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Award details

University of Exeter funding: BBSRC SWBio DTP PhD studentship

Ultra-High-Throughput Directed Evolution of Antimicrobials using Droplet Microfluidics PhD in Physics Studentship (BBSRC SWBio DTP funded) Ref: 3976

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Fabrice Gielen, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Stineke van Houte, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Location:  Streatham 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:

Antimicrobial resistance has evolved into a major healthcare threat which is further exacerbated by the diminished number of antibiotics in development. Alternatives to antibiotics such as phages and phage endolysins (their lytic enzymes) are being actively researched. This PhD project aims at understanding sequence-function relationships for endolysin activity and unravel the rules for successful bacteriolysis developing novel high-throughput assays for the directed evolution of bacteriophage endolysins, enzymes capable of killing host bacteria from outside.

In this project, we will combine cutting-edge high-throughput screening technologies in microfluidic droplets with protein engineering to create an endolysin evolution platform. Microdroplet technology has already shown enormous potential for enzyme evolution and the exploration of sequence space at high-throughput and low cost. Each droplet, whose volume typically ranges from femto to nanoliter scale represents a single reaction in which individual enzymes are confined. By encapsulating a single gene corresponding to a single enzyme variant, large gene libraries can be screened in a time and resource efficient manner. FG’s group is developing label-free technology platforms for the high-throughput analysis of bacteria-phage interactions and this project builds on
this high-profile work [1]. During this studentship, you will be developing/furthering skills across many fields from microfluidic fabrication, building and operation of complex optical setups, protein engineering, biophysics, gene expression and microbiology. In summary, this is an experimental project to develop novel highthroughput
functional assays that can identify novel bacteriolytic enzymes.

You will be based in the newly-built Living Systems Institute which brings together scientists from different disciplines and host cuttingedge equipment. This PhD studentship will also allow you to take advantage of the expertise available in Physics, Biosciences, the Environment and Sustainability Institute at Exeter and Plymouth Marine Laboratory to shine new light on endolysin evolution. The supervision team is composed of Dr. Fabrice Gielen (Living Systems Institute, Exeter), Dr. Stineke van Houte (Environment and Sustainability Institute, Penryn) and Prof. Mike Allen (Plymouth Marine Laboratory) who have complementary expertise on the subject.

[1] Gielen et al. PNAS (2016).


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