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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

Bridging the gap: dissecting the evolution and function of RNA-cytoskeleton associating proteins during spiral cleavage

We are seeking applicants for the following PhD opportunity. The successful applicant will join a student cohort in Environment, Biodiversity and Genomics, training together, following an exciting programme designed to inspire the next generation of environmental experts, managers and leaders. They will be equipped to address some of the toughest challenges of our time.

Research environment

The School of Biological and Biological Sciences at Queen Mary is one of the UK’s elite research centres, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). We offer a multi-disciplinary research environment and have approximately 150 PhD students working on projects in the biological and psychological sciences. Our students have access to a variety of research facilities supported by experienced staff, as well as a range of student support services.

The Martin-Duran lab is a diverse and inclusive research group comprised by 8 researchers at different career stages and from all over the world, from China to Costa Rica and the US. All of us are however united by our passion to investigate and discover how animals develop and evolved. We are a truly multidisciplinary team, with some members working purely on computational approaches and others combining both wet and dry lab. We are supported by a range of funders, including the European Research Commission through an ERC Starting Research Grant, the Wellcome Trust and the UK Research Councils.

Training and development

Our PhD students become part of Queen Mary’s Doctoral College which provides training and development opportunities, advice on funding, and financial support for research. Our students also have access to a Researcher Development Programme designed to help recognise and develop key skills and attributes needed to effectively manage research, and to prepare and plan for the next stages of their career.

Project description

All animals originate from a single cell – the zygote – that develops into a multicellular complex organism during the process of embryogenesis. How is embryogenesis controlled? And how do embryonic processes change over time to generate the many animal forms we see today? My lab investigates these fundamental questions using marine invertebrate animals, in particular those exhibiting a very unique, yet widespread mode of development named spiral cleavage (e.g. snails, earthworms, etc).

In this project, you will investigate how RNA binding proteins (RBPs) control the earliest steps of animal embryogenesis. These proteins are crucial in connecting RNAs the mother provides in the egg to the cytoskeleton of the zygote and first embryonic cells. In this way, RBPs distribute maternal RNAs in the embryo to control the earliest steps of development. This project will dissect the evolution and function of RBPs by combining molecular evolutionary approaches with experimental embryology, biochemistry and microscopy. You will ask three major questions: Which RBPs do invertebrate animals have? How do RBPs distribute during early spiral cleavage? and what are the roles of RBPs?

In this project, you will rigorously answer these questions combining state-of-the-art experimental and computation approaches in a unique academic and collaborative environment.

  • You will have access to large transcriptomic and genomic databases, and in-house live organisms to fuel your investigation.
  • You will gain experience of molecular techniques (gene expression, protein localisation assays), bioinformatics (RNA-seq analyses), and microscopy.
  • You will be encouraged to develop your own ideas and hypotheses.

Together, you will investigate a fundamental biological phenomenon – how embryos distribute maternal RNAs to guide early development – at many different levels, from patterns of molecular evolution to gene expression and function. This will eventually lead to a better understanding of how animals, and us, develop at our earliest stages.


This studentship is open to students applying for China Scholarship Council funding. Queen Mary University of London has partnered with the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to offer a joint scholarship programme to enable Chinese students to study for a PhD programme at Queen Mary. Under the scheme, Queen Mary will provide scholarships to cover all tuition fees, whilst the CSC will provide living expenses for 4 years and one return flight ticket to successful applicants. 

Eligibility and applying

Applicants must:

  • Chinese students with a strong academic background.
  • Students must hold a PR Chinese passport.
  • Applicants can either be resident in China at the time of application or studying overseas.
  • Students with prior experience of studying overseas (including in the UK) are eligible to apply. Chinese QMUL graduates/Masters’ students are therefore eligible for the scheme.

Please refer to the CSC website for full details on eligibility and conditions on the scholarship.

Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in an area relevant to the project (e.g., molecular biology, developmental biology, genetics, biochemistry, evolutionary biology). A masters degree is desirable, but not essential. In a multidisciplinary project like this, candidates are unlikely to have a background in all disciplines involved. The most important qualification is motivation, enthusiasm and that the project appeals to you. However, previous experience in molecular biology techniques would be important. We can envisage strong candidates coming through diverse routes:

  • molecular biology
  • developmental and cellular biology
  • biotechnology
  • computational and evolutionary biology

Applicants are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details.

The deadline for applications to Queen Mary is 30th January 2022. Applicants will need to complete an online application form by this date to be considered, including a CV, personal statement and qualifications. Shortlisted applicants will be invited for a formal interview by the project supervisor. Those who are successful in their application for our PhD programme will be issued with an offer letter which is conditional on securing a CSC scholarship (as well as any academic conditions still required to meet our entry requirements).

Once applicants have obtained their offer letter from Queen Mary they should then apply to CSC for the scholarship by the advertised deadline with the support of the project supervisor. For September 2022 entry, applicants must complete the CSC application on the CSC website between 10th March - 31st March 2022.

Only applicants who are successful in their application to CSC can be issued an unconditional offer and enrol on our PhD programme.

Apply Online


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