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PhD Studentship: Opportunity in Investigating quantum effects in olfaction: combining simulation and closed/open quantum system analytic theory

University of Surrey - Biosciences and Medicine

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Guildford
Funding for: UK Students, EU Students
Funding amount: £15,000 per year for eligible UK/EU students
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 11th April 2019
Closes: 31st May 2019

Studentship description

Olfaction (smell) is a fascinating but challenging field in science. Theories for the signalling transduction mechanism are still disputed and hotly debated, and not yet established. One theory suggests that odorants are characterized by their quantum mechanical vibrations (phonons) [1]. 

Since this proposition a mathematical model for this phenomenon as a signalling mechanism was derived and shown to be robust given certain parameters [2]. This so-called ’phonon assisted electron tunneling’ has been indicated to exist as a mechanism in other bio-systems however not necessarily in olfaction. More detailed and accurate calculations of the important parameters are required, and also more definitive experimental testing of the possibility that electron transfer actually initiates the olfactory signalling event. More recently investigations have indicated that the semi-classical approach of phonon-assisted tunneling in [2] is not sufficient to model olfaction, but that including dissipation effects in an open quantum system may be the way towards finally reaching a quantitative result for how smell works [3]. 

Fundamental to this project is the investigation of olfaction as a quantum effect, therefore it will comprise of an analysis of olfaction as a closed and an open quantum system. We will explore these models and calculate the required parameters for the olfactory receptor protein environments with state of art accuracy in theoretical physics. This will be performed in collaboration with experimental tests of the theory that olfaction uses non-classical mechanics. 

This project will commence on the 1st October 2019 and will finish on the 30th September 2022. 

Entry requirements

2.1 or above in BSc or MPhys Physics, or biophysics or the equivalent in Chemistry. An A-level in Mathematics is a basic requirement. 
If English is not your first language, you will be required to have an IELTS Academic of 6.5 or above (or equivalent), with no sub-test score below 6. 
Applicants will also need to display a willingness to work across the disciplines. 


This studentship is fully funded through a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. 
All University fees are covered for the duration of the project with a stipend of approximately £15,000 per year for eligible UK/EU students. 

How to apply

Applications can be made through our Biosciences and Medicine Course page Please state the project title and supervisor clearly on all applications. 

Application enquiries

Prof Jim Al-Khalili, 01483 686808


[1] Luca Turin. “A Spectroscopic Mechanism for Primary Olfactory Reception” (1997), Chemical senses. 21. 773-91. 10.1093/chemse/21.6.773 
[2] Jennifer C. Brookes, Filio Hartoutsiou, A. P. Horsfield, and A. M. Stoneham. “Could Humans Recognize Odor by Phonon Assisted Tunneling?” (2007), Phys. Rev. Lett. 98, 038101 
[3]Agata Chęcińska, Felix A. Pollock, Libby Heaney, and Ahsan Nazir “Dissipation enhanced vibrational sensing in an olfactory molecular switch”, J Chem. Phys. 142, 025102 (2015).

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