PhD Projects 2019

Below is a list of PhD projects being offered in 2019. The list will be continuously updated over time.

Please click on a project title to expand it and find out more about it. The associated contact name refers to the primary supervisor and forms the start of their email address, e.g. "Contact: Joe.Bloggs" refers to email address

You are welcome to contact a member of staff to find out more about their project. Alternatively, you are welcome to discuss other project ideas you may have.

All of the projects listed below are eligible for funding through the general pool of funding schemes listed on our funding page. Any projects marked as "Allocated funding" carry specific gauranteed funding attached to the project. Applicants for "allocated funding" projects will be assessed and shortlisted separately from the general pool.

For details on the application process and of application deadlines please refer to the Postgraduate Study page.

As projects are continually added, appllicants are encouraged to apply even if a project area they are interested in is not listed. In this case you may indicate in the application form your prefered area of research (eg "cosmology")  for the Research Title.

  • ATOMIUM: ALMA Tracing the Origins of Molecules formIng dUst in oxygen-rich M-type stars

    Supervisors: Anita Richards, Malcolm Gray

    Contact: a.m.s.richards

    Project Description: We stand on the 3rd rock from the Sun - but what made the grains of sand-like or soot-like dust which it formed from? "ATOMIUM: ALMA Tracing the Origins of Molecules formIng dUst in oxygen-rich M-type stars" will be observed during 12 months starting October 2018. These mm and submm wavelength radio interferometry observations will map the spectral lines from dozens of molecules around 22 cool, red giant and supergiant stars. The goal is to unravel the phase transition from gas-phase to dust species, pinpoint the chemical pathways, map the morphological structure, and study the interplay between dynamical and chemical phenomena. ATOMIUM is led by Prof. Leen Decin (Katholic University of Leuven, Belgium) with collaborators from 5 European countries, Taiwan and the US. Most of the lines detected will be due to thermal emission but some will be masers - the naturally-occuring radio analogue of lasers. The exponential nature of maser amplification produces very bright emission which allows mass ejected from these stars and the circumstellar envelopes to be explored at the resolution of individual clumps, shedding light on how the winds are driven and how dust forms. The PhD project will involve a contribution to the general work of processing ATOMIUM data, and in particular to analysing the maser data (mostly from water and silicon monoxide). The project will include data processing, image reconstruction and analysis, modelling maser processes and organising the results in an accessible archive, as part of a friendly international collaboration; the student can concentrate on preferred aspects and, as ever in research, something unexpected may turn up.

  • Timing of radio pulsars with Jodrell Bank and MeerKAT

    Supervisor: Michael Keith

    Contact: Michael.Keith

    Project description: Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars which sweep out beams of radiation along the poles of their extremely strong magnetic fields. We observe a pulse of radio waves from the pulsar each time its beam of emission sweeps across the Earth. The most rapidlyrotating pulsars, which have spin periods of a few milliseconds, provide insight into a wide range of physics and astrophysics, ranging from studies of general relativity, understanding the turbulent interstellar medium, unlocking the complex physics of the pulsar magnetosphere, or studying the superfluid interior of neutron stars.

    This project may involve a wide range of pulsar related astrophysics using data from the Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory and also the new MeerKAT radio telescope, which is one of the most powerful radio telescopes on Earth. The particular focus will depend on discussions with the prospective student and may evolve during the PhD, but typical topics involve study of relativistic binaries, precision timing of millisecond pulsars, understanding the long-term evolution of pulsars or exploring the unknown by determining the rotational and astrophysical properties of newly discovered radio pulsars.

  • Gravitational lenses: finding and followup

    Supervisor: Neal Jackson

    Contact: neal.jackson

    Project description: Strong gravitational lenses are systems in which a background source is multiply imaged by a foreground lensing mass (usually a galaxy or cluster of galaxies). They are important because they allow us (i) to study the background objects at higher resolution and/or sensitivity than would otherwise be possible, and (ii) to study the mass distribution of the lens, independent of the light that it emits. The subject is about to be revolutionised by future instruments such as the Euclid satellite, which will find hundreds of thousands of lens systems instead of the few hundred currently known. Radio lenses, historically the first to be found, are a particular area of interest. We are involved in a number of investigations which could form the basis of a PhD project depending on interest and developments in the subject: (i) Calibration and results from the long-baseline surveys with the LOFAR low-frequency radio telescope - we are leading the calibrator survey and hope to use the survey to examine existing lenses at high resolution: (ii) other radio studies of interesting lensed objects such as radio-quiet quasars, to look at the mechanisms of radio emission; (iii) involvement in the Euclid lens searches, due to begin with the launch of the Euclid satellite in 2021, and (iv) modelling studies of strong lens systems.

