Possible PhD Topics

The MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development has a number of potential PhD topics available to prospective students.

For an overview of the PhD topics available, including research program and researcher details, please click on a potential topic in the list below.

Research program indicators

PhD Icon - BENSBiomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - MCA Music Cognition and Action

PhD Icon - S&L Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLab Speech and Language (BabyLab)


PhD Icon - BENSAnalogue VLSI and Neuromorphic Engineering

Overview

Neuromorphic engineering is a multi-discipline approach to building electronic systems that are inspired by biology and it aims to replicate many of the tasks that biological systems excel at. We will implement electronic circuits for sensory and neural signal processing. Specific examples of such chips would be a silicon cochlea emulating the filtering performed by the cochlea in the ear, or an IC containing a network of spiking neurons to perform computations based on how we think the brain processes sensory signals.

Requirements

VLSI design, analogue VLSI preferred. An interest in how the brain works essential.

Researchers

Dr Tara Julia Hamilton

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSAstrocytic regulation of neuronal oscillations

Overview

In this project we aim to discover the astrocytic-neuronal interactions that regulate neuronal synchronous activity. The rhythmic voltage fluctuations generated through the synchronous activity of neuronal networks are thought to be involved with many physiological processes such as selective attention, sleep and memory. The aim of this project is to investigate the potential role for astrocytes, which are the most prevalent non-neuronal cell type in the brain, in mediating the transition between different frequencies of these oscillations. Furthermore, this study will provide important insights into the bi-directional communication that astrocytes establish with neurons, which is one of the most intriguing questions in neurobiological research today.

Requirements

BSc Honours degree in Neuroscience, Biology or Physiology. 

Researcher

Dr Yossi Buskila

Professor John Morley (Western Sydney University School of Medicine)

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - S&LConversational Australian English: Analysing Speech Acts in AusTalk Map Tasks

Overview

This projects aims to identify new ways of mining large speech corpora for specific speech acts (SAs), such as questions, requests for information, and expressions of surprise or agreement/disagreement by analysing transcribed Map Task data in the AusTalk corpus. It will add to our understanding of how specific SAs are expressed  and to our knowledge of the special features of Australian English, especially in conversational speech.

Researchers

Dr Dominique Estival

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LAusTalk: The Australian English audio-visual corpus

Overview

AusTalk, the Australian English audio-visual corpus, offers a range of data for comparison between speakers of different ages, geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. Some specific topics could be the lexical items (vocabulary) used in the story telling and conversational spontaneous speech data, the prosody (intonation) differences in reading vs telling a story, the conversational cues during the Map Task, the alignment of phonetic features and facial gestures or the phonetic differences between regional accents.

Researcher

Dr Dominique Estival

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LAustralian English speech modelling for automated lecture transcription

Overview

Innovative research alliance with Liberated Learning Consortium (LLC)(opens in a new window), originally coordinated by St Marys University, Canada, and IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, USA, to develop technology using Voice Recognition software to provide real-time and off-line transcription of lectures to support students with disabilities. Possibilities for both the Computer Science/Speech Science aspect of this and also for more behavioural science evaluation studies.

Researcher

Dr Dominique Estival

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BENSBayesian Inference in Spiking Neural Networks

Overview

The brain creates a coherent interpretation of the external world based on input from its sensory system. Yet data from the senses are unreliable and confused. How does the brain synthesise its percepts? Recent psychophysical experiments indicate that humans perform near-optimal Bayesian Inference in a wide variety of cognitive tasks, such as motion perception, decision making, or motor control. In Bayesian Inference – a powerful mathematical framework – the likelihood of a particular state of the world being true is calculated based not only on sensory input signals but also on prior knowledge about the external world that the system has already learned. The Bayesian framework has also been shown to be ideal for fusing information from different sensory modalities and is robust to errors in individual sensors.

Neurones in the brain use action potentials (spikes) to communicate with each other. From calculations based on the energy consumption of the brain, it has been estimated that, on average, each neurone fires only one spike per second, although individual sensory neurones can fire close to 1000 spikes per second. The question of how Bayesian Inference can be implemented using spiking neurones with such slow communication rates is intriguing. In the past five years a dozen of papers have been published showing glimpses of how this could be achieved. This project will extend the work in these papers.

