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PhD Opportunities

Bio-Artificial Vision: Building an Artificial Vision System Using Biological Retinal Ganglion Cell Spike Train

School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science | PHD
Reference Number
Application Deadline
29 February 2024
Start Date
1 October 2024


The retina serves as the primary site for initial image processing within the central nervous system, where light is translated into electrical activity through the intricate patterns of neuronal spikes. Neurons within the retina exhibit specialization in encoding various stimuli, such as color, movement, and light intensity. Among these, Retinal Ganglion Cells (RGCs) represent the final layer of neurons within the retina, and their behavior can be meticulously recorded using a high-density multi-electrode array (HD-MEA). Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs) are a class of artificial neural networks inspired by the biological nervous system. Unlike traditional neural networks, SNNs use discrete "spikes" to convey information, mimicking the action potentials in biological neurons. This event-driven approach offers advantages in energy efficiency, temporal precision, and suitability for tasks involving time-sensitive information processing. SNNs find applications in areas such as event recognition, temporal pattern recognition, and neuromorphic computing, emphasizing their potential for more biologically plausible and efficient artificial intelligence.

This proposal aims to propose a bio-artificial vision where a SNN is trained to process and recognize RGC cell spike trains across diverse stimuli and datasets, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of how the retina encodes light stimuli. Additionally, the insights gained will play a pivotal role in the development of artificial retinas in silico.
Our previous work showed interesting capacity of SNNs to generalize in different application settings and to provide robustness against noise compared to classical ANNs [1,2]

Background and Significance:
Neurons in the retina, particularly RGCs, have been demonstrated to exhibit nuanced responses to distinct visual stimuli. Previous research has provided valuable insights into the encoding of stimuli and modeling of receptive fields, as evidenced by [3]. However, the application of Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs) to model RGC behavior remains an unexplored avenue in our previous work. This proposal seeks to build upon the existing foundation by incorporating SNNs into the modeling framework, thereby advancing our understanding of the complex dynamics of retinal information processing.

The research will focus on the analysis of previously collected datasets, each containing spiking activity from RGCs in response to 300 natural images. These datasets, originally obtained through collaborative efforts involving Tim Gollisch's lab and Ulster's computational modeling expertise in an EU project, form the basis for investigating emergent behavior in RGCs. The proposed research will employ innovative SNNs tailored for modeling RGC responses, aiming to not only elucidate the underlying neural mechanisms but also develop a robust system capable of real-time processing of biological spiking trains through SNNs.

1. Develop novel Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs) tailored for modeling the response patterns of Retinal Ganglion Cells (RGCs) to diverse visual stimuli.
2. Implement and optimize the developed SNNs on hardware platforms to enhance computational efficiency and scalability.
3. Design and implement a system capable of real-time processing of spiking train recordings, enabling on-the-fly analysis and interpretation of RGC responses.

Collaborations and Data Resources:
Our prior collaboration with experts such as Martin McGinnity and Tim Gollisch, as well as the involvement of Ulster in the computational modeling aspect of the EU project, establishes a strong foundation for this research. Furthermore, connections with Jian Liu, who continues to work in this field, offer the potential for access to newer datasets and additional insights.

We also have collaboration with Intel Neuromorphic Research Community, which granted us access to Intel’s Loihi Chip, which is a Neuromorphic Hardware infrastructure.

Expected Outcomes:
The successful completion of this research is anticipated to yield a comprehensive understanding of emergent behavior in RGCs, shedding light on the intricate mechanisms underlying retinal information processing. Additionally, the development of novel SNNs and a real-time processing system will contribute to advancements in the field of artificial retinas, fostering applications in artificial vision and neural prosthetics.

[1] Parsa, M., Khasawneh, K. N., & Alouani, I. (2023). A brain-inspired approach for malware detection using subsemantic hardware features. In GLSVLSI '23: Proceedings of the Great Lakes Symposium on VLSI 2023 (pp. 139–142). (Proceedings of the Great Lakes Symposium on VLSI ). Association for Computing Machinery.

