PhD Projects 2020

Below is a list of PhD projects being offered in 2020. 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 guaranteed 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, applicants 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 preferred area of research (e.g. "cosmology")  for the Research Title.

  • 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.

  • 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 cutting-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.

  • Simulating star bursting galaxies across cosmological time

    Supervisor: Rowan Smith

    Contact: rowan.smith

    Project description: 

    One of the fundamental questions in Astrophysics is the link between galaxies and the formation of stars within them. Such stars injects energy, momentum and metals into the surrounding gas and play a crucial role in the evolution of small irregular systems in the early universe, into the galaxies we see today. On the other hand, the conditions within the galaxy will determine where star forming clouds of gas can form, how they fragment, and ultimately how solar systems like our own are made. Until recently the link between galaxy and star-forming scales could not be investigated simultaneously. However, our team has recently pioneered a technique where individual star forming regions can be simulated within a full galaxy simulation.
    In this project we will use our custom modified version of the AREPO MHD code to investigate how stars form in some of the most dramatic objects in our Universe, Starburst Galaxies. To do this we will simulate firing dwarf galaxies and tidal streams through the discs of larger galaxies, and self-consistently resolve the formation of star forming clouds where the two interact. In these starburst regions we will investigate how the star formation rate is changed, the effect on the surrounding galaxy, and how the gas fragments. Is star formation in these extreme systems like that of the Milky Way, or is there a new paradigm? What observable signatures can we predict will be seen with cutting edge facilities such as the ALMA telescope?
    This project is primarily numerically based, but while previous experience of simulations and HPC would be beneficial, it is not a necessity as training will be provided in all the techniques as part of the project.
  • Detecting and modelling neutron star glitches with Bayesian techniques

    Supervisor: Michael Keith & Ben Shaw

    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. Using the radio telescopes, we can observe pulses of radio waves from the pulsar each time its beam of emission sweeps across the Earth. Observing the regular pulses from pulsars gives us insight into the physics occurring in the extreme electromagnetic and gravitational fields around these stars. Using a technique known as "pulsar timing”, we can precisely track the rotational phase of the pulsar over many years. As the pulsar spins it slows down due to a magnetic braking torque, the measurement of which which allows us to infer important properties such as the age and magnetic field strength of the star. We can also use these pulsars as precise clocks to study extreme gravity in compact binary systems, as well as low-frequency gravitational waves.

    For some pulsars, this smooth spin-down is interrupted by a sudden increase in the frequency of rotation, known as a “glitch”. These glitches are thought to occur due to differential rotation which builds up between the crust of the star and the superfluid interior. As this differential rotation reaches some critical point, there is a sudden transfer of angular momentum from the interior to the exterior of the star, which causes the observed rotation period to suddenly change. Study of these glitches gives us a window into the unique forms of matter inside a neutron star, which cannot ever be created in a laboratory on Earth.

    In this project, you will work with pulsar observational data from the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, and with the "1000 Pulsar Array" project on the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa. You will develop robust statistical methods to detect glitches as they happen, and to fully characterise already observed glitches, building up a large database of pulsar glitches from observations of up to 1000 radio pulsars. This will involve the application of Bayesian techniques as well as exploring options for applying more advanced Machine Learning techniques.

  • Characterising the dynamic magnetospheres of neutron stars

    Supervisor: Patrick Weltevrede

    Contact: Patrick.Weltevrede

    Project description: 

    Radio pulsars are highly magnetised neutron stars which spin with periods of between a few millisecond and seconds. Each rotation the radio emission, which is beamed along the magnetic poles, sweeps across the Earth and can be detected by very sensitive radio telescopes as a regular sequence of pulses. The rotation of the neutron stars can be extremely stable which makes them very accurate clocks allowing tests of the general theory of relativity. However, for most pulsars the individual pulses of the observed sequence vary greatly in shape, intensity and polarization. These variations are caused by largely unknown physical processes in the magnetosphere of these stars. In some cases these variations happen in a coordinated fashion, which are known as drifting subpulses, indicative of regular dynamical changes in the magnetosphere.

    In this project you will explore observational data from the "1000 Pulsar Array" project on the MeerKAT telescope in South Africa and the Parkes radio telescope in Australia to characterize this variability and explore the implications for magnetospheric theories.

