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Award details

Mapping pathogen transport and retention near ciliated surfaces. MRC GW4 BioMed DTP PhD studentship 2023/24 Entry, PhD in Mathematics. Ref: 4514

About the award



The GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP is offering up to 20 funded studentships across a range of biomedical disciplines, with a start date of October 2023

These four-year studentships provide funding for fees and stipend at the rate set by the UK Research Councils, as well as other research training and support costs, and are available to UK, EU and International students.

About the GW4 BioMed2 Doctoral Training Partnership

The partnership brings together the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Cardiff (lead) and Exeter to develop the next generation of biomedical researchers. Students will have access to the combined research strengths, training expertise and resources of the four research-intensive universities, with opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary and 'team science'. The DTP already has over 90 studentships over 6 cohorts in it’s first phase., along with 20 students in it’s second phase.

The 84 projects available for application, are aligned to the following themes;

Infection, Immunity, Antimicrobial Resistance and Repair
Neuroscience and Mental Health
Population Health Sciences

Applications open on 2nd September 2022 and close at 5.00pm on 2nd November 2022.

Studentships will be 4 years full time or up to 8 years part-time.

Project Information

Supervisory Team

Dr Kirsty Wan, Livining Systems Institute, Exeter.

Dr Rachel Bennett, Department of Mathematics, Bristol.

Dr Elizabeth Williams, Department of Bioscicences, Exeter.

Location: Streatham Campus, Exeter.


Cilia fulfil numerous physiological functions. From protists to mammals, cilia have highly conserved structure and function. In humans, motile cilia beating in our airways are a critical first line of defence against bacterial, fungal and viral infections. This interdisciplinary PhD will provide the first comprehensive biophysical study of how the rich dynamics and topology of different ciliated surfaces conspire to control
the fate of foreign particles/pathogens.


BACKGROUND – The current global pandemic highlights the enormous threat posed by respiratory infections. The orderly beating of motile cilia in the upper respiratory tract is essential to prevent severe disease –by filtering and stopping pathogens from gaining entry into host epithelia. Impaired ciliary function greatly increases our susceptibility to these infections. Exactly how inhaled particles first make contact and then interact with ciliated surfaces is unclear and deserves in-depth and systematic study. Recently, non-human models have proven indispensable for studying ciliary structure and dynamics, due to the highly conserved nature of these organelles as well as shared physics (Wan & Jekely, On the Unity & Diversity of Cilia, Phil Trans Roy Soc B, 2020).

AIMS – This truly interdisciplinary project will elucidate the basic fluid physical processes that underlie particle deposition and penetration into a ciliated epithelium. We will use a set of single-celled eukaryotes and ciliated marine invertebrate larvae as novel experimental models for natural ciliated surfaces. These small, non- mammalian systems are much easier to handle, culture, and are more amenable to targeted experimentation and manipulation.

PLAN – The student will: 1) Establish a live-cell, high-speed imaging pipeline for visualizing and recording the dynamics of ciliary arrays in protists (ciliates and flagellates), concurrently with deposited tracer particles of different aspect ratios and sizes; 2) From these large datasets, analyse and mine single-particle trajectories and timeseries to estimate retention probabilities and decouple effects of ciliary activity, frequency, coordination, and interciliary spacing. These particle-flow interaction assays will be repeated for both passive and active particles (to mimic situations where both host and pathogen are motile); 3) Develop data- driven mathematical models of ciliary arrays to understand and predict the effect of different cilia coordination patterns and stress profiles on the trajectories of nearby particles, using novel boundary element methods for simulation with physical ingredients such as elasticity (with supervisor Bennett); 4) Extending these wet- and dry-lab approaches to invertebrate animal larvae exhibiting more complex arrangements and topologies of cilia (e.g. bands, rings, spirals) (with supervisor Williams).  This is a highly feasible project with many innovative elements. All of the key approaches required for the successful realisation of the project including lab techniques, flow measurement approaches, mathematical/computational models, and detailed biological knowledge of the study organisms, are already well-established in the host lab and collectively in those of the supervisory team.

TRAINING: The student will be based at the University of Exeter’s world-leading Living Systems Institute where they will join a rapidly growing and vibrant student community, and have access to state-of-the-art resources, equipment (brightfield, confocal, superresolution microscopes), and excellent training facilities. They will spend time at another top GW4 institution through routine meetings and learn key modelling skills through interactions with Dr Bennett (Bristol). Meanwhile Dr Williams (Exeter Biosciences) will provide key, complementary expertise through a more biologically oriented perspective. The student will also engage with cross-disciplinary training and public outreach activities throughout their PhD. This unique and ambitious project will transform our understanding of how the dynamic fluid physical landscape around ciliated surfaces impact their ability to retain or reject foreign pathogens, with many potential downstream consequences for further exploration in clinical settings. Achieving a thorough understanding of these interactions will also inform the design of next-generation antimicrobial surface treatments using artificial cilia.


This studentship is funded through GW4BioMed2 MRC Doctoral Training Partnership. It consists of UK tuition fees, as well as a Doctoral Stipend matching UK Research Council National Minimum (£17,688 p.a. for 2022/23, updated each year), a Research & Training Support Grant (RTSG) valued between £2-5k per year and a £300 annual travel and conference grant based on a 4 year, full-time studentship.

