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Award details

University of Exeter funding: BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship

To swim or to struggle: how tadpole motor circuits reconfigure themselves in a fraction of a second. PhD in Medical Sciences Studentship (BBSRC SWBio DTP funded) Ref: 3975

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Joel Tabak, College of Medicine and Health, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Roman Borisyuk, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Location:  Streatham/St Luke's Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon

The SWBio DTP is one of the 12 Doctoral Training Partnerships funded by the BBSRC to provide PhD training in areas of their strategic relevance.  The SWBio DTP is a consortium comprising the Universities of Bristol (lead), Bath, Cardiff, Exeter, and Rothamsted Research. Together, these institutions present a distinctive cadre of bioscience research staff and students with established international, national and regional networks and widely recognised research excellence.

The aim of this DTP is to produce highly motivated and excellently trained postgraduates in the BBSRC priority areas of Agriculture & Food Security (AFS) and World-Class Underpinning Bioscience (WCUB). These are growth areas of the biosciences and for which there will be considerable future demand.

The award:

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP)

Project Description:

A beautiful ballerina dance can be considered as a continuous chain of motor actions (behaviours) such as
jump, forward run, backward run, etc. Neuroscience experiments show that each particular motor behaviour can
be characterised by a set of neurons producing a pattern of electrical activity. However, the transitions between each pattern/behaviour are poorly understood. What happens in the neuronal network when the forward run in a dance switches to a backward movement?

In this project, the successful PhD candidate will study young frog tadpoles capable of two rhythmic motor behaviours: forward swimming and backward struggling. In swimming, alternation in neuron activity on each side leads to rapid waves of muscle contraction propagating from head to tail. If held by a predator, or stuck against an obstacle, the tadpole must quickly escape. In that case, it rapidly switches to the struggling behaviour, during which slower, but stronger waves propagate from tail to head, creating a powerful backward movement. This is critical for its survival.

The neuronal network that produces struggling is the same network that produces swimming. When the tadpole is captured by a predator, the continuous stimulation on its skin results in the activation of extra groups of nerve cells while other groups of nerve cells are turned off. This means that the network reconfigures itself automatically to generate a different behaviour.

During this project, you will build a model of the neuronal network in the tadpole spinal cord that supports swimming and struggling. This model will incorporate different types of neurons and will connect these neurons together according to rules that you will define. You will then use the model to determine how changes in sensory stimulation lead to dynamic changes in the activity of the different neuron types. Finally, you will determine how each type of neurons contributes to the transition between swimming and struggling, by conducting numerical experiments with the model. Your results will be tested by our experimental collaborators and you will have a chance to modify your model to account for new data.

Fundamental neuronal mechanisms are highly conserved across vertebrate species. The results you will obtain using tadpole models will be applicable to more complex brain networks in mammals. Your findings will have implications beyond basic neuroscience research: they may be used to better design robots that need to navigate difficult environments without getting stuck.


To be eligible for a fully-funded studentship, you must meet both the academic and residence criteria. 

A fully-funded four year SWBio DTP studentship will cover

•    a stipend* at the standard Research Council UK rate; currently £15,285 per annum for 2020-2021
•    research and training costs
•    tuition fees (at the standard Research Councils UK rate)
•    additional funds to support fieldwork, conferences and a 3-month internship

Please refer to the regulations or Annex 1 of the Research Council Training Grant Guide to confirm that you meet the residence criteria for a fully-funded studentship.  Any further queries in relation to residency must be directed to the institution that you are applying to.

* An enhanced stipend is available for students with a recognised veterinary degree qualification (£23,164 per annum for 2019-2020). There may also be enhanced stipends associated with projects that have a CASE partner (CASE projects are highlighted as *CASE in the project lists).

Residence criteria

Normally UK nationals who meet the residence criteria will be eligible for a fully-funded studentship (refer to annex B in the UKRI training grant and conditions).

However, UKRI have recently updated their international (this includes EU nationals) residence criteria policy for studentships starting in 2021.  Details about eligibility and how to apply for a studentship will be provided here when further guidance has been provided to DTPs by UKRI.  Please note that there will be a very limited number of funded studentships available for international applicants, and these may only be available through some of our partners.

In the meantime, we are unable to accept applications from international applicants (this includes EU applicants), unless externally funded (including self-funded), but we do welcome you to approach supervisors of projects you may be interested in.


Entry requirements

Applicants should 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.  Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Masters degree or have significant relevant non-academic experience.

In addition, due to the strong mathematical component of the taught course in the first year and the quantitative emphasis in our projects, a minimum of a grade B in A-level Maths or an equivalent qualification or experience is required.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.5 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable, please see

Equivalent qualifications/experience

  • Physics A-level (grade B and above)
  • Undertaking units as part of your degree that have a significant mathematical component*

*Significant mathematical component examples include; maths, statistics, bioinformatics.

Applicants must ensure they highlight their Maths background within their application and to upload any supporting evidence.

How to apply

Please be aware you will be asked to upload the following documents:

  • CV
  • Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project.  Please indicate your preferred project choice if applying for multiple BBSRC SWBio DTP projects.
  • Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.
  • Two academic referees - see information below about references.
  • If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English (see entry requirements above)

The closing date for applications is midnight on Monday, 7 December 2020. Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter between w/c 25 January - w/c 1st February 2021.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email

Project-specific queries should be directed to the primary supervisor.

Selection process:

Please note, the studentship selection process will take place in two stages:

1.     The project supervisors will consider your application and may invite you to visit for an informal interview. You can apply for more than one BBSRC SWBio DTP project, although supervisors may take into account your interest and commitment to their particular project.  If you apply for multiple projects, please indicate your preferred project choice in your letter of application.  Each application for an individual project will be considered separately by the project supervisors.

2.     After closure of applications, each supervisory team will then nominate their preferred applicant.  A shortlist will be selected from these nominations and shortlisted applicants will be invited for interview on a selection day at the University of Bristol.  Please note that nomination by a project supervisor therefore does not guarantee the award of a studentship.

Data Protection
During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

  •     the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme,   
        which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;
  •    administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.


Application deadline:7th December 2020
Value:Tuition fees and an annual stipend allowance at Research Council rates, currently £15,285 per year for 2020-21
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment Office