[2] R. El-Allami, A. Marchisio, M. Shafique and I. Alouani, "Securing Deep Spiking Neural Networks against Adversarial Attacks through Inherent Structural Parameters," 2021 Design, Automation & Test in Europe Conference & Exhibition (DATE), Grenoble, France, 2021, pp. 774-779, doi: 10.23919/DATE51398.2021.9473981.

[3] Gault, R., Vance, P., McGinnity, T.M., Coleman, S., Kerr, D. (2021). Computational Approach to Identifying Contrast-Driven Retinal Ganglion Cells. In: Farkaš, I., Masulli, P., Otte, S., Wermter, S. (eds) Artificial Neural Networks and Machine Learning – ICANN 2021. ICANN 2021. Lecture Notes in Computer Science(), vol 12893. Springer, Cham.

Funding Information

To be eligible for consideration for a DfE Studentship (covering tuition fees and maintenance stipend of approx. £18,622 per annum), a candidate must satisfy all the eligibility criteria based on nationality, residency and academic qualifications. The Studentship is open to UK and ROI nationals, and to EU nationals with settled status in the UK, subject to meeting the specific DfE nationality and residency criteria. Full eligibility information can be viewed via:

Please note that any available PhD studentships will be allocated on a competitive basis across a number of projects currently being advertised by the School.

A small number of international awards may be available for allocation across the School. An international award is not guaranteed to be available for this project, and competition across the School for these awards will be highly competitive.

Academic Requirements:
The minimum academic requirement for admission is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI Higher Education provider in a relevant discipline, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University.

Project Summary

Dr Ihsen Alouani

Research Profile

Mode of Study

Full-time: 3 years

Funding Body
Funding TBC
Apply now Register your interest

Computer Science overview

The School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EEECS) aims to enhance the way we use technology in communication, data science, computing systems, cyber security, power electronics, intelligent control, and many related areas.

You’ll be part of a dynamic doctoral research environment and will study alongside students from over 40 countries world-wide.

We supervise students undertaking research in key areas of computer science, including:

- Artificial Intelligence
- Cybersecurity
- Computing Systems
- Power Electronics
- Robotics
- Sensor-based Systems
- Wireless Communications

As part of a lively community of over 100 full-time and part-time research students you’ll have the opportunity to develop your research potential in a vibrant research community that prioritises the cross-fertilisation of ideas and innovation in the advancement of knowledge.

Within the School we have a number of specialist research centres including a Global Research Institute, the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) specialising in Cyber Security, Wireless Innovation and Data Science and Scalable Computing.

Many PhD studentships attract scholarships and top-up supplements. PhD programmes provide our students with the opportunity to acquire an extensive training in research techniques.

Computer Science Highlights
Professional Accreditations
  • ECIT brings together, in one building, internationally recognised research groups specialising in key areas of advanced digital and communications technology.
Industry Links
  • Queen’s researchers have strong links with the local industry, which boasts a rich mix of local startups and multi-nationals. Belfast is the second fastest growing region in the UK in terms of Knowledge Economy activity (Northern Ireland Economy Report, 2018).
  • CSIT brings together research specialists in complementary fields such as data security, network security systems, wireless-enabled security systems, intelligent surveillance systems; and serves as the national point of reference for knowledge transfer in these areas.
World Class Facilities
  • The state-of-the-art £14m Computer Science Building and the Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology offer bespoke research environments.

    The Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT), with state-of-the-art technology, offers a bespoke research environment.
Internationally Renowned Experts
  • You will be working under the supervision of leading international academic experts.
Key Facts

Research students are encouraged to play a full and active role in relation to the wide range of research activities undertaken within the School and there are many resources available including:

  • A wide range of personal development and specialist training courses offered through the Personal Development Programme
  • Access to the Queen's University Postgraduate Researcher Development Programme
  • Office accommodation with access to computing facilities and support to attend conferences for full-time PhD students

Course content

Research Information

Associated Research
Research within the School is organised into research themes combining strengths by working together on major projects, in many cases in collaboration with key technology companies.
ECIT brings together internationally recognised research groups specialising in key areas of advanced digital and communications technology.

