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Funding and scholarships for students

Award details

Protein Choreography of the Molecular Compass. PhD in Biosciences. (BBSRC SWBio DTP) Ref: 4268

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Jonathan Phillips - Living Systems Institute, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Professor Adrian Mulholland - School of Chemistry, University of Bristol.

Location:  Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

The BBSRC-funded South West Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SWBio DTP) is led by the University of Bristol, together with the Universities of Bath, Cardiff and Exeter, alongside Rothamsted Research. This partnership also includes the following associate partners; Marine Biological Association (MBA), Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), SETsquared Bristol, Swansea University, UCB Pharma, and University of the West of England (UWE).

These institutions represent a distinctive group of bioscience research staff and students, with established international, national and regional networks, and widely recognised research excellence. As research leaders, we have a strong track record in advancing knowledge through high-quality research and teaching, in partnership with industry and the government.

The aim of this DTP is to produce highly motivated and excellently trained postgraduates in the BBSRC priority areas of Advancing the frontiers of biosciences discovery, Biosciences for sustainable agriculture and food and Biosciences for an integrated understanding of health.  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:

Birds, fruit flies and many other animals are equipped with the remarkable ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field by means of a biochemical reaction in cryptochrome proteins. Surprisingly, this protein molecular compass utilises truly quantum effects to respond to changes in the magnetic field as the animal navigates. The molecular basis of how these proteins structurally reconfigure in response to planetary magnetic fields, transduced by quantum effects on single electrons, is unknown.  

In migratory songbirds, such as the European robin, Cryptochrome 4 (Cry4) is the protein identified to correlate with magnetosensation. Photoreduction of Cry4 has been shown to be sensitive to magnetic fields in vitro. Yet, little is known about the structure of Cry4 and which conformational changes transduce the geomagnetic field.    Here, we will aim to decipher the inner workings of Cry4 protein as the molecular transducer of our planet’s magnetic field by migratory birds.    You will learn a variety of cutting-edge and highly transferable biophysical and computational tools and techniques. This studentship will provide a rare opportunity to become an expert in hydrogen/deuterium-exchange mass spectrometry (HDX-MS), using novel prototype instrumentation developed by the Phillips lab at The Living Systems Institute, Univ. Exeter.

You will make millisecond time-resolved measurements of the protein structural dynamics under magnetic stimulation. You will then use these experimental results to seed molecular dynamics simulations (Mulholland Group, Univ. Bristol) and combine this with quantum mechanics calculations (Kattnig Group, Univ. Exeter). As a result, you will produce an experimentally driven molecular movie of the process of Cry4 functional switching with atomistic resolution.     In addition, we will provide you with full training in mass spectrometry, molecular dynamics simulation, fluorescence spectroscopy, molecular biology, and recombinant protein expression.

To study Cry4’s magnetosensitivity, you will employ these techniques in combination with magneto- and photo-stimulation. This project is open to students with experience in natural sciences (chemistry; biosciences; physical sciences and engineering degrees). As this is a highly interdisciplinary project, we anticipate the successful candidate will not have prior experience in all relevant areas of research and we are fully committed to supporting you to succeed, regardless of your background. This project will involve joint working between Exeter and Bristol and may involve collaboration visits to our collaborators at The University of Lund (avian cognition and ecology), The University of Oxford (optical spectroscopy) and The National Physical Laboratory (cellular magnetic field effects).   


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 £16,062 per annum for 2022-23
•    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 (£24,090 per annum for 2022-2023). 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

UKRI have recently updated their policy for funded studentships which starts from the 2022/2023 academic year.

IMPORTANT: Please refer to the UKRI Full Eligibility Criteria alongside the information provided below.

Home fee status students only.

Fully-funded studentships are available for Home students.  To be classed as a Home student, candidates must meet the following criteria:
• Be a UK National (meeting residency requirements), or
• Have settled status, or
• Have pre-settled status (meeting residency requirement) or,
• Have indefinite leave to remain or enter

If you do not meet the above criteria, you will be classed as an International student.  Please note places for International students are not currently available.

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.

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.

Language Requirements

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

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 Tuesday 28th June 2022

Interviews will be held online and will take place w/c 25 July 2022 (exact dates to be confirmed).

Reference information

You will be asked to submit two references as part of the application process.  If you are not able to upload  your reference documents with your application please ensure you provide details of your referees.  If you provide contact details of referees only, 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, 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 Exeter.  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:28th June 2022
Value:Tuition fees and an annual stipend allowance at Research Council rates, currently £16,062 per year for 2022-23.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment Office