 years
Duration of award:per year
Contact: Postgraduate Research Office