CRUK Studentship: The Life and Evolution of Planetary Nebulae: Segmentation and Analysis Applied to Astronomical and Oncological Image Data (Walton)

University of Cambridge - Institute of Astronomy/CRUK - Cambridge Institute

The Institute of Astronomy (IoA), a department of the University of Cambridge undertakes research covering a broad range of topics: solar, stellar, galactic and extragalactic astronomy both observational and theoretical. Postgraduate students play a key role in the continuing vibrancy of the Institute's research programmes and the Institute provides an excellent opportunity to start a research career in an environment committed to training outstanding astrophysicists of the future.

Dr Nicholas Walton is seeking a student to work on an observationally based project to study the dynamics and evolution of Planetary Nebulae. The project will involve the development of image analysis techniques applied to astronomical images. The project in turn is associated with the Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge project, IMAXT, Imaging and Molecular Annotation of Xenografts and Tumours, where the image analysis techniques will be innovatively applied to a range of medical microscopy data supporting this breast cancer research.

Project details: Planetary Nebulae (PN) are a brief evolutionary stage through which low and intermediate mass stars pass towards the end of their evolution, between red giant and white dwarf. They play an important role in the processing of a number of elements into the surrounding interstellar medium. They are probes of kinematical structure of the Milky Way, and provide insights into the chemical evolution history of the Galaxy. They also encode the end stage of earlier multiple star common envelope evolution, and thus can provide important insights into stellar evolution. Understanding the global role of PN is however limited due to large uncertainties in individual distances and to a detailed knowledge of the dynamics of their nebulae.

This PhD project will investigate the structure and distribution of PN exploiting the latest high precision astrometric and proper motion data provided by the ESA Gaia satellite. Image segmentation analysis chains will be developed to enable the detailed decomposition and cross matching of features seen in high resolution narrow band imagery of extended PN with Gaia astrometry. The project will involve development of a range of algorithmic solutions. 

This PhD project has a multi-disciplinary aspect. The IoA team are also involved in the Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge IMAXT project, led by Greg Hannon at the Cambridge Institute ( Walton leads the IoA based team developing image segmentation and data handling pipelines to optimally analyse a range of state of the art image data acquired over a range of imaging modalities, for instance high resolution Serial Two Photon Tomography microscopy. The PhD student will interact with the IMAXT team, and investigate the applicability of the analysis techniques developed optimised for segmentation of imagery of the complex structures seen in many PN, to use in analysis of the IMAXT imaging data. This interaction provides a unique opportunity for the student to gain expert knowledge in astronomical image science, along with a valuable exposure to the transfer of techniques to the medical domain.

Preferred skills/knowledge: The successful applicant will have/or expect to gain a degree in a quantitative field, for instance astronomy and/or astrophysics, physics, mathematics, computer science or statistics. They will have programming experience (e.g. Python). Some knowledge of image analysis, machine learning and statistics would be advantageous. They should also have an interest in transferring their imaging knowledge from astronomy to oncology.

The IoA provides a highly collaborative research environment, and there will be significant interactions with IMAXT team located in the Cambridge Institute, Cancer Research UK. Hence excellent communication skills are an essential requirement.

Funding: This studentship is funded by Cancer Research UK and includes full funding of University and College fees for United Kingdom and European Union applicants. In addition, a stipend of £19,000 per annum is payable, initially for 3 years, with funding for a further year possible. 

How to apply:  Please follow the instructions given on the IoA's admissions page you can then apply for the PhD in Astronomy on the Graduate Admissions website.

Completing the 'Research section':

In the 'Research Title' textbox, when applying for this position please ensure that you insert the project title: "The Life and Evolution of Planetary Nebulae: segmentation and analysis applied to astronomical and oncological image data". Also in the 'Research Supervisor' textbox please insert the initials of the Supervisor:  NAW. Please describe your research experience in the appropriate textbox.

Completing the 'Finance' section:

We will know that you are applying for a Cancer Research UK Studentship. If you have not already applied for other source(s) of funding, please tick 'no'. Then please tick 'yes' to be considered for Cambridge scholarships, and you will be considered for these in addition to a Cancer Research UK Studentship.

Statement of Interest:

Please quote CRUK Studentship

Reasons for applying: You should explain here why you wish to be considered for the studentship and describe the qualities and experience you would bring to the role.

Please upload your CV as an additional document.

Further information:

Information concerning the Institute of Astronomy is at

While no nationality restrictions apply to this Cancer Research UK studentship the funding does not fully cover fees for students from Overseas.  A further £60,000 would need to be secured from an alternative source.


Applications are invited from graduates or final year undergraduates who hold or expect to gain a first/upper second class degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject from any recognised university worldwide.

Course start date: 01 October 2018.

Further details can be found at 

Please quote reference SW13860 on your application and in any correspondence about this vacancy.

The University values diversity and is committed to equality of opportunity.

The University has a responsibility to ensure that all employees are eligible to live and work in the UK.