What is SPaRK?

SPaRK is a Horizon2020 funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie doctoral training programme that supports interdisciplinary PhD students at Queen’s University Belfast. PhD students funded within Marie Skłodowska-Curie programmes have the title of Early Stage Researcher (ESR).

At its core, the SPaRK Programme is driven by the need to develop future leaders whose skills combine disciplinary excellence with a capacity for interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international (3i) working that creates genuinely disruptive thinkers. These are the thinkers who will have the edge in a highly competitive, global job market.

Why? Because they have not only disciplinary expertise but also the intellectual flexibility required to respond to a constantly changing professional environment and broader socio-economic landscape. In essence, SPaRK combines ground-breaking research projects with higher level skills development at cohort level which seeks to produce creative thinkers and problem-solvers.

SPaRK researchers are based in academic Schools or research institutes across all three of Queen’s Faculties: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS); Engineering and Physical Sciences (EPS); and Medicine, Health and Life Sciences (MHLS). In addition, they are trained as a cohort via the Graduate School to be Thinkers, Leaders, Innovators and Communicators who are Future-Ready.  The Graduate School provides world-class facilities as well as an intellectual hub for 3i training, debate and dialogue.







Risk managers
Insight driven


Academic writers
Publically engaged
Socially networked
Professional presenters


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What does it mean to be a 3i researcher?

Unlike other doctoral training programmes, SPaRK recognises that game-changing intersectoral, international and interdisciplinary collaboration does not happen simply by making opportunities for mobility available. Rather, the SPaRK programme is designed to offer a dynamic and innovative model of professional and scientific development at doctoral level that proactively trains researchers in the skills and competences necessary to maximise the potential of these 3i partnerships.

The SPaRK project will fund PhD places which focus on leadership, innovation, creativity, and mentoring by sectoral leaders at their core. Every SPaRK funded PhD project will also be interdisciplinary, will involve training and development programmes, and will involve meaningful engagement with a non-HEI partner.

Intersectoral dimension

  • Mentoring of doctoral candidates by researchers and/or experts from the non-academic sector; all researchers will have a third supervisor from an external partner

  • Inviting researchers working in industry or other organisations from the non-academic sector to deliver workshops on leadership, innovation, creative thinking, entrepreneurship, exploitation of research results, ethics, patenting etc

  • Exposing researchers to various socio-economic actors gathered in the Graduate School, which will act as an intersectoral hub for the SPaRK cohorts

  • Offering placement opportunities fo to enable researchers to develop their projects through contact with/immersion in non-academic partner organisations

Interdisciplinary dimension

  • Each ESR will have a co-supervisor from a different discipline

  • ESRs from different disciplines will be benefit from high level cohort training in which skills development programmes are delivered across disciplines

  • Opportunities for laboratory rotations and visits

  • Training research leaders in all areas of knowledge, from physical sciences to humanities, from social sciences to life sciences

International dimension

  • Candidates will be selected with the support of international experts as evaluators

  • Candidates will be internationally mobile in line with the mobility requirement

  • Promoting engagement with the international community at Queen’s University Belfast

  • Opportunities to take courses abroad to acquire specific skills

  • Developing partnerships and collaborations with research institutes, companies and other relevant socio-economic actors in different countries

  • Supporting ESRs’ participation in international conferences and events

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Projects for January 2018 Entry

SPaRK is conceived as a global, multidisciplinary project; as such, it offers PhD research positions in all three of the Faculties in Queen’s University Belfast.

The SPaRK project will recruit two cohorts of ESRs. The deadline for applications for a 2017-18 SPaRK ESR position is Friday 11 August 2017.

Details of the projects available for 2017-18 are detailed  in the dropdown menu below. Please click on the link for further details of each project. If you have any further questions, please contact the lead supervisor. All candidates are encouraged to make contact with their potential supervisor in advance of submitting an application. 

Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Primary Supervisor

Lead School


Key Words

Dr Matthias Blum Management Avoiding Starvation: how beneficial are the effects of speculation on futures trading on commodity markets?  history and economics, economic history, grain prices, food security
Dr Chris Colvin Management Patentless invention: The economic effects of the abolition and re-introduction of patents in the Netherlands law and economics, economic history, patent law, innovation and incentives
Dr Gavin Davidson Social Sciences, Education and Social Work An examination of the Champions Model in promoting Health and Social Care Professionals' inter-agency practice in the context of providing services for families when parents have mental illness community mental health services, family focused practice, inter professional practice, parents, children, families
Prof. Karola Dillenburger Social Sciences, Education and Social Work Utilising Applied Behaviour Analysis for Inclusive Education applied behaviour analysis, autism, developmental and other disabilities
Dr Sarah Eardley-Weaver Arts, English and Languages Museums without Walls: Access for All accessibility, translation, technologies, socio-cultural inclusion, audio description, subtitles for deaf and hard-of-hearing
Prof Beverley Milton-Edwards History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy Debordering and Rebordering in Cyberspace: Technological and political aspects; counter-terrorist management of Islamist extremist cyberspace threats debordering, security, ISIS, extremism, cyber-space
Dr Claire Moran Arts, English and Languages Art Nouveau and the Aesthetic of the Interior in Belgian Art and Literature (1890-1920) art nouveau, design, art, literature
Dr Maria Pentaraki Social Sciences, Education and Social Work Teenage Relationship Abuse, Education and Help Seeking Behaviours teenage relationship abuse, education, help seeking behaviours
Dr Emma Reisz History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy Chinese Custom Houses and Sino-Western Encounter in the Unequal Treaty Era (1854-1949) china, sino-western, customs, custom houses, globalization, taxation, architecture, digital humanities, photography, online exhibition
Prof. Margaret Topping Arts, English and Languages Festivalisation, Culture and Conflict urban cultural festivals, post-conflict/post-colonial societies, tourism, community activism

Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences

Primary Supervisor

Lead School


Key Words

Prof Jose Bengoechea Medicine Subversion of pathogen recognition receptors (PRRs) spactial-temporal localization by microbila proteins to moderate innate immune signalling cascades receptors sensing infections, bacterial effector proteins
Prof Jaimie Dick Biological Sciences Invasive Species in an Artifical World ecology, engineering, invasive species, artificial structures, functional responses, numerical modelling
Prof Ryan Donnelly Pharmacy Microneedle-mediated drug delivery for enhanced treatment of basal cell carcinoma microneedles, nanoparticles, photothermal therapy, magneto-thermal therapy
Dr Brian Green Institute for Global Food Security/ Biological Sciences Assessing adherence to the Mediterranean diet; new tools, biomarkers and associations with healthy ageing diet, cognition, healthy ageing, biomarker assessment, dietary assessment
Prof Mark Lawler Medicine Measuring the Value of Innovation in personalised cancer medicine personalised and precision medicine, innovation, health economics, health policy
Dr Karen Galway Nursing & Midwifery Creative media as a vehicle for reduction of suicide risk in men creative media, suicide prevention, mental health promotion, resilience
Dr Noleen McCorry Medicine  Transforming Care for People with Diabetes health services research, improvement and implementation science, chronic disease
Prof Colin McCoy Pharmacy Monitoring drug levels through responsive hydrogel sensors theraupeutic monitoring, sensing, drugs, monitoring, polymers, light, selectivity
Dr Amy Jayne McKnight Medicine Evaluating the biopsychosocial impact of whole genome sequencing (WGS) for improved diagnosis of disease genomic, methylation, whole genome sequencing, epigenetic, SNP, microRNA, association
Dr Andriana Margariti Medicine Investigation of the unique role of non-coding RNAs during endothelial cells differentiation from induced-pluripotent stem cells to treat endothelial cell dysfunction in diabetic complications and cardiovascular disease
epigenetics, regenerative medicine, cell therapy, biomaterials
Dr Joanne Reid Nursing & Midwifery Implementing and sustaining an evidence base for the assessment and management of cancer pain, in palliative domiciliary patients cancer, pain, interdiscplinary, international
Prof Chris Scott Pharmacy Development of advances protease inhibitor nanoformulations for human disease cathepsin, nanomedicine, inhibitor
Dr Mark Tully Medicine Changing sedentary behaviour in older adults sedentary behaviour, ageing, behavioural economics
Prof Jayne Woodside Medicine Mediterranean Diet adherence and its association with cognitive health diet, cognition, healthy ageing, biomarker assessment, dietary assessment

Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences

Primary Supervisor

Lead School


Key Words

Dr Eileen Murphy Natural and Built Environment Disease in the Early Cretaceous-A Comparative Study of Iguanodon and Hadrosaur Paleopathology palaeopathology, palaeontology, dinosaurs, bernissart
Prof Marco Borghesi Maths & Physics Biological effects of laser-accelerated ion bursts particle acceleration, later-matter interaction, radiobiology, cancer therapy
Dr Siobhan Cox Natural and Built Environment Investigation of factors affecting the bioavailability of contaminants in rural and urban soils to humans soil contamination, bioavailability, bioaccessibility, risk assessment
Dr Joost C Dessing Psychology Deciphering free kicks in football football, perception-action, expertise, hand-eye coordination, interception, online control, virtual reality, training
Dr Aoife Foley Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering Improved vertical wind profile estimations to support offshore wind farm maintenance and operations activities wind forecasting, wind power, computational fluid dynamics
Dr Meilan Huang Chemistry & Chemical Engineering Rational engineering lipases for industrial applications enzyme engineering, green chemistry
Prof Séan McLoone Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Semi-supervised learning for soft sensors in advanced manufacturing machine learning, soft computing semi-supervised learning, manufacturing informatics
Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis Chemistry & Chemical Engineering Novel strategies and materials for the recovery of high-value volatile fatty acids (VFAs) from organic residues renewable resources, sustainable development, volatile fatty acids, biomass utilisation, fermentation
Prof Dimitrios Nikolopolous Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Care Review data analytics, high-performance computing, ICU medicine, NHS, patient care, human physiology
Dr Ulrich Ofterdinger Natural and Built Environment

Sustainability of Shale Gas Development-Refining the Risk Assessment Process to better understand the Net Environmental Impacts on Groundwater Resources

energy and environment, shale gas, risk assessment, geochemistry, numerical modelling
Prof Mauro Paternostro Maths & Physics Quantum machine learning in simulated linear-optics scenarios quantum technologies, quantum computer science, experimental linear optics, quantum machine learning
Dr Karen Rafferty Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Surgical Instrument Force Sensing and Feedback with Application to Retinal Surgery smart surgical instruments, assisted surgery, multi sensory feedback
Dr Helen Roe Natural and Built Environment The impacts of permafrost degradation on peatland biota and transport infrastructure in the central northwest territories, Canada permafrost degradation, climate warming impacts, boreal ecosystems, biodiversity change, transport infrastructure
Dr Elton Santos Maths & Physics Van der Waal's Heterostructures Based on Two-Dimensional Materials; Towards Electronics and Optoelectronics Applications van der Waals forces, 2D-materials, light-driven charge transfer, optical transistors, chemical sensors, photovoltaic processes, clean energy, low power consumption, high efficiency, conformal displays and screens, modeling, photo-luminescence experiments, photochemistry, graphene
Dr Laura Taylor Psychology Pioneering Parents of Shared Education Programme children and youth, intergroup conflict, shared education, family processes, prosocial behaviours
Dr Tchavdar Todorov Maths & Physics Interplay between electron-electron and electron-phonon interactions in nanostructures atomistic theory and simulation; electron-electron and electron-phonon dynamics; nanoscience

Training and development programmes

Eearly Stage Researchers (ESRs) will enrol on a 3 year programme with clear training inputs, research and transferable skills outputs as follows:

Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) will enrol on a 3 year programme with clear training inputs, research and transferable skills outputs. To ensure the best possible outcomes for participants in the programme, all SPaRK researchers will benefit from a tailored individual skills assessment and a programme of skills development activity that will constantly evolve in relation to individual and cohort needs.

All ESRs will complete a needs analysis based on the Kouzes and Posner Leadership Challenge and on key personality type evaluations, such as the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator. This will provide the basis for a bespoke skills assessment and development programme in addition to the cohort-based opportunities for training Thinkers, Leaders, Innovators and Communicators who are Future-Ready, the five core Graduate School pillars, which all SPaRK ESRs will enjoy.

Training and skills development is fostered through a range of contexts:

1: Researcher Training Programme

ESRs will be trained in the core skills for successful research within their discipline through formal training events and through the ongoing training provided by their supervisors and (where relevant) laboratory teams.

2: SPaRK Competence-Based Development Programme

The competence framework to support the programme aligns with the skills and capabilities within the Researcher Development Framework, which is a tool used within Higher Education Institutions in the UK, to support the personal, professional and career development of researchers. This is interpreted via the five Graduate School pillars.

3: Intersectoral Working

QUB has a strong track record of offering collaborative research project opportunities, and all of our established Doctoral Training Partnerships work with private, public and voluntary sector partners to provide placement opportunities for students. SPaRK ESRs will be given the opportunity to work closely with non-HEI partners through placements/secondments for defined periods of time, as determined by the PhD project description.

ESRs will also be given the opportunity to engage with representatives from the non-academic sector through attendance at national and international conferences and workshops and through attendance at networking events hosted by the Graduate School.

4: International Experience and Collaboration

All SPaRK ESRs will be given the opportunity to attend at least one international conference or workshop. This will provide them with the opportunity to present their research findings and listen to and network with colleagues working in their field of study. Some of the researchers will also have an opportunity to spend a period of time working with leading research groups in international Higher Education Institutes and research organisations.

