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Award details

Spin biology under optimal quantum control, Physics – PhD (Funded) Ref: 4151

About the award


Academic supervisor 

Dr Daniel Kattnig, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

The University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2021 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15, 609  plus an enhanced stipend and research allowance for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.  The student would be based in the Living Systems Institute in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the Streatham Campus in Exeter.

Project Description

Evidence from in vitro and physiological experiments suggest that certain biological processes are inherently sensitive to weak magnetic fields. The canonical example is the visual avian compass. Recent findings, however, suggest that the phenomenon is of broad relevance to biology.

Remarkably, both physiological magnetosensitivity and animal magnetoreception are thought to emerge from dynamics on the quantum scale. Specifically, the quantum coherent dynamics of electron and nuclear spin in so-called radicals – unstable reaction intermediates with an odd number of electrons – render their recombination reactions sensitive to both static and oscillatory magnetic fields (Radical Pair Mechanism and successors). While a principal understanding of these processes has been established through theoretical studies and experiments, many question remain, including e.g. the identity of the active radical pair.

This project, sponsored by the Department of the Navy, Office of Naval Research under ONR award number N62909-21-1-2018 aims to utilize the theory of open quantum systems and quantum optimal control to manipulate, commandeer and drive radical reactions of physiological relevance. In particular, you will develop the theoretical tools needed to furnish external electromagnetic stimulation protocols that enable experimenters (in the form of project partner Prof. Aiello at UCLA) to distinguish competing hypotheses, and deliberately influence and eventually control spin in biological reaction processes.

This award provides annual funding to cover tuition fees at the Home or international rate, research costs and a tax-free stipend of at least £15,609 plus an enhanced stipend and research allowance per year.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply.   

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years of full-time study to commence in September 2021.

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 an appropriate area of science or technology (physics, physical chemistry, applied mathematics, etc.).  Required skills and traits: Interest in quantum mechanics and biophysics; an affinity to theoretical and computational work; and familiarity with numerical programming, ideally in the HPC context.

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

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 
• 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)
• Two references from referees familiar with your academic work. If your referees prefer, they can email the reference direct to quoting the studentship reference number.
• 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 7th July 2021.  Interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham Campus, with the dates are to be confirmed.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone 0300 555 60 60 (UK callers) +44 (0) 1392 723044 (EU/International callers)   Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:7th July 2021
Value:UK/International Tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £15, 609 plus an enhanced stipend and research allowance285 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Admissions