PhD Opportunities
PhD Opportunities are available in a wide range of computer science subjects, aligned to the specific expertise of our PhD supervisors.

Research Impact
Queen’s is a leader in commercial impact and one of the five highest performing universities in the UK for intellectual property commercialisation. We have created over 80 spin-out companies. Three of these -
Kainos, Andor Technology and Fusion Antibodies - have been publicly listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Research Projects
Queen’s has strong collaborative links with industry in Northern Ireland, and internationally. It has a strong funding track record with EPSRC and the EC H2020 programme.

Research Success
The research profile produced by the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) graded 80 per cent of our research activity as 'world-leading' or 'internationally excellent', confirming the School's reputation as an internationally-leading department.

Career Prospects

For further information on career opportunities at PhD level please contact the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences Student Recruitment Team on Our advisors - in consultation with the School - will be happy to provide further information on your research area, possible career prospects and your research application.

People teaching you

Course structure
There is no specific course content as such. You are expected to take research training modules that are supported by the School which focus on quantitative and qualitative research methods. You are also expected to carry out your research under the guidance of your supervisor.

Over the course of study you can attend postgraduate skills training organised by the Graduate School.

You will normally register, in the first instance, as an ‘undifferentiated PhD student’ which means that you have satisfied staff that you are capable of undertaking a research degree. The decision as to whether you should undertake a PhD is delayed until you have completed ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation takes place about 8-9 months after registration for full time students and about 16-18 months for part time students: You are normally asked to submit work to a panel of up two academics and this is followed up with a formal meeting with the ‘Differentiation Panel’. The Panel then make a judgement about your capacity to continue with your study. Sometimes students are advised to revise their research objectives or to consider submitting their work for an MPhil qualification rather than a doctoral qualification.

To complete with a doctoral qualification you will be required to submit a thesis of approx 80,000 words and you will be required to attend a viva voce [oral examination] with an external and internal examiner to defend your thesis.

A PhD programme runs for 3-4 years full-time or 6-8 years part-time. Students can apply for a writing up year should it be required.

The PhD is open to both full and part time candidates and is often a useful preparation for a career within academia or consultancy.

Full time students are often attracted to research degree programmes because they offer an opportunity to pursue in some depth an area of academic interest.

The part time research degree is an exciting option for professionals already working in the education field who are seeking to extend their knowledge on an issue of professional interest. Often part time candidates choose to research an area that is related to their professional responsibilities.

If you meet the Entry Requirements, the next step is to check whether we can supervise research in your chosen area. We only take students to whom we can offer expert research supervision from one of our academic staff. Therefore, your research question needs to engage with the research interests of one of our staff.

- Assessment processes for the Research Degree differ from taught degrees. Students will be expected to present write up their work at regular intervals to their supervisor who will provide written and oral feedback; a formal assessment process takes place annually.

This Annual Progress Review requires students to present their work in writing and orally to a panel of academics from within the School. Successful completion of this process will allow students to register for the next academic year.

The final assessment of the doctoral degree is both oral and written. Students will submit their thesis to an internal and external examining team who will review the written thesis before inviting the student to orally defend their work at a Viva Voce.


- Supervisors will offer feedback on the research work at regular intervals throughout the period of registration on the degree.


Full time PhD students will have access to a shared office space and access to a desk with personal computer and internet access.

Entrance requirements

The minimum academic requirement for admission to a research degree programme is normally an Upper Second Class Honours degree from a UK or ROI HE provider, or an equivalent qualification acceptable to the University. Further information can be obtained by contacting the School.

International Students

For information on international qualification equivalents, please check the specific information for your country.

English Language Requirements

Evidence of an IELTS* score of 6.0, with not less than 5.5 in any component or equivalent qualification acceptable to the University is required (*taken within the last 2 years).

