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PhD Opportunities

Developing next-generation portable rapid tests for food authenticity

School of Biological Sciences | PHD

Applications are now CLOSED
Reference Number
Application Deadline
30 January 2023
Start Date
1 October 2023


The past few years have seen remarkable changes in diagnostic testing for infections, with home covid testing as lateral flow devices adopted enthusiastically into our homes. This shows how biological assays - such as immunoassays – for a range of diagnostic applications no longer need to be conducted in laboratories. Yet there are many other areas that are critical to public health and safety and industrial productivity where samples still get processed using traditional long winded laboratory methods. For example, the determination of the contamination of foodstuffs with pathogens, chemicals, toxins, allergens and/or adulterants throughout complicated supply chains has become a recurring issue.

Although public interest has fallen since the horse meat scandal in 2013, food authenticity is increasingly a major
concern for the food industry with enhanced media and social media attention not only damaging reputation and causing severe economic impacts in recalls, it can also pose significant risks to human health through the spread of infectious diseases and food allergens but also raise moral and ethical concerns for persons of certain faiths and beliefs.

Examples include cross-contamination of other ingredients or food products with animal-based ingredients and
deliberately altering or mislabelling the composition of a food for financial profit. The development of robust
authentication and traceability systems implemented across the supply chain will help improve food safety and food
fraud prevention. As such there is an increasing need to develop rapid innovative diagnostic tools that can detect
multiple contaminants simultaneously in situ or at point of site testing. This is particularly important for animal-based and vegan foods which are often highly processed and include many different ingredients and additives. Adulteration of meat is described as “the fraudulent practice which involves substitution or mixing of flesh of cheaper variety which is objectionable for the reason of health, religion and economics”. Meat speciation testing, the identification of animal species, is performed for these reasons. To date there is no rapid one method fits all approach commercially available for speciation testing of animal-based or vegan products; a range of approaches including ELISA, PCR and lateral flows are applied as a toolbox of tests.

Such food contamination can be detected using immunoassays that detect particular targets found in specific species. As
observed during COVID a major advantage of immunoassays (over laboratory PCR or mass spectrometry) is portability
and simplicity of use for the operator or analyst. Lateral flow immunoassay (LFA) devices are mass-manufactured keeping
costs down, and easy to operate outside a lab, giving immediate results. One well-known limitation of lateral flow is
analytical sensitivity: current lab tests can detect 100-1000 lower levels of a contaminant than standard LFA.
This project will apply the latest discoveries in biorecogniton element discovery using bioinformatics and immunoassay
technology, such as smartphone detection and microfluidics, to develop a new generation of inexpensive, portable,
multi-target, food security tests. This research project will apply recent developments and discoveries in the field of
miniaturised immunoassay, to the problem of food authenticity. The student will balance two equally critical drivers of
bioassay technology: exceptional analytical performance, yet they must remain cost-effective and manufacturable.

The aim of this proposal is to develop a simple effective diagnostic test for the simultaneous multiplex analysis of
different animal species for example cow, sheep, porcine, turkey, chicken, equine, donkey and goat that can be used for
field-based analysis.

The student will explore the feasibility of adapting current lateral flow immunoassays using several recent developments
including, for example: improved fluidic configurations; smartphone readout using bespoke low-cost illumination
systems; multiplexing using different combinations of microfluidics. These innovations will be explored alongside
biorecognition element design and assay development for the industrially- and public safety-driven targets.

The PhD conducted mainly at Queen's University Belfast will offer placements at Reading University for biotechnology
design and is supported by an industrial partner BIO-CHECK UK who will bring further insight into practical constraints of
cost-effective mass-manufacture, marketing and basic business skills for the student.
By applying analytical science to this specific problem, the student will be able to systematically optimise assay
performance, at the same time as recognising the pathway to real product development through industrial oversight.

Training opportunities:
Training will include the application of recent innovations in diagnostic testing to food security. Training will include
developing skills in bioinformatics, immunogen design, producing biorecognition elements to specific targets and techniques for their purification and characterisation. Training will be provided in microfluidics, biosensor development,
food sample prepartion techniques for (bio) analytical testing and in analytical testing methods eg lateral flow devices,
ELISA, PCR and other techniques as relevant to the project.

The student will be able to attend modules in Advanced Food Safety and Biotechnology at Queen’s University and join the Reading Researcher Development Programme. The project PI is leading modules in these courses and is extensively
involved with the teaching activities. The student whilst at QUB will be a member of the Graduate School and will have
opportunities to develop further transdisciplinary skills for example in leadership and management. The student will also work with industry at Bio-Check to gain an understanding of the commercial diagnostics sector.

The student will also be able to attend national and international conferences in appropriate subject areas both
identified by the academic leads (academic meetings) and the commercial partner Bio-Check (industrial trade fairs) to
gain an understanding of marketing and business development.

