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PhD Studentship: Energy, efflux and resistance in bacteria

University of Birmingham
Birmingham, West Midlands (GB)
Closing date
30 Apr 2024

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About the project

Bacteria constantly adapt to their environment and respond to stresses and toxic compounds that they encounter. Without this adaptation, bacteria would die. A common mechanism that protects bacteria against toxic molecules such as antibiotics and biocides are efflux pumps, molecular machines that pump such molecules out of the cell. It is known that efflux of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, and more recently efflux pumps have also been used to protect bacteria against organic solvents and other chemicals in industrial processes.

We have recently found that there is a fundamental link between the way in which bacteria generate energy (needed for growth and cellular functions) and efflux pumps (required for removing harmful chemicals) [Whittle et al. 2023]. Energy is needed to drive efflux pumps, but we have discovered that the energy level within the cell is responsible for regulating fundamental behaviours, and that efflux pumps impact on these behaviours.

We think that this is very important in understanding how bacteria are able to survive in different environments, including during infections and in industrial processes. In this project we will explore this link and aim to understand how we might use this knowledge to kill pathogenic bacteria via better use of antibiotics and improve industrial processes.

The main research questions

  • How is the energy state of the cell linked to efflux pumps?
  • How is this link regulated? What are the sensors and regulators involved in this process?
  • How does the energy – efflux link allow bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics
  • How can we use this link to improve bacterial processes that generate useful compounds?

We will use a combination of approaches, grounded in single-cell analysis of bacteria using flow cytometry and microscopy that we have previously developed [Whittle et al. 2019]. This will allow us to measure how individual bacteria respond to stresses, regulate their energy state, and control efflux pumps. We will also use a variety of molecular biology methods to generically modify bacteria in order to better understand mechanisms of energy metabolism, efflux, and their regulation.

This topic is incredibly important as antibiotic resistance is an urgent and growing problem that threatens global health. The World Health Organisation estimate that 1.3 million deaths were caused by AMR in 2019, and AMR contributed to 5 million deaths; and these numbers are growing year on year. There are already bacteria causing disease that cannot be treated using antibiotics. In addition, antibiotics are required for preventing infection following operations and chemotherapy, meaning that many aspects of modern medicine would fail if antibiotics became less effective.

This interdisciplinary project will be supervised by Dr Tim Overton (School of Chemical Engineering), who is an expert on single-cell analysis of bacteria and bacterial physiology, and Professor Jessica Blair (Institute of Microbiology and Infection), an expert on bacterial efflux pumps and antimicrobial resistance.

Entry Requirements

Applicants will be expected to have a good Honours degree (First Class or Upper Second Class Honours degree) awarded by a recognised University in life science (e.g. Biology, Biochemistry, Biotechnology, Microbiology) or physical science (e.g. Chemistry, Chemical Engineering) disciplines.

Who can apply?

These scholarships are designed to create opportunities and address the underrepresentation of talented Black or Black mixed heritage students in academia. Applicants who meet all of the following criteria are eligible to apply:

  1. UK nationals and eligible for registration as Home students
  2. Members of one of the following ethnic groups:
    • Black African
    • Black Caribbean
    • Black Other
    • Mixed – White and Black Caribbean
    • Mixed – White and Black African
    • Other mixed background (to include Black African, Black Caribbean or Black Other)
  3. Not already enrolled on a PhD programme at the University of Birmingham

What does the scholarship provide?

  1. Financial Support: Recipients of these scholarships will receive substantial financial support, including a stipend at UKRI rates, which is set at £18,622 per year. This support covers tuition fees, living expenses, and research-related costs, including bench fees. This support is designed to alleviate the financial burden often associated with pursuing a doctoral degree.
  2. Mentorship and Guidance: Scholarship recipients will benefit from mentorship opportunities and guidance from accomplished faculty members who are dedicated to helping them succeed in their academic and research endeavours.
  3. Research Opportunities: We are committed to providing an exceptional research environment. Students will have access to state-of-the-art facilities, cutting-edge resources, and a vibrant scholarly community.
  4. Community Building: A key component of the scholarship programme is the creation of a supportive community of Black British researchers pursuing PhDs. This network will foster collaboration and peer support among scholars.
  5. Research Training Support Grant: In addition to financial support, scholarship recipients will receive a research training support grant. This grant is intended to support conference attendance, fieldwork, and other essential activities that enhance their research and academic growth.
  6. Commitment to Inclusivity: We are dedicated to building an inclusive academic environment that values diversity and ensures equitable access to education.

Contact the lead supervisor, Tim Overton

Once applicants have familiarised themselves with the above project details, they are encouraged to contact the lead PhD supervisor to discuss the project and the applicant's suitability for the project. This is recommended before you submit an application to the PhD project.

We welcome informal enquiries and discussions about the project - please contact Tim Overton (

How to apply - please read before applying

After applicants have made contact with the lead PhD supervisor, you will then need to apply to the PhD project using our online application portal: you should select '125th Anniversary Scholarships (EPS)'. You will need to create an account for the online application portal and you will be prompted to sign-in upon your return to the portal.