  • Hydrodynamical Simulations of Cosmic Structure Formation

    Supervisor: Scott Kay

    Contact: scott.kay

    Project description: 

    Understanding how structure grows in the universe is one of the key challenges in modern cosmology. It allows us to better understand the origin of galaxies and galaxy clusters, as well as probe the nature of fundamental constituents of our Universe 
    such as the dark matter and dark energy. The growth of structure is a highly non-linear process and, while driven by gravity, requires a range of astrophysical processes to be modelled such as radiative cooling, star formation and strong energy outflows (feedback) from stars and super-massive black holes. Massive progress is being made with these models using hydrodynamical simulations, thanks to the rapid advances in both software(simulation codes) and hardware (massively-parallel computing clusters). In this project, the student will have the opportunity to participate in developing, running and analysing such simulations. They will be able to work as part of the Virgo consortium, an international collaboration of computational cosmologists. In Manchester, our work is mainly focused on comparing simulations of galaxy clusters with the latest multi-wavelength observations (e.g. cluster galaxies; using X-rays and Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effects to study the hot gas; and gravitational lensing to study the dark matter). The project would be suitable for a student who has a keen interest in code development and numerical modelling. 
  • 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.   A major unsolved problem is to explain why the solar coronal temperature is  over a million degrees Kelvin. Coronal heating  is believe to  result 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, including a newly-developed “reduced kinetics” approach. The main applications are to  heating of the solar corona through nanoflares, 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   merging magnetic flux ropes, and to considering the interaction between magnetic reconnections and waves .  An important aspect  will be “forward modelling” of  observational signatures,  with energetic particles potentially  detected both through hard X-ray and radio emission.  Some analysis and interpretation of radio observations, such as from LOFAR, may also be undertaken.
  • Death of the Sun

    Supervisor: Albert Zijlstra

    Contact: a.zijlstra

    Project description: 

    Stars like the Sun end their lives with a phase of spectacular mass loss. Within a period of 100,000 years, between 40% and 80% of the stellar mass is ejected into space. The ejecta form a bright planetary nebula while the remnant of the star quickly evolves towards the white dwarf phase. Planetary nebulae show a variety of shapes, including elliptical bipolar – some are even round. The mass loss is still poorly understood, both in terms of the mechanisms that drive it and the processes that shape it.  Three projects are available, which can be tailored to fit the interests of the students. One project involves a large spectroscopic survey of planetary nebulae in the Galactic bulge, which will be used to study the evolution and progenitor stellar population. The second project involves the study of the internal 3d velocity fields of the nebulae, using high-resolution spectra, to study the shaping. The third project involves the study of nearby stars entering the high mass-loss phase, involving extreme adaptive-optics to resolve the region immediately around the star, and molecular line studies of the shell. This project may involve a stay in Nice. All projects combine working with observational data and modeling.
  • Fundamental Physics Using Spider Pulsars

    Supervisor: Rene Breton

    Contact: rene.breton

    Project description: 

    Binary pulsars are formidable laboratories, allowing us to investigate fundamental physics due to their extreme nature (density, magnetic field and gravitational field). This is only possible as they offer proxies via multi-wavelength observations to measure their physical parameters. Of particular importance are the pulsar binaries nicknamed after the deadly ‘black widow’ spiders, which contain a rapidly rotating millisecond pulsar that is gradually destroying a low-mass companion. Current observations demonstrate that these particular systems harbour some of the most rapidly spinning and massive pulsars known to us.
    The PhD student will contribute to several projects led by the supervisor’s team which aim to find and characterise new spiders to understand the mechanisms responsible for their remarkable properties. One area of investigation is a radio survey to find energetic pulsars with the new MeerKAT telescope array. Set to start in early 2020, this campaign is expected to nearly double the number of known spider population. The PhD student will help develop new analysis techniques which will take advantage of multi-wavelength datasets to improve the performances of the survey as well as undertake initial follow-up work. A second area of investigation is the modelling of the interaction between the pulsar and its companion, mainly via numerical simulations, to explain the binary evolution and physical properties of these systems. 
  • Revealing an Extragalactic Population of Radio Pulsars

    Supervisor: Ben Stappers, Michael Keith and Lina Levin Preston

    Contact: ben.stappers and/or lina.preston

    Project description: 

    Pulsars are rapidly spinning neutron stars, with a very stable rotation, making them excellent laboratories for astrophysical research. The field of pulsar research is ever expanding, with the discovery of new unique sources with applications ranging from studying the evolution of supermassive black holes in the early Universe to testing theories of gravity. This project will make use of data from the recently completed MeerKAT telescope in South Africa, to search for previously unknown pulsars in the Magellanic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are two dwarf galaxies, located close to the Milky Way and the only external galaxies where pulsars have been discovered so far. The excellent sensitivity of the MeerKAT array implies that a full survey of the clouds should discover eight times as many pulsars as are currently known. In this project, you will search the MeerKAT data using so-called acceleration searching to account for changes in the pulse period of pulsars in close binary systems, and sift through the large number of expected pulsar candidates using machine learning techniques.
  • Development of new generation of superconducting parametric amplifiers for radio astronomy