Student profile:
A student with a background and/or experience in biotechnology, immunology, molecular biology and/or biochemistry
or chemistry would be appropriate for this project. It is a multidisciplinary project and thus strengths in 1-2 areas would
be suitable as training will be given in the other related areas. It would be desirable that the student has an interest in
the Agrifood sector with the right focus for developing additional and complimentary skills that would be appropriate for
this studentship.

Please visit:

Application deadline: 10 am GMT on Monday 30 January 2023.

Funding Information

FoodBioSystems DTP students receive an annual tax free stipend (salary) that is paid in instalments throughout the year.
For 2022/23 this will be £17,668 and this will increase slightly each year at rate set by UKRI.

Project Summary

Professor Katrina Campbell

More Information

Research Profile

Mode of Study

Full-time: 4 years

Funding Body
BBSRC FoodBioSystems DTP
Apply now Register your interest

Biological Sciences overview

The School of Biological Sciences provides PhD and MPhil (research degree) programmes in subjects ranging from basic biochemistry, molecular genetics and cancer research, to agricultural science, marine ecology and the economic evaluation of ecosystem services and food retailing. If you have a topic or research question in mind, please use the Find a Supervisor link (see Apply tab) to identify the most appropriate member of staff to support your idea. If not, don't worry, we regularly advertise funded projects and there is no harm in browsing our academic staff profiles for inspiration and then contacting whoever seems best: we are very open to applications from suitably qualified people interested in scientific research. In every case, a PhD or MPhil course provides the means of being part of a cutting edge scientific research team and contributing to genuine new discoveries or the development of new methods for practical use. If you cannot study full time, we offer pro-rata part time research degree programmes as well.

There are three broad themes to research at the School:

- Agri-Food Systems and Human Nutrition
- Understanding Health and Disease
- Sustaining Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Agri-Food Systems and Human Nutrition:

This theme focuses on how Agri-Food systems can be better positioned to provide safe and healthy diets and high quality of animal products and support human and animal health in a way that is environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change.

Underpinning these goals, the disciplinary expertise of the theme integrates basic and applied research from animal health and welfare, nutrition, performance and environmental impact (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions from livestock) to chemical contaminant detection, food microbiology, fraud detection and food systems traceability and transparency.

Supported by underpinning technological expertise in cutting edge molecular, genomic, transcriptomic/proteomic and metabolomic methods, the goal of the theme is to transform Agri-Food systems so that they benefit both human nutrition and health while simultaneously reducing the greenhouse gases emissions from livestock production systems, protecting ecological resources, supporting livelihoods and affordable foods, and upholding social, cultural, and ethical values.

Understanding Health and Disease:

The Understanding Health and Disease research theme covers humans, plants, and animals with research strengths in prevention, diagnostics, surveillance, epidemiology, and treatments. We study how health can be improved through food and nutrition and how diseases can be tackled by understanding their fundamental molecular mechanisms, including those underpinning the biology of pathogens and parasites. Our researchers work in human cancer and genetic diseases, in infections caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites, and in how global health and disease will be affected by global warming and climate change.

We recognize that the only way to tackle the problems we face as a society is to take an interdisciplinary approach to our research. This means we have expertise in broad areas including molecular biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, genomics, transcriptomics, modelling, bioanalytical chemistry, proteomics, metabolomics, microbiology, parasitology, and plant biology. We work internationally with researchers and partners in universities, charities, non-governmental organisations, industry, and government agencies to tackle local and global challenges.

Sustaining Ecosystems and Biodiversity:

This theme covers research in biodiversity and ecosystem services for environments ranging from tropical forests to deep oceans, using field techniques and skills such as wildlife tracking, taxonomy, geostatistics, molecular and genetic ecology, environmental microbiology, microbial ecology, food web analysis, microcosm and mesocosm experiments, and mathematical/computational methods. Within this theme we also study the behaviour and temperament of wild, agricultural or domestic animals and their implications for welfare and ability to respond to environmental change.

Potential research projects include phylogenetic analysis of rare and newly discovered species, examination of ecological interactions in tropical systems, agricultural soils, or marine communities, using state-of-the-art genetic analysis, surveys using drones or satellite tagging, or experiments in tanks and field plots, including careful and ethical examinations of animal behaviour. Projects range from theoretical analysis of stability in ecosystems, through discovery of new species and mechanisms of interaction, or responses to climate change, to the assessment of agri-environment schemes, development of new methods for commercial fisheries management and economic evaluations of conservation measures. Projects very often have an international dimension and include collaboration with other researchers worldwide.