  • Building Models of the Universe with Hydrodynamic Simulations

    Supervisor: Scott Kay

    Contact: Scott.Kay

    Project description: Hydrodynamic simulations have become the cosmologist’s tool of choice for modelling the assembly of large-scale structure in the Universe, from galaxies to clusters to the cosmic web. The processes involved are highly non-linear, involving complex interactions between the baryonic and dark matter components. While such interactions are driven by gravity, astrophysical processes such as the formation of stars and super-massive black holes, and the feedback of energy from these sources to the surrounding gas (via powerful galactic outflows) also need to be incorporated to make realistic models of the observed galaxy and cluster population. As part of the Virgo consortium, an international collaboration of computational cosmologists, we are currently developing the next generation of these simulations that exploit recent advances in computing power and simulation codes. In this project, the student will have the opportunity to participate in the development of these new simulations and exploit the resulting data to make new predictions for the properties of galaxy clusters, in particular how the feedback affects the properties of their galaxies and hot gas.

  • Beyond the Beam: Revealing Star Formation in Galaxies through Simulations and Observations

    Supervisor: Rowan Smith

    Contact: Rowan.Smith

    Project description: Stars form in dense clouds of molecular gas in galaxies, but how these clouds and the stars within them are formed is still not fully understood. Galactic forces are likely to play a role at some scale but the precise role of galactic environment still has to be determined. Observational surveys using revolutionary facilities such as ALMA, SOFIA, the upcoming SKA and its precursors are now able to observe the formation of the molecular clouds that are the birthplaces of stars all the way from atomic HI to dense star forming cores in other galactic systems for the first time. However, even the best observations are limited by resolution, sensitivity, projection effects and issues of optical depth. In this project we will seek to “translate” between simulations and observations to learn the key physical parameters that determine how molecular clouds and stars form in different galactic environments. We will do this by creating synthetic observations of gas-rich regions in utting-edge high-resolution galaxy simulations using post-process radiative transfer. Uniquely these simulations resolve individual molecular clouds sub-structure while still capturing galactic forces on kpc scales. Our synthetic observations will focus on creating 1) HI maps in the 21 cm line for comparison to the THOR survey of the Milky Way, observations from MEERKAT, and predictions for the SKA, 2) CII emission maps for comparison to a SOFIA survey our team is a member of and 3) CO molecular line emission for comparison to ALMA observations. These will then be compared to the observational data sets to determine what parameters best reproduce the observations. This project will allow the prospective student to gain experience with both theoretical and observational data

  • Modelling and simulation of magnetic reconnection, solar flares and solar coronal heating

    Supervisor: Philippa Browning

    Contact: philippa.browning

    Project description: Research in solar plasma physics is concerned with modelling the complex interactions of magnetic field with plasma in the solar atmosphere, in the context of transformational new space and ground-based observations of our nearest star. There are synergies with magnetically-confined fusion plasmas, and there are opportunities for PhDs exploring both fusion and solar applications, in collaboration with Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. We are also interested in the physical processes underlying variable radio emission in young stars, building on understanding of solar flares.

    A major unsolved problem is to explain why the solar coronal temperature is over a million degrees Kelvin. Coronal heating likely results from dissipation of stored magnetic energy, but the details remain controversial. A strong candidate for energy dissipation is the process of magnetic reconnection - which also operates in solar flares, and in many other space and astrophysical plasmas. One of the biggest challenges in flare physics is to explain the origin of the large numbers of high-energy electrons and ions, requiring integration of small-scale plasma kinetic models with large-scale fluid models. PhD projects are available to explore the nature and consequences of magnetic reconnection in the solar atmosphere, using magnetohydrodynamic simulations, relaxation theory, and kinetic plasma models. There is also likely to be a funded PhD project with Culham Centre for Fusion Energy studying magnetic reconnection in the core plasma of tokamaks.