    Supervisor: Lucio Piccirillo

    Contact: Lucio.Piccirillo

    Project description: 

    Radio astronomy signals collected by radio telescope are extremely weak and need to be amplified to be properly detected and analysed. An ideal amplifier should possess minimum noise, high dynamic range and large bandwidth. These three main characteristics are very difficult to achieve in the same device. For example, transistor based amplifier like High Electron Mobility Transistor (HEMT) MMICs have large bandwidth and good dynamic range but suffer from noise that can be several times higher than the fundamental noise set by quantum mechanics. Recently, it has been shown that superconducting parametric amplifiers using the reactive non linearity with pump power due to the kinetic inductance of Cooper pairs might be able to possess all three characteristics described above. These amplifiers are manufactured with photolithographic techniques and consist of a simple patterned superconducting metal film deposited on a Silicon wafer.
    The PhD project consists in the theoretical review of the principle of travelling-wave superconducting parametric amplifiers. Then the student will be integrated into a team composed of scientists from the Advanced Technology Team at the University of Manchester, Manchester computer science and Daresbury laboratory to manufacture and test travelling-wave superconducting parametric amplifiers. The goal is to integrate one amplifier into a full radio astronomy receiver and perform test observations on a radio telescope.
  • The L-Band All-Sky Survey (L-BASS)

    Supervisor: Patrick Leahy

    Co-supervisors: Ian Browne & Peter Wilkinson

    Contact: j.p.leahy

    Project description:

    The aim of the L-BASS project is to map the intensity of the radio sky at ~1.4 GHz with unprecedented absolute accuracy (0.1K) – ten times better than achieved by Penzias and Wilson in their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation. There are several reasons to do this, the most exciting being that it should settle a current astrophysical puzzle about the reality of excess all-sky low frequency emission of unknown origin (the “ARCADE-2 controversy”). Such an excess might help account for another recent controversial result which is the claimed detection of strong absorption arising in atomic hydrogen situated at a redshift of 17 (the “EDGES result”). In addition our sky map will have impact on Galactic astrophysics and our knowledge of the Cosmic Microwave Background.

    During the PhD project the student will produce and interpret the first sky maps with the L-BASS telescope system which is situated at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The system, which is based on two large horn antennas, is nearing completion and commissioning observations will begin Q2 2020. This PhD project involves a mixture of hands on work with the system, making precisely calibrated observations and writing software for data analysis followed by the astrophysical interpretation of the results. To achieve the required accuracy (0.1K) requires particularly careful calibration using a cryogenically cooled reference load of known physical temperature; the assembly and testing of this cryogenic calibration load will form a significant part of the project.

  • Understanding performance-limiting magnetohydrodynamics in spherical tokamaks [allocated funding]

    Supervisor: Philippa Browning, with Christopher Ham (Culham Centre for Fusion Energy)

    Contact: philippa.browning

    Project description: 

    Magnetically-confined fusion is a strong candidate to meet the vital need for future clean and reliable electrical power generation, and the development of this energy source is a huge international research challenge. The Spherical Tokamak device presents exciting prospects both for fundamental research into the physics of fusion plasmas and as a future power plant. The MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) at CCFE has recently undergone a major upgrade, and MAST-U will make significant input into the international fusion research programme.

    It will be essential to understand, avoid, mitigate or control magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) instabilities in MAST-U so that the experiment can reach high performance, long pulse operation and fulfil its mission. This knowledge can then be applied to improved MAST-U scenarios and to design future spherical tokamaks. The first part of the project will involve analysing data from MAST-U (for example, magnetics and Thomson scattering data) in order to identify which instabilities are important, such as the long lived mode or neoclassical tearing modes. Based on this, models will be developed using linear or nonlinear MHD codes, and benchmarked against the data. The modelling will be used to explore parameter regimes and determine how to mitigate or avoid the instabilities. The modelling may exploit, where relevant, synergies with solar MHD studies, for example, 3D simulations of nonlinear kink instabilities in solar flares undertaken by the Manchester supervisor.

    This joint studentship between Manchester and CCFE will funded by EPSRC and CCFE. The student will be based mainly at the CCFE in Oxfordshire, but will spend at least two 6-month periods in Manchester, including induction and skills training. There will be regular contact throughout between the student and the CCFE and Manchester supervisors. The student may also work with international collaborators such as NSTX-U in Princeton.