You do not need to complete your application in one session; you can save your application at each stage and return to the portal at any stage before submission, particularly if you do not have all of the necessary documents when you begin your application.

As this is an 'advertised PhD', in which you will studying the above project that has already been provided by the academic supervisor(s), you do not need to submit a research proposal. Your personal statement will suffice for determining your suitability for the PhD project as well as your previous academic, professional and personal experiences.

For your application you will need to submit the following documents:

1. Personal Statement

You will need a personal statement of approximately 5,000 characters, explaining why you are interested in researching the above PhD project. This can be uploaded to the personal statement section in a PDF or Microsoft Word format. Alternatively, you can type this within the application portal.

The personal statement is an opportunity to make yourself stand out from other applicants and demonstrate how you are the most suitable candidate. You should explain your motivations for applying to the PhD project and how the PhD will help you achieve your future goals and aspirations. You may wish to outline and explain how your previous academic experiences have prepared you for PhD study, such as a specific module, research piece or dissertation in your Bachelors or Masters degree. Similarly, you should detail the skills that you have developed in any relevant academic, professional or personal contexts that would make you a suitable PhD student for the above project.

2. References

On your application, you will have been asked for contact details of one or two references. For some courses, you will need the references before a decision to be made.

Please make sure you tell your references to expect contact from the University of Birmingham via email, requesting their reference. Please note that the contact email address of the referee must be an official email address and not a personal one (for example, gmail). We recommend that the referee sends back the reference in a PDF format as it is preferred if:

  • The reference is on official headed paper with the organisation or university’s logo and address
  • It includes the date, your details and the details of the referee
  • A summary of how they know you and confirm your suitability for studying on the course you have applied for
  • It should be signed by the referee with their official contact details.

If both your referees send back references which are not on official headed paper, you may be asked to send in additional references.

If you already have a written reference(s) and want to upload it on behalf of your referee(s), make sure the reference is a scanned copy of the original and that it is on official headed paper.

If you input your referee details, your referees will receive a reference request email from us as soon as you submit your application. When a referee provides the reference by clicking on the link in the reference request email, it will be automatically uploaded to your application.

A referee can also provide a reference by emailing it to us directly via, it should be sent from their official email address and contain their full name and role. Once the email has been received, it will be sent for processing so that it can be uploaded to your application.

Your online portal will be updated when a reference has been received and processed but please allow at least 15 working days for this. If your portal has not been updated, this does not necessarily mean that the references have not been received as there can be a delay with the processing of references.

Please note that for the vast majority of our programmes, we do not require references in order for a decision to be made and your application will still be processed as usual. If an offer is made and the references are still outstanding, they will form part of the conditions of the offer.

3. Academic certificate and transcript(s) for all prior degrees

If you have graduated:

  • You will have been asked to upload a scan of your original or certified copies of your degree certificate(s) and transcript(s) on the Postgraduate Application Portal.
  • If you have not done so already, you can go back into the portal to upload your documents. Otherwise your application cannot be considered.
  • Please be prepared to send in your original or certified copies of your documents if the Admissions team requests to verify them.
  • If you don’t have certified copies of your documents and would prefer not to send the original, you can get copies certified by either the institution where you studied or by a notary.

If you are currently a student:

  • You will have been asked to upload an interim transcript from your latest exams.
  • If you have not done so already, you can go back into the portal to upload your interim transcript. Otherwise your application cannot be considered.
  • Please be prepared to send in your original or certified copies of your degree certificate and final transcript upon graduation if the Admissions team requests to verify them.
  • If you don’t have certified copies of your documents and would prefer not to send the original, you can get copies certified by either the institution where you studied or by a notary.

4. Sample Work

If you are required to submit a piece of example work— usually a short written piece (common for programmes such as Creative Writing or English Literature); music composition or performance for those looking to study music related programmes— you will be notified by the academic tutor before they can access and make a decision on your application.

Please make sure you submit these as soon as possible and in the format requested by the academic tutor.

Application Portal tips

  • You don’t need to complete your application in one session. Simply save it and come back to it when you’re ready.
  • Avoid delays by checking all your information is accurate and complete.
  • Your application won’t be processed until you’ve completed all the relevant sections and submitted it.
  • If you run into any technical issues with your application, email us at

What happens next?

Once you’ve submitted your application, we’ll send you details on how to access your applicant portal. You’ll be able to track the progress of your application, update your personal information, view decisions and accept offers.

Your application will be ‘pending’ on your portal while we check your application.

You can add or edit some details or documents within your application after it’s been submitted through your applicant portal. Or email (include your applicant ID number) and we can add or edit for you.


  • Whittle EE, Legood SW, Alav I, Dulyayangkul P, Overton TW, Blair JMA. (2019) Flow Cytometric Analysis of Efflux by Dye Accumulation. Front Microbiol. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.02319.
  • Whittle EE, Orababa O, Osgerby A, Element SJ, Blair JMA, Overton TW. (2023) Efflux pumps mediate changes to fundamental bacterial physiology via membrane potential. bioRxiv doi: 10.1101/2023.04.03.535035

The deadline for applications is 23:59 (UK time) on Tuesday 30 April 2024!

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