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

This project is open to all aspects of analogue VLSI design of neuromorphic circuits. 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. Interest in how the brain works essential.

Researcher

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&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

In this project we aim to build a computer model of how Bayesian Inference can be implemented in a network of spiking neurones. 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. 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 - BENSSynaptic Kernel Inverse Method (SKIM) and neural coding

Overview

The newly developed SKIM method is a neural processing paradigm based on large numbers of randomised intermediate connections. We aim to explore if this paradigm is implemented in neurobiological systems, particularly the insect olfactory system, and what it's advantages for neural coding could be. See: "Synthesis of neural networks for spatio-temporal spike pattern recognition and processing" Tapson et al., Frontiers in Neuromorphic Engineering, 2013. 

Researcher

Professor Jonathan Tapson

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSSpike Timing Dependent Delay Adaptation

Overview

In this project we aim to discover a biologically plausible learning rule for the adaptation of spike propagation times in neural networks. The delay between the firing of a spike by one neurone to the reception of that spike by another neurone is typically in the range of one to forty milliseconds. These propagation delays have been largely ignored by both the neurophysiology and the neural computation communities. It has only very recently been recognised that the incorporation of delays enables a whole new class of computational systems, termed reservoir computing. Reservoir computing underlies quite possibly the computational architecture by which the brain performs Bayesian Inference.

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 - BENSNeuromorphic Vision Processing

Overview

In this project the aim is to design, develop and fabricate an integrated circuit that performs vision processing. Vision is an extremely interesting and important sense in animals.  In order to develop autonomous systems and robots, an efficient, adaptable, low-power, fast and robust visual system is required.  By building upon the algorithms and neuromorphic methodologies developed by members of the BENS group, the student will design, develop and fabricate a neuromorphic integrated circuit that mimics the visual system in animals.

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

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSNeuromorphic Memory Systems

Overview

In this project we aim to explore memory systems that mimic biological memory systems. The gizmos and gadgets of the modern world have come with an extraordinary increase in the amount of information that needs to be processed. Biology has evolved extremely efficient ways to deal with large amounts of information from different sensors.  In this project we'll explore biological memory systems and attempt to model and describe them algorithmically and computationally with the aim of building functional neuromorphic hardware systems.

Requirements

Matlab, Python and C++ programming, excellent written and verbal communication skills. Additionally, the following skills will be beneficial: FPGA design skills, IC design skills or other electronic hardware experience. Neuroscience or neurobiology background. 

Researcher

Dr Tara Hamilton

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSStochastic Integrated Circuit Design

Overview

This project aims to develop new circuits that are robust to noise and mismatch using stochastic signal processing techniques. 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 - BENSMonitoring of Lower Limb Haemodynamics

Overview

In this project we aim to develop a new means of monitoring blood flow in the lower limb for diagnostic purposes. A number of systems are currently available for the assessment of lower limb haemodynamics, however, many of these require extensive training and expensive equipment to diagnosis common cardiovascular conditions in the lower limbs. In this project the PhD student will develop a new system that will save time and cost substantially less to implement. 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 or Python. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience.

Researcher

Dr Paul Breen

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSEnhancement of Sensory Perception

Overview

The broad objective of this project is to enhance the sense of touch in normal and pathological conditions. In recent years we have developed a new non-invasive means of improving sensory perception where it has been lost through aging and/or disease. In this project the PhD student will develop this technology to further improve its performance and reliability. A key challenge in this project will be identifying and testing other contexts in which this technology may be useful, e.g., testing different patient populations. Both empirical and computational modeling will be used to identify optimal operating parameters and to test for differences in the response characteristics of different nerve fibres.

Requirements

Programming in C++ and Matlab or Python. Analogue/digital/embedded design experience. Familiarity with modeling neural systems.

Researcher

Dr Paul Breen

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSEncoding of softness by tactile afferents in the glabrous skin of the human finger pad

Overview

Humans and many non-human primates use their fingers for tactile exploration of surfaces and for grasping and manipulating objects. While much has been learnt about how specialised sensory endings in the skin (cutaneous mechanoreceptors) encode discrete mechanical features, such as the roughness and shape of an object applied to the fingerpad, no work has been done on how cutaneous mechanoreceptors allow us to discriminate between objects of differing softness, i.e. how the compliance of an object is encoded, and how this influences our capacity to discriminate between objects of different shape. This project will address this issue, using neurophysiological, psychophysical and computational modelling approaches.

Requirements

Physiology: BSc Honours degree in sensory physiology or sensory psychology. Computational Neuroscience: programming in C++ and Matlab or Python; familiarity with modelling neural systems.

Researcher

Professor Vaughan Macefield (Western Sydney University School of Medicine)(opens in a new window)

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)

PhD Icon - BENSNeuronal code - tapping into human tactile receptor signals

Overview

The main objective of this project is to understand information encoding mechanisms in the tactile sensory system and how this information is used for motor control of the hand and perception. Two parallel PhD projects are part of this opportunity. One will focus on neurophysiological investigations using nerve impulse recordings from human subjects, receptor stimulation, behavioural experiments and psychophysics. The second will focus on computational modelling of the neural circuits underlying tactile information encoding. The two projects will have strong interactions. 

Requirements

Physiology: Basic knowledge of neurophysiology. Computational Neuroscience: programming in C++ and Matlab or Python; familiarity with modelling neural systems.

Researcher

Dr Ingvars Birznieks (NeuRA, UNSW)

Professor André van Schaik

Research Program

Biomedical Engineering and Neuroscience (BENS)