    The main applications are to the heating of the solar corona, and energy release and particle acceleration in solar flares. Models of energy release in unstable twisted coronal loops, and in current sheets in sheared magnetic fields, will be extended to more complex configurations, including interactions between magnetic flux ropes. Students may use a new “reduced kinetics” approach to develop self-consistent models including energetic electrons. An important aspect is “forward modelling” of observational signatures, with energetic particles potentially detected both through hard X-ray and radio emission.

  • The Formation of Massive Stars In Our Galaxy and Other Galaxies

    Supervisors: Gary Fuller

    Contact: G.Fuller

    Project description: The conversion of gas into stars is one of the fundamental processes in galaxies. With their prodigious luminosity, energetic winds and their ultimate demise as core collapse supernovae, the massive stars which result from this process dominate the physical and much of the chemical evolution of interstellar medium. Understanding how these stars with masses greater than 8 times the mass of our Sun form is therefore a key astrophysical problem. It impacts a wide range of astrophysical issues from the lifecycle of baryons in galaxies including the origin of heavy elements essential to the formation of rocky planets and life, to the birthrate of supernovae, pulsars, blackholes and gamma-ray bursts. Starburst galaxies host the most extreme star forming environments known. A single starburst region can be forming stars at rates 10 to 100 times more rapidly than the whole Milky Way galaxy. Understanding how these regions form and evolve is essential to understanding both the evolution of individual galaxies, including the formation and feeding of their central supermassive blackholes, as well as the star formation history of the universe as a whole. The star formation group is focused on using a range of observations at infrared, millimetre/submillimetre and radio wavelengths from telescopes such as Herschel, ALMA and JVLA, and eventually SKA, together with numerical simulations, to study the formation and early evolution of massive stars in both our galaxy and starburst galaxies. The immediate aims are to understand the relative importance of the different physical processes involved in the formation of massive stars and the effect these forming massive stars have on their natal cocoons, as well as on larger scales. Ultimately the goal of this area of research is to build a predictive model of star formation. Since many of these projects are being carried out in collaboration with international colleagues, there is the possibility of placements at institutes overseas. Example Projects:

    • Variable Radio Sources as Probes of Accretion and Outflow in Star Forming Regions
    • The Structure, Kinematics and Evolution of Filamentary Molecular Clouds and Their Role in Massive Star Formation
    • Using Dust Polarization to Probe the Magnetic Field in Massive Star Forming Regions
    • Identifying the Precursors to Massive Stellar Clusters
    • Connecting Star Formation in the Starburst Galaxy NGC253 and Star Forming Regions in the Milky Way Using The ALCHEMI Large Programme on ALMA
    • Using The ALCHEMI Large Programme on ALMA to Study the Evolution of Starbursts in NGC253
    • Vibrationally Excited Molecules as Probes of the Most Extreme Regions in Galaxies
  • Pushing the Noise Limit: Low Noise Amplifiers for Radio Telescopes

    Supervisor: Gary Fuller, Danielle George (School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering)

    Contact: G.Fuller

    Project description: Low noise amplifiers (LNAs) are critical components of receivers for radio telescopes. They offer a number of important advantages over competing technologies such as operating at 20K rather than 4K as well as being better suited for use in large scale imaging array receivers. Recent advances in technology have allowed the development of LNAs which operate at much higher frequencies than previously possible. This is an opportunity to join the Advanced Radio Instrumentation Group in the Schools of Physics &Astronomy and Electrical & Electronic Engineering and the newly established joint research laboratory for Radio Astronomy Advanced Instrumentation Research (RAAIR). There are three areas of research:

    • The designing and testing high performance, wide bandwidth, LNAs at frequencies of up to 300 GHz, and beyond, for use in both single pixel and array receivers on the world’s biggest telescopes.
    • New processes and materials for transistors for future, high performance generations of LNAs.
    • Computer-aided LNA design optimisation.

    In each of these areas there is the possibility of placements at various collaborating international institutions, including Caltech in Pasadena.

  • Onset of stellar mass loss and the kinematics of planetary nebulae

    Supervisor: Albert Zijlstra

    Contact: A.Zijlstra

    Project description: Stars like the Sun end their lives with a phase of catastrophic mass loss. The so-called 'superwind' can remove between 50 and 80% of the star's mass, leaving only the degenerate, inert core. The ejected shell is briefly visible as a planetary nebula. The intricate shapes of the nebulae shows that the mass loss is far from spherically symmetric. The cause of this is not well known but interactions with binary stars or planetary systems seems most likely. We have started projects studying the onset of the mass loss using the nearby stars in this phase of evolution, and are studying the kinematics of the planetary nebulae. Several potential projects are available within this area of research, depending on the specific interest of the student.