Part-time study is also available and these funding arrangements will be adjusted pro-rata for part-time studentships. Throughout the duration of the studentship, there will be opportunities to apply to the Flexible Funding Supplement for additional support to engage in high-cost training opportunities.


The GW4 BioMed2 MRC DTP studentships are available to UK and International applicants. Following Brexit, the UKRI now classifies EU students as international. The GW4 partners have all agreed to cover the difference in costs between home and international tuition fees. This means that international candidates will not be expected to cover this cost and will be fully funded, but need to be aware that they will be required to cover the cost of their student visa, healthcare surcharge and other costs of moving to the UK to do a PhD.

All studentships will be competitively awarded and there is a limit to the number of International students that we can accept into our programme (up to 30% cap across our partners per annum).

Data Protection

If you are applying for a place on a collaborative programme of doctoral training provided by Cardiff University and other universities, research organisations and/or partners please be aware that your personal data will be used and disclosed for the purposes set out below.

Your personal data will always be processed in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulations of 2018. Cardiff University (“University”) will remain a data controller for the personal data it holds, and other universities, research organisations and/or partners (“HEIs”) may also become data controllers for the relevant personal data they receive as a result of their participation in the collaborative programme of doctoral training (“Programme”).

For further information regarding data protection for the Application Process and if you become a student on one of the Programmes please click here.

Further Information

For an overview of the MRC GW4 BioMed programme please see the website

Entry requirements

Academic Requirements

Applicants for a studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a UK degree, or the equivalent qualification gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of medical sciences, computing, mathematics or the physical sciences. Please check the entry requirements of the home institution for each project of interest before completing an application. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.

English Language Requirements

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements of the university that will host your PhD by the start of the programme. This will be at least 6.5 in IELTS or an acceptable equivalent. Please refer to the relevant university for further information. Please refer to the English Language requirements web page for further information.

How to apply

Applications open 2nd September and close at 17:00 on 2nd November 2022

To begin a GW4 BioMed MRC DTP studentship, applicants must secure an offer of funding from the DTP. 

Stage 1: Applying to the DTP for and Offer of Funding

1. Select your projects from the project descriptions available on this website. You may select up to two projects in your application.  If you are applying for the ICASE project you must choose this as your first choice project and is only open to UK citizens as indicated on the website.
2. Submit your application using this online form before 5 pm on Wednesday, 2nd November  2022.
3. Student shortlisting is conducted in a blind review of studentship applications by theme-specific panels. Up to 60 top candidates who emerge from this deliberation will be invited to interview.
4. Informal, virtual meetings will be arranged by the successfully shortlisted candidates with the lead supervisors of each project to which they have applied before the formal interview.
5. Formal interviews will occur virtually by theme-specific panels including representatives from each GW4 institution on 25-26 of January 2023.
6. Student selection for up to 20 funded studentships occurs after the formal interviews. Projects are allocated based on the rank of the successful candidates, therefore, it is not always possible to offer an applicant their first-choice project.
7. A clearing period will follow until approximately mid-March until all places have been offered and accepted. For this reason, it is not possible to provide immediate interview results to shortlisted applicants.

Stage 2: Applying to the lead institution for an Offer of Study

Once you have been offered a studentship with the GW4 BioMed MRC DTP, you will need to apply for an Offer of a Place at the home institution of your lead supervisor. Please note that each institution has different application processes.

Applicants for projects based at the University of Exeter should apply to the DTP first to secure an offer of funding. Once an offer of funding is issued by the DTP, you will receive more information on submitting a formal application to the relevant institution, guided by the DTP and local admin contacts.

Selection Criteria

Your online application forms will be evaluated against the following criteria:

Proven academic quality: normally evidenced by an excellent performance to first degree and/or Master’s level but may also be demonstrated by a record of relevant professional practice.

Research potential: evidenced through their supporting statement and supported by performance in research projects at first degree and/or Master’s level, or another form of dedicated preparation for research.

Personal motivation & commitment: evidenced through their supporting statement, by their enthusiasm for the project area and how they see it relating to their career goals.

Non-biomedical disciplines: In line with supporting interdisciplinary and quantitative skills, special consideration will be given by the interview panels to non-biomedical applicants. Such candidates should not feel the selection criteria are biased towards biomedical applicants as their unique skills will be taken into account.

Candidates selected to interview will be evaluated against the following criteria:

Critical thinking assessed via discussion of a student-selected piece of data

Fit with the project: The interview panel will evaluate the candidate’s aptitude and understanding of the key issues in the project, supported by feedback from informal meetings with the potential lead supervisor.

Personal commitment & motivation


If you have any queries about the GW4 BioMed MRC DTP or about applying for an Offer of Funding, you can get in touch with the DTP Team by emailing

If you have any questions about applying for an Offer to Study, you can get in touch with the administrative team at your home institution:



Application deadline:2nd November 2022
Value:Stipend matching UK Research Council National Minimum (£17,688 p.a. for 2022/23, updated each year) plus UK/Home tuition fees
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions Office