International students wishing to apply to Queen's University Belfast (and for whom English is not their first language), must be able to demonstrate their proficiency in English in order to benefit fully from their course of study or research. Non-EEA nationals must also satisfy UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) immigration requirements for English language for visa purposes.

For more information on English Language requirements for EEA and non-EEA nationals see:

If you need to improve your English language skills before you enter this degree programme, INTO Queen's University Belfast offers a range of English language courses. These intensive and flexible courses are designed to improve your English ability for admission to this degree.

Tuition Fees

Northern Ireland (NI) 1 TBC
Republic of Ireland (ROI) 2 TBC
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) 1 TBC
EU Other 3 £25,600
International £25,600

1 EU citizens in the EU Settlement Scheme, with settled or pre-settled status, are expected to be charged the NI or GB tuition fee based on where they are ordinarily resident, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly Student Fees Regulations. Students who are ROI nationals resident in GB are expected to be charged the GB fee, however this is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

2 It is expected that EU students who are ROI nationals resident in ROI will be eligible for NI tuition fees. The tuition fee set out above is provisional and subject to the publication of the Northern Ireland Assembly student fees Regulations.

3 EU Other students (excludes Republic of Ireland nationals living in GB, NI or ROI) are charged tuition fees in line with international fees.

All tuition fees quoted are for the academic year 2021-22, and relate to a single year of study unless stated otherwise. Tuition fees will be subject to an annual inflationary increase, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

More information on postgraduate tuition fees.

Computer Science costs

There are no specific additional course costs associated with this programme.

Additional course costs

All Students

Depending on the programme of study, there may also be other extra costs which are not covered by tuition fees, which students will need to consider when planning their studies . Students can borrow books and access online learning resources from any Queen's library. If students wish to purchase recommended texts, rather than borrow them from the University Library, prices per text can range from £30 to £100. Students should also budget between £30 to £100 per year for photocopying, memory sticks and printing charges. Students may wish to consider purchasing an electronic device; costs will vary depending on the specification of the model chosen. There are also additional charges for graduation ceremonies, and library fines. In undertaking a research project students may incur costs associated with transport and/or materials, and there will also be additional costs for printing and binding the thesis. There may also be individually tailored research project expenses and students should consult directly with the School for further information.

Bench fees

Some research programmes incur an additional annual charge on top of the tuition fees, often referred to as a bench fee. Bench fees are charged when a programme (or a specific project) incurs extra costs such as those involved with specialist laboratory or field work. If you are required to pay bench fees they will be detailed on your offer letter. If you have any questions about Bench Fees these should be raised with your School at the application stage. Please note that, if you are being funded you will need to ensure your sponsor is aware of and has agreed to fund these additional costs before accepting your place.

How do I fund my study?

1.PhD Opportunities

Find PhD opportunities and funded studentships by subject area.

2.Funded Doctoral Training Programmes

We offer numerous opportunities for funded doctoral study in a world-class research environment. Our centres and partnerships, aim to seek out and nurture outstanding postgraduate research students, and provide targeted training and skills development.

3.PhD loans

The Government offers doctoral loans of up to £26,445 for PhDs and equivalent postgraduate research programmes for English- or Welsh-resident UK and EU students.

4.International Scholarships

Information on Postgraduate Research scholarships for international students.

Funding and Scholarships

The Funding & Scholarship Finder helps prospective and current students find funding to help cover costs towards a whole range of study related expenses.

How to Apply

Apply using our online Postgraduate Applications Portal and follow the step-by-step instructions on how to apply.

Find a supervisor

If you're interested in a particular project, we suggest you contact the relevant academic before you apply, to introduce yourself and ask questions.

To find a potential supervisor aligned with your area of interest, or if you are unsure of who to contact, look through the staff profiles linked here.

You might be asked to provide a short outline of your proposal to help us identify potential supervisors.

Download Postgraduate Prospectus