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Developing hybrid opto-electronic nanoscale sensors for detecting single proteins

  • School: School of Science and Technology
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2023
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2023

Project ID: S&T25

Characterising individual proteins is essential for understanding their functions associated with health and disease. For example, many age-associated diseases are caused by a small population of the misbehaviour of intrinsically disordered proteins. To detect and characterise these abnormal proteins, traditional single-molecule approaches suffer from several drawbacks; they either can only monitor proteins outside their physiological environment (e.g. electron microscopy), or require protein modification.

Tiny devices with pores with nanoscale diameters so-called “nanopores”, have attracted attention rapidly over the past decades due to their appealing applications in the real-time detection of single proteins in aqueous solutions. Nanopore sensors provide information about the size, shape, charge, and rigidity of a protein sample, as well as the dynamics of their assembly/disassembly without [1-3]. However, nanopore-based protein sensors are not yet fully functional because most protein translocation events are too fast to be recorded experimentally.

This PhD project aims to develop the next generation of single-protein sensors by combining nanopore and optical detection technologies. Nanoscale antennas will be designed and fabricated in such novel sensors to trap and detain the proteins [4-6] without influencing them and the electrical readings. As a result, one can significantly increase the detection resolution by nanopores.

Specifically, the primary objectives of this project are:

  1. To combine nanopore and optical sensing and synchronise the optical signals with the ionic current signals for an improved understanding of proteins at the single-molecule level.
  1. To increase the residence time of individual proteins inside a nanopore by nano-optical trapping, allowing rich information about the target protein.
  1. To interrogate the conformation changes of disease-related proteins, understanding their contribution to the development of chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.


[1] Ying C, et al., Nanomaterials 1–23 (2022)

[2]  Houghtaling J, Ying C, et al., ACS Nano 13 5231–42 (2019)

[3]Ying C, et al., ACS Nano 12 11458–70 (2018)

[4]Ying C, et al., arXiv Prepr. arXiv2107.06407 (2021)

[5]Xu, L. et al. Light Sci Appl 7, 44 (2018).

[6]Xu, L. et al. Advanced Science 6, 15 (2019)

Supervisory Team:

Cuifeng Ying (She/Her):

Dr. Cuifeng Ying is a senior lecturer at the Department of Engineering at the School of Science and Technology ( She received her PhD in Physics in 2013 at Nankai University, where she used photonic crystals and plasmonic nanocavities to enhance fluorescent signals for biosensing applications. She followed up her doctoral studies during a first postdoctoral appointment in Nankai University's Centre for Nanoscale Science and Technology, where she began performing single-molecule sensing using nanopores. In 2016, she joined the Biophysics group of Prof. Michael Mayer as a postdoctoral researcher at the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg. Her research focused on characterising single proteins using nanoplasmonic optical measurements and nanopore technology. Cuifeng has been working on designing and applying engineered nanoscale structures for biosensing applications. Specifically, her research focuses on using plasmonic/dielectric nanostructures and nanopore technology for DNA sensing and protein characterisation at a single-molecule level. Since 2010, she has published 32 peer-reviewed papers with a total citation of 1008 and an h-index of 14. She served as a Co-guest Editor for the journal nanomaterials (2020-2021) and is a regular reviewer for several journals of the American Chemical Society (ACS) such as ACS sensors, ACS applied nanomaterials.

Lei Xu (He/His):

Senior Lecturer in Electrical Engineering at Department of Engineering in School of Science & Technology ( Dr Lei Xu obtained his PhD (2014) in Optics from Nankai University, China. Since then, he has been performing research and engineering activities at different universities: Nankai University, The Australian National University and the University of New South Wales. His research interests are nanophotonics, optoelectronics meta-devices, low carbon technologies (i.e. solar energy harvesting, as well as innovative radiative cooling for energy saving), and bio-photonics (i.e. tissue engineering via light, and wearable optical sensors).

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

To make an application, please visit our studentship application page.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2023 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Application guidance can be found on our studentship application page.

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