Requirements

Programming in C++ and Matlab or Python. An interest in how the brain works is essential.

Researcher

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BabyLabDyslexia: Early Diagnosis and Intervention

Overview

Risk of Dyslexia increases from around 5 per cent to 50 per cent if a child has a dyslexic parent. Using auditory and speech perception tests we are investigating early predictors of reading difficulty in infants as young as 6 months. PhD projects on behavioural or brain indices of later ability and possible interventions are available.

Researcher

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - MCAHow collaborative music and dance practice impacts thinking and wellbeing in the young

Overview

In dance and song, the body is the instrument. Collaborative, challenging, and supportive youth arts programs such as QL2 Dance and Sydney Children's Choirs can attract disinterested students, including both at risk and gifted. This project will compare and contrast the features of these thriving youth arts programs and map associations between their features and adolescent and adult creativity, leadership, and wellbeing.

Researchers

Professor Kate Stevens

Associate Professor Anne Power (Western Sydney University School of Education)(opens in a new window)

Research Program

Music Cognition and Action

PhD Icon - MCAMusic and Rhythm to Maintain Skills and "Procedural Knowledge" in Age-Related Dementia

Overview

In dementia, response to simple music is frequently preserved when other capacities lost. In the latter stages of dementia, basic skills and procedural knowledge evaporate as the brain degenerates. This project would draw on Stevens' knowledge of music cognition, especially rhythm perception and entrainment, and Dr Short's knowledge of music and health, to investigate how music can be harnessed as a compensatory system in dementia. For example, for retaining and/or learning skills as severe dementia encroaches, such as the use of simple predictive rhythms to retain motor control and procedural knowledge.

Researchers

Associate Professor Peter Keller

Research Program

Music Cognition and Action

PhD Icon - S&LMechanisms for monolingual and multilingual language learning

Overview

This project will contribute to our understanding on how we learn the sounds and words of our language and whether learning two or more languages at the same time requires different learning processes and has consequences for subsequent language learning.

Researcher

Associate Professor Paola Escudero

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LHow do we understand different speakers and speakers with different accents?

Overview

It seems miraculous that we understand one another, given the differences in the speech of people we encounter on a daily basis. The present project will help resolving the theoretical question of whether we handle speaker and accent variation by means of the same underlying mechanisms. Solving this question not only has scientific importance but also practical significance, as it can help developing more successful algorithms for automatic speech recognition systems, including those for hard of hearing populations.

Researcher

Dr Jason Shaw

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLabEarly precursors of language development in hearing impaired infants

Overview

Universal newborn screening for Hearing Impairment now allows the early identification of Hearing Impaired infants, which in turn allows development of interventions to optimise language development in such infants. In this project, students will build upon the cutting edge research at MARCS BabyLab to conduct infant studies to identify early predictors of later language development. Projects could involve studies with infants/children, with or without hearing loss in (i) longitudinal studies tracking parental speech input (infant-directed speech) and infants' development of language abilities (e.g., speech perception, vocabulary development, language processing), or (ii) cross-sectional series and proof of concept studies to assess individual aspects of early language acquisition and the environmental and linguistic exposure factors that facilitate typical early language development.

Researchers

Professor Denis Burnham

Dr Marina Kalashnikova

Collaborating and additional funding body

HEARing Cooperative Research Centre (opens in a new window)

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LUsing regional accent variation to probe the structure of phonological categories

Overview

The variation naturally present in different accents of English provides a real-world laboratory for researching the flexibility of human speech perception. Computational models of phonetic variability paired with experiments on human speech perception can inform the nature of phonological categories with implications for next generation systems of automatic speech recognition.

Researcher

Dr Jason Shaw

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LEntrainment dynamics in speech

Overview

Bodies in motion naturally entrain. What are the consequences of entrainment dynamics for the organization of human language? The MARCS Institute Speech Production Laboratory offers unique facilities for tracking the movement of speech organs between interacting talkers providing new insight into this fundamental question.

