Optical tweezers: Light driven micro-robotics to investigate life at the nanoscale, Physics - Funded PhD Ref: 3370

About the award


Dr David Phillips, University of Exeter

Dr Fabrice Gielen, University of Exeter

Web: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/livingsystems/team/faculty/gielen/


Physics, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2019 or earlier if possible.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU/International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £14,777 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in the Department of Physics in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the Streatham Campus, in Exeter, Devon.

Nanotechnology is driven forward by the development of new tools to image and manipulate matter at small scales. This revolution now enables subcellular biological systems to be investigated in radically new ways: ultimately leading to a greater understanding of how these systems function and fail.
In this project we will combine a suite of cutting-edge technologies to develop a new technique: light driven micro-robotics; and apply it to image and characterize the properties of single cells. Light driven micro-robotics is an emerging field, which exploits the momentum of light to drive micro-mechanical systems, using intelligent control concepts from robotics.
More specifically, we will use nanoscale 3D printing to fabricate specially shaped microscopic particles, using a technique known as direct laser writing. See Fig. 1 showing examples structures we have fabricated in preliminary work.

Fig.1: Microscopic optically trapped tools

Once dispersed in solution, these particles can be ‘picked up’ and actuated using optical tweezers: focused beams of light that can trap and manipulate particles inside a microscope (also the subject of the 2018 Nobel prize in physics!). These systems can then be brought to life by handing over control of their motion to a computer. By automatically monitoring the positions of probes in real-time, and guiding the application of optical forces using feedback, they become robotic agents capable of performing tasks, such as nanoscale imaging and micro-manipulation, with a precision well beyond that achievable with manual control. They can be programmed to react to their environment on millisecond timescales, and their motion can be choreographed with nanoscale finesse.

Using light driven micro-robotics, we will initially focus on a key application: development of a new form of light controlled scanning probe microscope that can image ultra-soft biological membranes with unprecedented detail. This builds on high-profile recent work from our group [1]. As the project develops, there are many directions this technology can expand in, and you will be encouraged to develop and follow your own ideas in this exciting new field.

In summary: This is an experimental project to develop a new technology – light driven micro-robotics – and explore its applications to novel characterization of biological systems.
You will be based in the University of Exeter physics department, conduct your project in brand new laser lab. facilities, and collaborate with biologists based at the Exeter Living Systems Institute. During the project you will develop significant expertise in programming, optical system design and, more generally, the fields of nanotechnology and biophysics. Throughout the project, there will also be opportunity to travel to international conferences.

This award covers UK/EU/International tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  The award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £14,777 per year tax-free stipend. The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years full-time study commencing in September 2019 or earlier.

[1] D.B. Phillips et al. Nature Photonics (2014).

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. This research project would ideally suit a candidate with a background in one of the following disciplines: Physics, Electronic Engineering, Bioengineering, Computer Science, Natural Sciences, although we are open to any enthusiastic applicant with a science related background – you will learn the skills you need on the job. 

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.0 IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see http://www.exeter.ac.uk/postgraduate/apply/english/).

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).
• 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 31st December 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email stemm-pgr-admissions@exeter.ac.uk or phone +44 (0)1392 722730 or +44 (0)1392 725150.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor, Dr David Phillips; email: d.phillips@exeter.ac.uk.


Application deadline:31st December 2018
Value:£14,777 per year for 3.5 years
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions Office +44 (0)1392 722730 / 5150 stemm-pgr-admissions@exeter.ac.uk