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Eligibility Criteria

Early Stage Researchers must be, at the time of recruitment, in the first four years (full-time equivalent) of their research careers and must not yet have been awarded a doctoral degree. This is measured from the date when they obtained the degree that would formally entitle them to embark on a doctorate.

Researchers can be of any nationality. However, they must comply with the mobility rule as stated in the Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions work programme: they ‘shall not have resided or carried out their main activity (work, studies, etc) in the country of their host organisation for more than 12 months in the 3 years immediately prior to the reference date. Compulsory national service and/or short stays such as holidays are not taken into account’.

close up of a hand holding a pen and writing notes on a page

The minimum requirement for eligibility for consideration will be equivalent of a UK 2.1 Hons degree/equivalent OR Masters completion. The level of prior qualification required will be entirely consistent with disciplinary norms to ensure there is equal treatment of candidates within cognate disciplinary areas. Normally, admission to a doctoral programme in the Humanities will require completion of a Masters degree, whereas candidates for programmes in Physical and Life Sciences may be eligible for entry on completion of an undergraduate degree. Please contact the lead supervisor for further information on requirements.

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Financial information

SPaRK ESRs will be employees of Queen’s University Belfast while completing their doctoral study and thus enjoy a wide range of opportunities and benefits.

For further information on Queen’s commitment to excellence as an employer, please go to:

The SPaRK programme offers a generous remuneration package based on a basic per annum salary of £21,917.17 with pension or £25,576.45 without pension.

For further information on the remuneration package, contact Ms Aveen Lavery, EC Research Finance Manager (

Belfast city hall through the trees

Belfast is a vibrant regional capital with a very reasonable cost of living.

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How to apply

The SPaRK project will recruit two cohorts of ESRs.

The closing date for the current applications round is Friday 11 August 2017.

The process for applying for a SPaRK scholarship is as follows:

Step 1

  • Complete all elements of the online application form, noting the following specific advice for the SPaRK programme:

    • Having completed your personal details in the relevant sections, progress to ‘My Applications’
    • Click ‘New Application’ > Postgraduate Research > Continue
    • Under ‘Select Course’, click on the School of your lead supervisor, followed by Subject Area, then Doctor of Philosophy > Continue
    • Under ‘Postgraduate Research Application’, add the title of the project for which you are applying (as listed in the tables of projects available for 2017-18 entry above) in the Title box
    • Add the name of the lead supervisor as listed on the project description
    • Under ‘Additional Information’, please type ‘SParK’ in the text box as well as confirmation that you have discussed your application with one of the project supervisors
    • Use the ‘Upload Document’ function to submit a single file including: a letter outlining your motivation for applying for the programme and relevant experience (max. 2 pages of A4 with min. font size of 11pt) and a provisional research plan (max. 1 page of A4 with min. font size of 11pt). This document should also confirm the applicant's compliance with the mobility rule that is a key criterion for assessing eligibility.
    • Provide details of two referees.
    • Under ‘Funding’, click ‘Yes, I wish to be considered for funding’ > Save and continue
    • Under ‘Applying for Funding’, click on ‘I wish to be considered for any funding administered by Queen’s University Belfast’ (make sure you have typed ‘SPaRK’ within the additional information box – point 6 above)
    • Complete the remaining questions as indicated.

Step 2

  • Submit a 3-minute video in which you set out your suitability for a programme aimed at developing future leaders to the following email address by the deadline of 11 August 2017:
  • Demonstrate your creativity in approaching this part of the application. You might, for example, wish to talk about your leadership experience or a specific example thereof, your motivation for undertaking a programme which seeks to develop leadership skills and capacity, your philosophy of leadership, your vision of what a true leader, whether real or hypothetical, does. The most important criterion is to demonstrate a (self-)reflective response to the concept of leadership.

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For any questions relating to the overarching vision for the SPaRK programme please contact Professor Margaret Topping:

For any practical queries, please contact either Richard Walker or Sinead Cahill:

Professor Margaret Topping

Dean of the Graduate School

Queen’s University Belfast,

University Road,

Belfast, BT7 1NN

Tel: +44 (0) 28 9097 1238

Email Margaret

Richard Walker

Research and Enterprise Directorate

Queen’s University Belfast,

63 University Road,

Belfast, BT7 1NF

Tel: +44 (0) 28 9097 2548

Email Richard

Sinead Cahill

Research and Enterprise Directorate

Queen’s University Belfast,

63 University Road,

Belfast, BT7 1NF

Tel: +44 (0) 28 9097 1010

Email Sinead

For further information about individual projects, please contact the lead supervisor who is listed in the table of projects under Projects for 2017-18 entry. All candidates are advised to make contact with lead supervisors before application.