Researcher

Dr Jason Shaw

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LSpecial Speech and Learning the Language

Overview

The speech of mothers, fathers, carers, and even older siblings to infants facilitates infants' emotional and language development. PhD topics in this area include determining the essential elements of such speech and how intervention might devised in cases when it is missing or deficient, e.g., in hearing-impaired or dyslexic infants.

Researcher

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLabSpeech and Music in Infant Development

Overview

Newborns respond to all speech and music sounds, but before their first birthday they become preferentially attuned to the sounds of the surrounding language(s) and rhythms and harmonies of the musical input. The relationship between these two abilities and with later literacy and musical skill begs investigation.

Researcher

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LSpecial Speech: Automatic Speech Recognition

Overview

Our speech to infants, pets, lovers, computers, robots, and foreigners differs subtly in weightings of three speech qualities – getting attention, conveying and eliciting emotion, and teaching language skills. A PhD study analysing such speech styles will result in improvements to automatic speech recognition (ASR) engines and their applications, e.g., telephone ordering services and learning aids for the disabled.

Researcher

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&LReading, and Foreign Speech

Overview

The way in which beginning readers respond to native language vs non-native language speech sounds in particular languages provides important information on how reading skill develops and for applications such as developing reading programs for good and poor readers and devising foreign language learning programs.

Researcher

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&L"What's that you say — you came to DIE?!"

Overview

This research project examines which word pronunciation differences do versus do not cause problems in recognising the words, and how listeners become "attuned" to another accent over time, making it easier to recognise the difficult words from that accent. We seek postgraduate students interested in PhD projects grounded in psycholinguistic studies (eye tracking, lexical decision, etc.) on the range and limits of spoken word recognition across regional accents, of perceptual adaptation to other accents, and of their interaction with sociolinguistic factors (e.g., recognition of the speaker's regional origins).

Researcher

Professor Catherine Best

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - S&L"Mummy, that lady talks funny — I can't understand her"

Overview

Young toddlers of 15 months, who are just beginning to develop their own vocabularies of English words, initially have difficulty recognising words they know when the words are spoken by  someone from a different English-speaking country. Yet recent research is beginning to show that they are able to adapt to the accent differences by a relatively quickly, by around 18 months. This research project is examining how accent-specific toddlers' word-learning is at the younger versus the older age, and whether they are able to perceptually adapt to the other accent by listening to a children's story prior to the word-learning task. We seek postgraduate students interested in PhD projects grounded in experimental studies of cross-accent word recognition, word learning, and perceptual adaptation.

Researcher

Professor Catherine Best

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLabInfant Directed Speech and Early Language Development

Overview

Infant Directed Speech (IDS) refers to the unique speech register that adults use when addressing young infants. In comparison to Adult Directed Speech (ADS), it is characterised by higher pitch, greater positive affect, and exaggerated articulation of speech sounds. These characteristics in turn have been demonstrated to positively influence the process of language acquisition in the infant's first years. However, it remains unclear whether these parental speech characteristics are driven by parents' sensitivity to the linguistic and emotional needs of their infant or by the infants' ability to 'request' the type of speech that is suitable to their needs. In these studies, students can investigate i) the differences in parental speech qualities addressed to infants of different ages and/or to infants who are typically developing vs those at risk for sensory or cognitive disorders; (ii) differences in neural entrainment in the infant and adult brain to IDS and ADS.

Researchers

Dr Marina Kalashnikova

Dr Varghese Peter

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLabEarly Indicators of Dyslexia

Overview

Dyslexia is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects approximately 10% of the world's population and is manifested in severe deficits of reading and spelling skills. Even though dyslexia is a condition most notably manifested in reading, it has also been demonstrated to affect more general auditory and linguistic abilities in infants who are at familial risk for dyslexia. In this research, students can investigate processing abilities of speech and non-speech sounds in preschool and school children who are at familial risk for developing dyslexia using a variety of behavioural and neurophysiological (EEG) measures to assess differences in their ability to encode acoustic information in the speech input that is essential for successful mappings of speech sounds to graphemes prior to the age when they could obtain a formal diagnosis of dyslexia.

