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School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences

A sense for gravity: How terrestrial and non-terrestrial gravity shapes animal life

Research environment

The School of Biological and Behavioural Sciences (SBBS) 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.

This project will be a collaboration between leading researchers in neuroscience and comparative psychology: Dr Versace, a behavioural neuroscientist expert in early cognition and domestic chicks; Dr Chen, a neuroscientist expert in spatial cognition and rodents' behaviour ; Prof Chittka, a behaviorual neuroscientist expert in insect behaviour and bees ; Prof Brennan, a behaiour geneticist expert in fish behaviour 

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.

Depending on the interests of the candidate, specific training will be provided in behavioural, computational, statistical or neurobiological techniques.

Project description

Living organisms have adapted to the terrestrial gravitational acceleration of 9.81 m/s2. However, while rapidly expanding our horizon to outer space (planned missions to Mars, ISS flights and commercial space ventures), astronauts and lay people face enormous difficulties with non-terrestrial gravity. Understanding how gravity impacts behaviour and cognition has never been more pressing.

How can life adapt and thrive in non-terrestrial gravity? To address this fundamental question, we will build on our expertise with diverse animal models (birds, rodents, fish and insects), tailoring teh project on the skills and interests of the candidate. We will compare the responses to gravity cues in species adapted to terrestrial (mice, chickens), aerial (bees, chickens), aquatic (zebrafish) environments to discover:

  • (a) whether behavioural and cognitive adaptations to terrestrial gravity require environmental experience. We plan to identify what stimulation is required (e.g., vestibular, visual, acceleration during development)

  • (b) whether perceptual and cognitive abilities are plastic in response to different gravities, such partial gravity. We will combine controlled-rearing methods (e.g., clinostat-rearing), behavioural observations in virtual reality environments, automated behavioural tracking with machine learning, electrophysiological recordings and genetics to clarify the fundamental rules of life in response to different cues of gravity.

Fundamental knowledge gained in this project is crucial to understand the building blocks of behavioural and neurobiological responses to terrestrial gravity and in non-terrestrial environments, and will strategically support space programs focused on exploration, travel and life outside the Earth.

There will be room to tailor the project on the candidates' interests and skills. Please contact Dr Versce ( or Dr Chen ( for informal inquiries.


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 (comparative psychology, neuroscience). A masters degree is desirable, but not essential. We are looking for a self-motivated, curious and committed student to join our lively and engaging research group. Previous experience with animal behaviour and/or neuroscience is required.

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


  • Versace, E., Martinho-Truswell, A., Kacelnik, A., & Vallortigara, G. (2018). Priors in animal and artificial intelligence: where does learning begin? Trends in cognitive sciences, 22(11), 963-965.
  • Hébert M, Versace E, Vallortigara G. Inexperienced preys know when to flee or to freeze in front of a threat. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019;116: 22918–22920. doi:10.1073/pnas.1915504116
    Rosa-Salva O, Mayer U, Versace E, Marie H, Lemaire BS, Vallortigara G. Sensitive periods for social development: Interactions between predisposed and learned mechanisms. Cognition. 2021. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104552
  • Chen G, Lu Y, King JA, Cacucci F, Burgess N. Differential influences of environment and self-motion on place and grid cell firing. Nat Commun. 2019;10: 1–11. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-08550-1
    Indovina, I., Maffei, V., Bosco, G., Zago, M., Macaluso, E., & Lacquaniti, F. (2005). Representation of visual gravitational motion in the human vestibular cortex. Science, 308(5720), 416-419.
  • Torok, A., Gallagher, M., Lasbareilles, C., & Ferrè, E. R. (2019). Getting ready for Mars: How the brain perceives new simulated gravitational environments. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 72(9), 2342-2349.
  • Gallagher, M., Arshad, I., & Ferrè, E. R. (2019). Gravity modulates behaviour control strategy. Experimental brain research, 237(4), 989-994.
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