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Award details

Brillouin microscopy to understand the behaviour of human hair - PhD-funded Studentship in Physics Ref: 4063

About the award


Lead supervisor

Prof Francesca Palombo, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Nick Stone, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Exeter

Dr Paul Pudney, Unilever

This fully funded PhD studentship offers UK tuition fees, and an annual maintenance allowance rate of £21,739. This includes the current Research Council maintenance allowance of £15,739 per year and an extra stipend from Unilever of £6,000 per year. The student will also have access to an allowance of up to £5,500 for external training and participation in conferences and £4,500 for placement expenses.

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Devon

Research Project Summary

We plan to develop the next generation optical elastography technique based on Brillouin scattering in combination with Raman spectroscopy. Your project would focus on developing novel instrumentation able to probe human hair, read-out spectral response in a broad spectral range and retrieve viscoelastic and chemical information, thus providing a new all-optical testing of biological samples.

Project Description

We seek a talented physical scientist / engineer (PhD student) to join our multidisciplinary team in Biospectroscopy / Biophysics in Exeter. You will study for a PhD in the development of an emerging biophotonic technology called Brillouin elastography. We are leaders in this field and the successful candidate would be part of developing a platform technology that combines Brillouin probing with Raman signal detection and advanced data analysis. The successful applicant would participate in a multi-disciplinary industrial partnership programme, joining a team of leading scientists from the University of Exeter, University of Perugia (Italy) and Unilever working to develop biotechnology and biological science solutions to address critical needs in spectroscopic imaging with a small number of photons.

Our previous study funded by an EPSRC IAA Impact and Knowledge Exchange Award has demonstrated the first application of Brillouin microscopy to human hair and has obtained maps of hair cross-sections showing a difference in Brillouin signal between cortex and cuticle, as it is expected for hair.
Your project aims to take that study further and understand the role of humidity as well as the effect of chemical treatment and UV exposure on hair microstructure to gain an insight into hair viscoelasticity on a micrometre scale, so with unprecedented spatial resolution.

The PhD project will be based at the University of Exeter, with experimental work being undertaken within Physics on the Streatham Campus, and with placements at Unilever where complementary techniques are applied. Supervision will be provided by Prof Francesca Palombo, Associate Professor of Biomedical Spectroscopy, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Exeter; Prof Nick Stone, Professor of Biomedical Imaging and Biosensing, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Exeter; Dr Paul D A Pudney, Science Leader Vibrational Spectroscopy, Unilever.


1) Characterise the Brillouin signals and maps of hair microstructures in relation to the effect of humidity, chemical damage and UV exposure;
2) understand fibre orientation in curly and frizzy hair and whether this impacts the mechanical anisotropy of the hair and to what extent (axial vs radial modulus);
3) investigate coloured hair and ethnicity in terms of mechanical properties across the hair structure using high contrast Brillouin spectroscopy;
4) elucidate the relationship between hair micromechanics, structure, and chemical properties by correlative Brillouin-Raman measurements;
5) understand hair to a new level and how personal care products affect them, thus underpinning the innovation of development of potential new products.

The PhD student will benefit from working in a multidisciplinary environment within Biomedical Physics and the LSI. This research would suit a candidate with a Physics, Natural Sciences, or Optical Engineering degree, ideally with previous experience developing analytical tools such as microscopy and spectroscopy techniques. This fully funded PhD studentship is available from the 2020/21 academic year for 4 years.

Residency Entry Requirements

1) UK/EU standard Research Council criteria.

This studentship is available to candidates resident in the UK/EU.

To meet the residency entry requirements for full funding (tuition fees and a maintenance allowance) you must have:
• Lived in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship
• No restrictions on how long you are able to stay in the UK
• If you are not a UK or EU national, the purpose of your residence in the UK must not be wholly or mainly for full-time education.

If you have not resided in the UK for at least 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, you are not eligible for a maintenance allowance so you would need an alternative source of funding for living costs.
To be eligible for fees only funding you must be:
• Ordinarily resident in a member state of the EU

2) No international eligibility
Candidates who are classed as international for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for this studentship.

Entry requirements

You should have or expect to achieve at least a 2:1 Honours degree, or equivalent, in Physics or related subjects. Experience in optics, spectroscopy, microscopy and biomedical applications is desirable.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements and provide proof of proficiency. Click here for more information and a list of acceptable alternative tests.

How to apply

To apply, complete the online form. You will be asked to submit some personal details and upload a full CV, covering letter, details of two academic referees, and a copy of your transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained. This should be an interim transcript if you are still studying.

Your covering letter should outline your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake this project.

Applications will close by midnight on 28th May 2021, with interviews taking place in June 2021. 

Please contact STEMM PGR Admissions Team for general information about this studentship and the application process. For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Prof Francesca Palombo (

Please quote reference 4063 on your application and in any correspondence about this studentship.


Application deadline:28th May 2021
Value:UK tuition fees, and an annual maintenance allowance rate of £21,739
Duration of award:per year
Contact: STEMM PGR Admissions