Researchers

Dr Marina Kalashnikova

Dr Varghese Peter

Professor Denis Burnham

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BabyLabEarly Word Learning in Monolingual and Bilingual Infants

Overview

In their first years of life, infants face the challenging task of learning the words of their language. In this process infants develop a number of strategies and assumptions to facilitate the task of mapping novel labels to their referents. In this research students will conduct studies to determine whether monolingual and bilingual infants are able to exploit the same language acquisition mechanisms, or whether different mechanisms emerge as a product of their specific linguistic experience. Such studies involve exploring the intricate dynamic system in which increasing linguistic experience has the potential to shape learning mechanisms, which in turn, can impact upon acquisition of language-specific competence.

Researcher

Dr Marina Kalashnikova

Research Program

Speech and Language

PhD Icon - BENSEvent based sensors and event based processing

Overview

Biological sensors and neuromorphic sensors provide information about the sensed variables in the form of discretised events (digital spikes) in an asynchronous manner – they are not aligned to a global clock signal. Well-developed analogue signal processing techniques operate on continuous signals in both amplitude and time, whereas even better developed digital signal processing techniques operate on signals discretised in both amplitude and time. Neither of these standard signal-processing approaches apply optimally to the output of neuromorphic sensors and there is a large gap in our knowledge of spike based signal processing techniques. This PhD project aims to address this gap.

Requirements

The applicant is expected to have a background in signal processing with strong programming skills in Matlab, Python, and C++, and an interest in signal processing in biology. Expertise using Verilog or VHDL for FPGA programming will be beneficial.

Researcher

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSSimulating brains

Overview

We are getting to the point where neuromorphic hardware is able to simulate spiking neural networks on a scale comparable to the human brain. For example, in our lab we have recently simulated 10 billion Stochastic Leaky-Integrate-and Fire neurons with 1300 synaptic connections each in real time with a sub-millisecond resolution. Several global companies and universities are building hardware for this purpose. The main problem with this is that nobody seems to know what to do with such large networks. Theoretical and computational neuroscience so far has not provided us with any models of how to use these large-scale spiking networks advantageously. In other words, anything existing models can do can be done much more simply with standard engineering approaches. At the same time, everybody agrees that brains are remarkable computational devices that do things that computers cannot. Thus there seems to be a gap in our knowledge on how to simulate brain-scale networks of spiking neurons and what to use them for. This PhD aims to address this gap.

Requirements

The applicant will have a background in signal processing or computational neuroscience, with several years of relevant experience post Masters degree, either in academia or industry. The applicant should have excellent programming skills in Matlab, Python, and C++, and an interest in neural systems. Expertise using Verilog or VHDL for FPGA programming will be beneficial.

Researcher

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSThe impact of neuroinflamation on the cholinergic system

Overview

Alzheimer's disease (A.D) is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by significant impairment of cognitive function, memory loss and behavioural phenotypes such as anxiety and depression. According to the cholinergic hypothesis, a serious loss of cholinergic function in the CNS contribute significantly to the cognitive symptoms associated with AD. Recent findings suggest that neuroinflammation is a preliminary process, which play a role in the onset of Alzheimer's disease. This project will investigate the effects of chronic and acute inflammatory processes on the neurophysiological properties of the basal forebrain cholinergic system, a region that is associated with A.D.

Requirements

BSc Honours degree in Neuroscience, Biology or Physiology.

Researcher

Dr Yossi Buskila

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSHuman Physiology Monitoring and Disease Diagnosis using Wearable Technologies

Overview

The ability to monitor human function is key in the early detection of disease and effective treatment once diagnosed. However, many imaging and monitoring solutions are cumbersome, costly and do not provide the kind of information we would like to have (e.g. continuous blood pressure monitoring). PhD topics in this area would centre around providing patient-centred, pertinent, high value information from novel sensors integrated into everyday clothing. 

Requirements

We are a multidisciplinary team and seek candidates with a Bachelor Honours degree from a variety of backgrounds that can contribute to this research. Additionally, the following skills would be beneficial: Programming skills in Matlab, C++ or Python. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience. Background in physiology, neuroscience or textiles.

