Developing microfluidic platforms to fight infectious diseases and bio-threats, Biology - PhD (Funded) Ref: 2622

About the award

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2017 or as soon as possible thereafter. This studentship is funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) with the Industrial CASE partner, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). For eligible students the studentship will cover tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15,553 for 4 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study. The student would be based in the Living System Institute at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Location: Living System Institute, Streatham campus, Exeter

Academic Supervisors:

Dr Stefano Pagliara, University of Exeter

Professor Richard Titball, University of Exeter

Dr Sarah Harding, DSTL

Associate Professor Helen Atkins, DSTL

Project Description:

Nowadays, antibiotics are indispensable in all health systems; however, they are losing their effectiveness at an increasing rate and it is estimated that 25,000 people die every year in Europe alone as a consequence of antibiotic ineffectiveness (Davies et al., 2013 Lancet 381: 1606). Cultivable soil microorganisms have historically been a natural source of antibiotic molecules. However, traditional screening approaches rely on the growth of these microorganisms in the laboratory, and consequently it is estimated that only 1% of the soil-borne flora has been investigated (Nichols et al., 2010 Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 76: 2445). There is an urgent need to develop novel technologies to facilitate the screening for new antibiotic compounds.

The aim of this project is to screen for novel antimicrobial compounds in marine sediments and in soil by creating a miniaturised device to culture microorganisms in their natural environment. A similar macroscopic approach recently led to the discovery of teixobactin, a novel compound with potent antibiotic activity, in a soil field in Maine (Ling et al., 2015 Nature 517: 455). The principal supervisor (Dr Stefano Pagliara) has introduced a variety of novel microfluidic-microscopy approaches into his laboratory to grow, manipulate and characterise live cells (Pagliara et al., 2014 Nature Materials 13: 638; Otto et al., 2015 Nature Methods 12: 199).

This project will build on this expertise to design and fabricate microfluidic devices for growing microorganisms in their natural environments. You will use photolithography to produce silicon molds and replicate these devices in elastomeric materials to produce microfluidic chips. You will test the consistency of this novel approach by interfacing these devices with the microfluidic-microscopy platform at Exeter to confirm the reported antibiotic activity of known compounds extracted from soil microorganisms and will screen for novel compounds from marine samples taken from the coastal station L4, the marine station of Banylus-sur-Mer and from Thailand soil. You will work in the laboratories at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl, Porton Down), under the supervision of Dr Sarah Harding, where you will test novel isolated compounds with promising antibiotic activity against bacterial species relevant to bio-threat agents.

This project will open the way for the growth of previously unculturable microorganisms and the discovery of novel molecules with antibiotic activity against human pathogens thus helping our fight against infectious diseases and biothreats.



This studentship will be funded by the MRC and Dstl, and is only available to UK nationals.  

For detailed guidance about eligibility please refer to the Research Councils UK conditions of Research Council Training Grants

Studentships will be awarded on the basis of merit and are awarded for 4 years of full-time study (part-time pro-rata) to commence in September 2017.

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 one of the following areas: Biosciences, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Physics or Engineering.   

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable, see


Application deadline:26th June 2017
Number of awards:1
Duration of award:per year
Contact: College of Life and Environmental

How to apply

Click here to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”. 

•         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)

•         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 26th June 2017.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus the week commencing 3rd July 2017.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 725150/723706.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor, Dr Stefano Pagliara,