  • Coherent alignment of radio sources axes

    Supervisor: Ian Browne, Scott Kay, Michael Brown

    Contact: Ian.Browne

    Project description: The project gives an opportunity to be in at the beginning of something new and potentially very exciting. Marcha & Browne (in preparation) report a remarkable observational result. They find radio sources with flat radio spectra are apparently much more clustered on the sky than steep spectrum sources selected from the same catalogues. Why is this remarkable? This a completely new result, the measured degree of clustering is much greater than that for any other cosmological population and the angular scale over which it occurs implies coherence scales comparable or larger than that of any known structure. The observational result implies a coherent alignment of AGN axes within huge volumes of space offering a new probe for large-scale structure formation. The proposed PhD project has both data analysis, simulation, and perhaps theoretical, components. The work needs to be extended to more samples of radio sources and the clustering signal needs to be cross-correlated with other observables related to large-scale structure. Existing n-body simulations existing N-body simulations would be analysed to predict axis alignments in order to compare predictions with the observational results. The work would be done in collaboration with Maria Marcha (UCL).

  • Data science for the study of gravitational waves with high precision pulsar timing

    Supervisors: Michael Keith

    Contact: Michael.Keith

    Project description: Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars which sweep out beams of radiation along the poles of their extremely strong magnetic fields. We observe a pulse of radio waves from the pulsar each time its beam of emission sweeps across the Earth. The most rapidly rotating pulsars, which have spin periods of a few milliseconds, act as incredibly stable clocks and can be used in experiments of gravitational physics. We are working as part of a large international collaboration, the European Pulsar Timing Array, to detect gravitational waves from supermassive black-hole binaries at the centre of distant galaxies. This is complimentary to the gravitational wave observations done by the LIGO collaboration for which the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded. This PhD project involves developing robust statistical data analysis techniques to improve the pulsar timing array sensitivity by better understanding the various noise processes in the data. These processes are themselves interesting topics of study, covering processes fundamental to the pulsar itself as well as allowing for study of the turbulent interstellar plasma that lies between us and the pulsar. Applicants may also be interested in the possibility to get involved in pulsar timing with the new MeerKAT telescope in South Africa.

  • Design and realization of a wide-band sub quantum noise parametric amplifier (paramp) based on the non linear kinetic inductance property of superconductors

    Supervisor: Lucio Piccirillo

    Contact: Lucio.Piccirillo

    Project description: This project involves the design and development of an ultra low noise parametric amplifier for future radio astronomy observatories. It will consist of a superconducting thin film exhibiting highly non-linear kinetic inductance. When pumped with an external RF signal it will be driven in a state of parametric amplification with potential sub-quantum noise characteristics. The student will be involved in all phases of the development work, from the theoretical basis to the computer simulation of the final devices as well as manufacturing in the Computer Science clean room and testing in our fRF facilities in Alan Turing Building.

  • Design and construction of a continuous miniature dilution refrigerator for POLARBEAR2 and SIMONS array

    Supervisor: Lucio Piccirillo

    Contact: Lucio.Piccirillo

    Project description: POLARBEAR and SIMONS array are two CMB polarization experiments dedicated to the detection of the B-modes sited at high altitude at the Atacama desert in Chile. The University of Manchester, ATT team, is involved in the design and construction of the sub-K refrigerators that are at the heart of the receivers. The sub-K refrigerators will cool the bolometric arrays to base temperatures as low as 100 mK where the bolometers reach maximum sensitivity.

    The students will be involved in all the phases of the design, construction and testing of the refrigerators. It is also expected that he/she will participate in the observing campaigns on the Atacama desert on the Chilean Andes.

  • Constraining the physics of the early Universe with the Simons Observatory

    Supervisor: Michael Brown

    Contact: m.l.brown

    Project description: The Simons Observatory is a next generation Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) telescope to be located in Chile. The Simons Observatory’s primary goal is to detect a very specific pattern in the polarisation of the CMB radiation (termed “B-modes”) which will provide a unique observational window into the very early Universe and physics at GUT-scale energies. As part of our group you will have the opportunity to get involved with this state-of-the-art CMB experiment in a number of areas including investigating the best scanning strategies to use when conducting the observations and developing sophisticated analysis techniques to extract the extremely faint B-mode signal from the experimental data. This project would suit a student with keen analytic and computational skills.