Researcher

Dr Paul Breen

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSStochastic Integrated Circuit Design

Overview

Shrinking feature sizes of modern IC processes have come at the cost of increased mismatch, susceptibility to noise and large variations between individual dies and wafers.  In order to successfully integrate analogue circuits as well as increase speed and improve energy efficiency of digital circuits on modern processes new design techniques, design topologies and design methodologies are needed.  In this project we'll explore various techniques from stochastic signal processing in order to achieve better reliability and performance in modern IC processes.

Requirements

1+ years experience in IC design using Cadence or equivalent, FPGA design skills (pref. Xilinx), matlab / Python programming, PCB design skills (e.g. Altium), excellent written and verbal communication skills.

Researcher

Dr Tara Hamilton

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSBalance Rehabilitation and Treatment using Wearable Technologies

Overview

Impairment in balance is common due to aging, disease and trauma. Poor balance can lead to significant reductions in quality of life, for example, the ability to drive a car or live independently. Ongoing research in this area is literally head to toe; some work attempts to improve inner ear function using electrical stimulation while other work augments balance feedback from the feet.

Requirements

We are a multidisciplinary team and seek candidates with a Bachelor Honours degree from a variety of backgrounds that can contribute to this research. Additionally, the following skills would be beneficial: Programming skills in Matlab, C++ or Python. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience.

Researcher

Dr Paul Breen

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSMonitoring chest Haemodynamic and lung-heart interactions

Overview

Heart and lungs share the same cavity and affect each other function. Disruptions of the respiratory patterns (i.e. sleep disordered breathing) can trigger or aggravate cardiovascular diseases. Similarly, cardiac diseases (i.e. cardiac insufficiency) can trigger or aggravate respiratory conditions. Unfortunately current diagnostics are limited as they are designed to give a snapshot of single organs often in resting conditions. In this project the PhD student will develop a new system that will assess simultaneously cardiac and lung functions targeting specific diseases such as obstructive sleep apnoea, maternal disordered breathing and cardiac failure. This will involve the design and development of custom hardware and software. It will also involve collaboration with clinicians for the validation of the developed system.

Requirements

Programming in C++ and Matlab. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience.

Researcher

Dr Gaetano D. Gargiulo

Dr Paul Breen

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSElectrocardiography data mining

Overview

Electrocardiography (ECG) is probably the most recorded and studied biosignal. However, the data are severely undermined with a number of unmet needs such as data expansion/compression and automated diagnosis of diseases. In this project the PhD student will develop new data analysis algorithm as well as new recording hardware suitable for reduced electrodes montages (hardware compression) and wearable applications. This will involve the design and development of custom hardware and software. It will also involve collaboration with clinicians for the validation of the developed systems.

Requirements

Programming in C++ and Matlab. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience.

Researcher

Dr Gaetano D. Gargiulo

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSIntegrated physiological signal amplifier with digital output

Overview

 Physiological signal amplifiers i.e. amplifiers suitable for Electrocardiography (ECG), Electroencephalography (EEG) and Electromyography (EMG) must comply with strict safety standards, time-dependant high impedance electrodes, and different input configuration requirements (true differential and single-ended) which may vary during recording. Commercially available integrated circuits, however, are tailored to specific applications and electrode montages. Furthermore, they are not compatible with neuromorphic, event-based signal processing. In this project we investigate the feasibility of a tiny integrated analogue front-end (AFE) with direct digital output suitable for standard digital bus communication (SPI, I2C) compatible with both standard logic circuits and neuromorphic, event-based signal processing. The PhD student will design a fully integrated AFE which is fully configurable and compatible with neuromorphic signal processing, taking advantage of the ultra-low-power amplifier technology and neuromorphic, event-based processing front-ends that have been developed within BENS in recent years.

Requirements

1+ years experience in IC design using Cadence or equivalent, FPGA design skills (pref. Xilinx), matlab/python programming, PCB design skills (e.g. Altium), excellent written and verbal communication skills.

Researchers

Dr Gaetano D. Gargiulo
Dr Tara Julia Hamilton

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)