[Comp-neuro] PhD studentship at Univ. Bristol, UK: The evolution of psychological and physiological mechanisms for behaviour

Tim Fawcett tim.fawcett at cantab.net
Wed Apr 6 20:00:06 CEST 2011


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 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

- 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 energy-rich 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 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
(www.bristol.ac.uk/biology/research/behaviour/mad) 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

The University of Bristol is one of the top research universities in
the UK and is the pre-eminent 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.


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.


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

Dr Tim W. Fawcett
Room B72
School of Biological Sciences
University of Bristol
Woodland Road
Bristol BS8 1UG
United Kingdom

+44 117 9287478 (office)
+44 7789 126382 (mobile)

tim.fawcett at cantab.net

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