  • Redshift-dependent probabilistic back-propagation for morphological classification of radio galaxies

    Supervisor: Anna Scaife

    Contact: anna.scaife

    Project description: The radio morphology of Double Radio sources associated with Active Galactic Nuclei (DRAGNs) is typically determined by examining the distribution of high and low surface brightness regions in the radio synchrotron emitting relativistic jets associated with these systems. This morphology, in conjunction with the radio luminosity of each source, is the basis of the well known Fanaroff-Riley (FR) radio galaxy classification scheme. Traditionally, this classification has been done via visual inspection, a method made feasible by the modest sample sizes of historic radio surveys such as NVSS, SUMSS & FIRST, all of which catalogued ~100,000 objects. However, the catalogs produced by the next generation of radio telescopes are anticipated to be much larger. The Australia SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) Evolutionary Map of the Universe survey expects to produce a catalog of ~70 million sources. Among the objects in this catalog, around 7 million extended radio sources are likely to require visual inspection. Beyond ASKAP, the Square Kilometre Array proposes to observe all FR Is and FR IIs up to z~4.

    The expected  volume of data  from  new  radio  surveys  has motivated the expanded use of semi-automatic and automatic object classification algorithms, including the use of convolutional neural networks. Initial studies using CNNs have been applied to FR morphology classification and suggest that complex radio source structures can be identified and classified according to their morphology using this method. Indeed, in astronomy more widely, CNNs are becoming increasingly well-used: to identify galaxy clusters and filaments, detect fast radio bursts, recognize strong gravitational lenses and to classify supernovae. Whilst these studies have demonstrated the successful application of CNNs to astronomical classification problems, there remain three key issues that currently inhibit the systematic use of CNNs in astronomy: (1) a paucity of labelled data for training; (2) a lack of computational power; and (3) an understanding of the biases introduced in the classification due to observational and astrophysical selection biases in the training data. The first of these issues may be solved to some extent through the use of citizen science projects such as Galaxy Zoo; however, it is unlikely that astronomy will ever reach the volume of clean training data required for the deep learning architectures that are implemented commercially: paradoxically, although we have too much data, we don't have enough. The second can be addressed financially through the expansion of computational resources and a transition to GPU-based processing. The third issue is the subject of this proposal. Although the benefits of using automated classifiers for astronomy have been recognized, the inherent biases in their operation have yet to be investigated and addressed. Similar issues are increasingly evident in the business and everyday applications of machine learning, where social biases are emerging on a range of levels. Within scientific applications these biases will also have an impact, caused by the presence of observational and astrophysical selection biases in the training data provided to the algorithms (resolution, luminosity selection, redshift evolution, etc.). Identifying and accounting for these biases is essential to enable the robust application of machine learning in astrophysics, just as it has been historically for more general statistical analysis. However, for image-based machine learning classification, the effect of bias is not trivial to disentangle from the back-propagation optimization method employed by multi-layered CNNs. 
    In this project the student will explore the effect of different observational biases on CNN-based classifiers, focusing on the problem of radio galaxy classification for large radio surveys. By artificially introducing biases into training data gathered from archival surveys (NVSS, FIRST & SUMSS) they will assess the impact of different observational selection biases and look at methods of mitigating against them and/or quantitatively predicting their effect by treating them (i) as a specific form of class imbalance in the training data, and (ii) introducing a so-called ``Bayesian layer" after the fully-connected layers of the classifier in order to implement probabilistic back-propagation, equivalent to imposing a  parameterised prior corresponding to the expected  underlying population. This structure will allow us to integrate parameter estimation for redshift-dependent galaxy evolution models directly into our classifier and marginalise over multiple underlying source population models in order to minimise bias. We will then extend this approach to the SKA data challenges (e.g. in order to assess the applicability of networks trained from existing archival survey data to more sensitive observations. In doing this we will adapt our architecture to implement joint object detection and classification. The student will then extend this purely morphological radio galaxy classification to incorporate catalogue-based multi-wavelength data as well as radio images. This multi-messenger classification will require us to determine methods for handling multiple selection biases from different input data-sets within the same classifier. Rather than addressing these multiple biases directly, the student may implement a multi-task network, which will allow them to marginalise over multiple different representations to minimise overfitting/bias from any individual dataset.
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