mardi 5 avril 2011

PhD studentship

The evolution of psychological and physiological mechanisms for behaviour

Prof. Alasdair Houston, Prof. John McNamara & Dr Tim Fawcett
Modelling Animal Decisions (MAD) Group, University of Bristol

We are seeking a talented and enthusiastic student for a PhD position in our group, as part of an exciting new ERC-funded project on ‘The evolution of mechanisms controlling behaviour’. This is an ambitious, interdisciplinary project which aims to shed light on the internal workings of behaviour and lead to a better understanding of how evolution has shaped decision making in a wide variety of animals, from invertebrates to humans.

The project
The PhD project will involve the development of mathematical and computational models of animal behaviour, based on evolutionary theory. A key part of the work will be to integrate mechanistic considerations into evolutionary models, in order to understand how behaviour is affected by constraints in evolved psychological and physiological systems. Within the general aims of the project, the candidate will have the freedom to develop the work along the lines that interest them most. The issues we are currently working on include:
  • The evolution of irrational preferences. Animals (including humans) value rewards (food, money, etc.) in a subjective and sometimes inconsistent way. For example, gains and losses often seem to matter more than the animal’s final state. We are using evolutionary models to try to explain this apparently irrational behaviour.
  • The evolution of patience. In some situations animals act impulsively, seeking instant gratification, while in other situations they are willing to wait for a greater reward. We are trying to understand what ecological factors favour impulsive behaviour and what factors favour patience.
  • The evolution of obesity. One hypothesis for the rise in obesity in the developed world is that our evolved foraging strategies no longer work well in environments where energyrich food is readily available. We are using evolutionary models of dietary preferences to examine whether this is a plausible explanation.
  • The evolution of emotions. Although animal behaviour is complex, it seems to be related to a small number of motivational drives, for example fear, hunger and sexual arousal. We are building models of the evolution of emotional states to help us understand why behaviour is organised in this way.
We collaborate closely with empirical biologists working on a range of different systems, but the PhD project will be theoretical. The major techniques we use include optimality theory, game theory, dynamic programming, genetic algorithms, neural networks and genetic programming. Training in these methods will be provided, but we are seeking a student with good skills in mathematics or computer science.
McNamara, J. M. & Houston, A. I. 2009. Integrating function and mechanism. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 670–675.

The working environment
The successful candidate will join a new, dynamic research group under the leadership of Profs Alasdair Houston and John McNamara, world leaders in theoretical approaches to studying animal behaviour. The Modelling Animal Decisions (MAD) group ( is based in the School of Biological Sciences and has strong links with researchers in Mathematics, Computer Science, Psychology, Philosophy and Animal Welfare. We have ongoing collaborations with experts elsewhere in Britain and throughout the EU, and there will be opportunities to travel to international workshops and conferences as part of the PhD project.
The University of Bristol is one of the top research universities in the UK and is the preeminent institute for mathematical approaches to studying animal behaviour. Students have access to world-class library and computing facilities and are immersed in a vibrant research environment, with several active seminar series, frequent visits from prominent international scientists and an active social scene. The School of Biological Sciences runs a special training scheme for graduate students, offering a variety of modules and workshops to improve skills in statistics, communication, collaboration, time management, peer review, public engagement and much more besides.

Who we are looking for
We are seeking a student with good mathematical and/or computational skills. Applicants should have (or expect to obtain) a degree in Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science or a related discipline. We also encourage applications from Biological Sciences students whose degree includes a substantial (i.e. 30%) mathematical component. A keen interest in evolutionary biology is essential.
The studentship is open to all EU students. Those from within the UK need at least an upper second-class Bachelors degree before they can take up the position. The studentship is available for three and a half years with a stipend of £13,590 per annum, and will start in October 2011 or as soon as possible thereafter.

How to apply
The deadline for applications is 21 April 2011. To apply, please send the following documents to
  • a CV including the names and contact details (e-mail address, postal address and phone number) of two academic referees
  • a cover letter explaining why you want to do a PhD and why this particular project interests you.