Biological Sciences Highlights
Industry Links
  • The School has a wide range of strong, international links with governments, academia and industry, into which postgraduate research students are integrated.
World Class Facilities
  • Research students will have access to laboratory space as required (in our state-of-the-art research laboratories) and where relevant, also a range of field study sites and equipment (e.g. remote sensing drone equipment). They also have access to local and campus-wide high performance computing facilities and the full strength of our world-class library. Many students also benefit from the strong collaboration network maintained by our academic staff, which could result in working in the laboratories of partner organisations in industry and government as well as in the University, under specific arrangements.
  • Students studying in the Food Safety and Nutrition programme will gain excellent practical experience of advanced technology and bioanalytical techniques for food safety analysis and monitoring, including:

    1. GC, HPLC and UPLC separation platforms;
    2. ICP, IR, qToF and QqQ mass spectrometers;
    3. Microbiological research facilities;
    4. Antibody production and biomolecule binder development;
    5. Cell culture suite and bioanalytical assay detection systems;
    6. NMR, NIR and Raman spectrometers;
    7. Proteomic and metabolomic profiling tools RT-PCR;
    8. Transcriptomic profiling;
    9. Next-generation sequencing;
    10. Multiplex biosensor platforms and LFD development.
Internationally Renowned Experts
  • Research at Institute for Global Food Security and the School of Biological Sciences was rated 1st in the UK in the latest Research Exercise Framework (REF) – an independent assessment of research quality, impact and environment at UK universities.

    IGFS/Biological Sciences topped the national league table for Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science, with 94% of research in those areas deemed “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”.

    Additionally, the research environment at IGFS/SBS scored a phenomenal 100%.
Key Facts

  • Most of the critical problems facing humanity - disease, climate change and food security - require biological understanding to solve them.
My collaborative PhD with the Institute for Global Food Security and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute has given me opportunities to teach, attend seminars and conferences, and to develop a range of skills. I have enjoyed my PhD and my supervisors and funding body (DAERA) have been welcoming, supportive and encouraging of my research.

Dr Rebekah McMurray, Biological Sciences PhD

Course content

Research Information

PhD Supervisors
Information on the research interests and activities of academics in Biological Sciences can be accessed via the School website and the Find a Supervisor facility (see Apply tab).

Career Prospects

Queen's postgraduates reap exceptional benefits. Unique initiatives, such as Degree Plus and Researcher Plus bolster our commitment to employability, while innovative leadership and executive programmes alongside sterling integration with business experts helps our students gain key leadership positions both nationally and internationally. Career prospects in the biological sciences are exceptionally good. To some extent it depends on the specific topic, of course, but laboratory-based and especially quantitative skills and the proven innovation of a PhD or MPhil are highly sought after. Degrees are very much in demand, both in commercial science and public sector research and development (e.g. drug discovery and development, crop and animal improvements and welfare, sustainable agriculture and resource use, human nutrition and health, animal health, ecological management, food safety and technology, scientific communications, regulation, and many more fields).

Employment after the Course
Graduates have gone on to be professional research scientists, consultants, or hold technical and junior executive positions in commerce and government.

People teaching you

Dr Gareth Arnott
Postgraduate Research Director
School of Biological Sciences
For a PhD you will have a principal and second supervisor who advise your independent studies and will be supported by a wider team from the academic staff - who they are, of course, depends on your project. For further details on any aspect of postgraduate research degrees within the School of Biological Sciences, contact: Research degrees are overseen by the School of Biological Sciences Director of Postgraduate Research, who currently is Dr Gareth Arnott.

Learning Outcomes
A postgraduate research degree involves the undertaking of independent research under the guidance of a professional academic supervisory team, typically using the laboratory facilities on offer in one or more of the teams' labs. The student will be expected to develop their own ideas and learn the methods needed to test them empirically and theoretically. This usually involves learning and practising both laboratory (and or field) skills as well as developing a strong theoretical background in the relevant subject.

As well as practical work, all the activities of independent academic scholarship, such as literature searching and critical appraisal, written and verbal communications and academic networking will be developed during a research degree. Independence and innovation will be strongly encouraged, but the student will be supported by regular supervisory guidance and a wide range of courses will also be on offer, both in subject specific skills and generic skills, especially supported by the Graduate School (

Students are encouraged to interact with one another and with members of academic staff and postdoctoral scientists to build confidence and informal learning, through a range of ‘research culture’ activities, including peer groups where students get together to discuss topical research papers, or methods, or just chat about their interests.
Course structure
Research degrees vary in length, but typically for a PhD they are three or four years long (full-time) and double that for part-time studies. They follow an annual cycle of progress with formal panel-based appraisals of the progress, the outcome of which is typically practical and academic advice about how to overcome problems encountered and how to move to the next stage. During each year, students are expected to supplement their studies with some tailored courses, ranging from highly specific (e.g. learning to use a piece of apparatus or technique) to generic (e.g. developing oral presentation or leadership skills). Every stage is supported by the supervisory team, augmented by an independent panel of progress monitors as well as the full support of the Graduate School.

Assessment processes for the Research Degree differ from taught degrees. Students will be expected to present drafts of 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 draft work at regular intervals throughout the period of registration on the degree.


Full-time research students will have access to a desk in a shared office space.

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 6.5, with not less than 5.5 in any component, or an 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 £4,596
Republic of Ireland (ROI) 2 £4,596
England, Scotland or Wales (GB) 1 £4,596
EU Other 3 £23,850
International £23,850

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.

Biological Sciences costs

Students may incur additional costs for small items of clothing and/or equipment necessary for lab or field work

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