  • Modelling time domain radio emission in the circumstellar regions of protostars

    Supervisor: Philippa Browning and Gary Fuller

    Contact: philippa.browning

    Project description: 

    Understand how a forming star acquires its final mass is a fundamental issue for a building a comprehensive model of star formation.  The time-dependent and transient nature of the process of mass accretion from the circumstellar disk to the protostar is difficult to study and poorly understood. However, this process can be diagnosed through variable emission it produces. Recently, we have developed new idealised models (Waterfall et al., Mon Not Roy Astr Soc 483, 917, 2019a; Waterfall et al. 2019b, to be submitted to MNRAS) of this phenomenon in T-Tauri stars, in which magnetic large loops interconnecting the star and the accretion disk are filled with non-thermal electrons due to magnetic reconnection which emitting at radio wavelengths.

    The aim of the current project will be to develop more sophisticated and realistic models of this process and predict its radio emission. This will be done using numerical resistive magnetohydrodynamic simulations of protostars, which will predict the energy release due to magnetic reconnection as the stellar magnetic field interacts with the disk. Then, the gyrosynchrotron radio emission due to electrons accelerated by the reconnection – similarly to solar flares – will be calculated, modelling both the intensity and polarization properties as a function of frequency as the accretion event progresses.

    Comparison of the results of these models with observations will provide some of the first insights on this final stage of accretion on to protostars. The results will provide important constraints on the design the first large scale radio surveys of star forming regions with the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and there may be the opportunity to be involved in the comparison of the model predictions and observations made with current radio telescopes.

  • Next-Generation Radio Surveys for Cosmic Magnetism Science [allocated funding]

    Supervisor: Anna Scaife

    Contact: anna.scaife

    Project description: 

    The MeerKAT International GHz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) is a radio continuum survey being conducted with the South African SKA pathfinder telescope MeerKAT, and will create deep images of the extragalactic sky to explore the cosmic evolution of galaxies. In this project the student will work on spectral image data from the MIGHTEE survey, with particular emphasis on the polarisation components, to produce a classified object catalogue with quantitative estimates of bias. In collaboration with the MIGHTEE team, the student will develop the polarisation calibration and imaging processing for MeerKAT survey data to produce a classified object catalogue with quantitative estimates of bias using machine learning methodologies. A key focus within the later part of this project will be understanding the effects of selection bias in the training data for the machine learning classification and the impact of these biases on astrophysical interpretation and parameter estimation. In particular the student will look at how to visualise and communicate these biases in different ways to the astronomy community, with a view to understanding the analogous effects on future science with the SKA. 
    This project is funded through a Turing AI Fellowship.
  • Astrophysical Image Processing with Convolutional Neural Networks

    Supervisor: Anna Scaife

    Contact: anna.scaife

    Project description: 

    The MeerKAT International GHz Tiered Extragalactic Exploration (MIGHTEE) is a radio continuum survey being conducted with the South African SKA pathfinder telescope MeerKAT, and will create deep images of the extragalactic sky to explore the cosmic evolution of galaxies. In this project the student will work on spectral image data from the MIGHTEE survey, with particular emphasis on the polarisation components, to produce a classified object catalogue with quantitative estimates of bias. This project will make use of machine learning approaches, initially focusing on Generative Adversarial Networks employing variational inference, and developing accordingly. A key focus of this work will be the in-depth study of biases introduced by different training data, with the aim of assessing the possibility of transfer learning to create models for future SKA1-MID surveys using MeerKAT data. This project would be suitable for students that have a background in computer science, physics or astronomy, with a strong and demonstrated interest in AI methods. 
    This project is funded through a Turing AI Fellowship.
  • Tracing universal evolution via neutral hydrogen mapping

    Supervisor: Laura Wolz

    Contact: laura.wolz

    Project description: 

    The upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will provide new ways to test and constrain the cosmological model of our universe via observations in the radio wavelength. Hydrogen - the most abundant element in our universe - has a characteristic radio emission at 21cm which can be used as a tracer for the underlying dark matter distribution. The redshifted 21cm line can be used to efficiently map the large scale structure of our Universe using radio telescopes such as the SKA. This relatively new method called HI intensity mapping has the potential to test our cosmological standard model in many ways, including the expansion history up to high redshifts. An important aspect on these tests is the correct understanding and modeling of the neutral hydrogen distribution with respect to dark matter. In this project, we investigate new analysis techniques for future HI intensity mapping experiments with the SKA combining astrophysical models of the HI distribution with the cosmological tests. This project will involve working with cosmological simulations as well as developing new numerical methods for future data analysis.

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