PhD studentship – Synthetic Biology to Produce Novel Materials: Meta-compliance and energy dissipation in cactus-based solids


Professor Fabrizio Scarpa

The University of Bristol and the Bristol Synthetic Biology Research Centre (BrisSynBio) are excited to offer a PhD studentship funded by the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL). The successful candidate will join a new SynBio/Materials Science cohort (led by Dr. Adam Perriman, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine) and conduct interdisciplinary research across the Schools of Engineering and Biological Sciences. The cohort will be a member of the new £13.5M Bristol Synthetic Biology Research Centre (BrisSynBio), and receive bespoke training through accessing relevant modules offered by the Oxford/Bristol/Warwick EPSRC and BBSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Synthetic Biology (SynBio CDT), the Advanced Composites Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS) and the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials (BCFN). This project will interest material scientists/engineering graduates/postgraduates interested in using synthetic biology to generate novel functional materials.

Supervisor: Prof. Fabrizio Scarpa (ACCIS, Faculty of Engineering)

Co-supervisor: Prof. Alistair Hetherington (Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science) 

Cactus fibres extracted from Opuntia ficus-indica plants show significantly unusual deformation mechanisms, and remarkably large damping capacity in cactus-reinforced composites under cyclic flexural loading. We aim to understand and make use of these unusual properties to produce a new synthetic paradigm of structural reinforcement and obtain a new class of composite materials with unusual energy dissipation and deformation properties. The project will develop an understanding of the micromechanical mechanisms responsible for the unusual (meta) axial-bending compliance existing at the different scales of these cactus fibres. The cactus fibres will be used as novel synthetic biology blocks to produce reinforcements with stabilised mechanical performance through templating techniques based on metal nanoparticle depositions. These novel bio-reinforcements will be used to produce composite polymeric samples (PU or PE) to be characterised under static, impact and vibration tests in a Design of Experiment framework. The findings of the models and the experiments will provide a set of design guidelines on how to apply these innovative bio-synthetic reinforcements in energy absorbing and impact applications.

Candidate requirements: Students with at least an upper second class degree in a relevant discipline (e.g., Materials Science, Engineering, Nanoscience, Chemistry, etc) are invited to apply. Research experience or Master’s degree in a related area is advantageous.

Funding: The PhD scholarship covers four years and includes a studentship bursary, PhD registration fees at UK/EU student rate, research expenses, travel and transferable-skills training. International students would need to first secure alternative sources of funding to cover the difference between home and overseas fees for 4 years.

How to apply: Applications are invited immediately for this studentship starting on 1st October 2015. Please make an online application for this scheme at Although this project is based in the Faculty of Engineering, the academic lead, Dr Adam Perriman, School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, is handling the applications. Please therefore select  ‘Cellular and Molecular Medicine PhD’ on the ‘Programme Choice’ page and enter studentship details, “Synthetic Biology to Produce Novel Materials”, in the ‘Funding and Research Details’ sections of the form.

For informal, academic enquiries about the project please contact: Professor Fabrizio Scarpa:


Interviews will be held in late August/early September 2015

Contacts (for all general enquiries)

Deadline for applications: Wednesday 19th August 2015


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