University of Otago.Department of Physiology.Department of Physiology.

Physiology TV

An overview of Physiology at the University of Otago.


17th May, 2018

BMS Postgraduate Colloquium

Congratulations to all the students who presented at the BMS Postgraduate Colloquium this week.

11th April, 2018

PCOS research featured in the news

The latest exciting findings from Assoc Prof Rebecca Campbell's lab into the role of brain signalling in polycystic ovary syndrome was featured on RadioNZ on 10th April.

14th March, 2018

Is a man's grey matter the same as a woman's? The documentary features Professor Allan Herbison and Dr Jenny Clarkson and was made with the support of NZ on Air.

9th February, 2018

Dahlia based diabetes drug developed by Physiology researcher ready for human trials

In partnership with Plant and Food Research, researchers will soon begin human trials of a drug made from dahlias.

9th January, 2018

Otago breakthrough in diabetic heart disease

The molecule responsible for heart disease in diabetics has been identified by University of Otago researchers, greatly improving chances of survival.

Next Event

30th July, 2018

Dr Joanne Harrison (Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology)

PhD Programme.

PhD Programme

Opportunities exist in our internationally-recognised research programmes in the areas of Cardiovascular & Respiratory Physiology, Cellular & Molecular Neuroscience and Membrane & Ion Transport.

Whilst applications to undertake a PhD are welcome at any time, applications for our Departmental Scholarship round close on Monday 4 September 2017. Candidates can be of any nationality and must have attained an excellent degree (minimum of four years study) in biomedical science or closely related subject. Applicants must apply to the Department of Physiology as follows:

  1. Refer to the available projects listed below and contact the supervisor(s) whose project(s) interest you the most. In your email, include the following:
    • Your name and country of citizenship
    • Your CV
    • Certified academic transcript (and, if applicable, an explanation of the content)
    • Certified evidence of English language proficiency (e.g., IELTS or TOEFL results)
    • The names of two referees
  2. If your application is to be considered, the supervisor will contact you to discuss the next steps, and our Departmental Administrator will check that your documents are complete.

For further information on research in the Department, see our 'Research' page.

See our Postgraduate Handbook for Prospective Thesis students for further information.

Projects Available

A list of PhD projects available in the Department of Physiology for 2017-2018 is below.

Cardiovascular & Respiratory Physiology

The following projects are available in the Cardiovascular & Respiratory Physiology group:

Cellular & Molecular Neuroscience

The following projects are available in the Cellular & Molecular Neuroscience group:

Membrane & Ion Transport

The following projects are available in the Membrane & Ion Transport group:

Identifying the best source of stem cells for the regeneration of diseased heart

Autologous stem cell transplantation is considered as the next generation of drug treatment in patients with cardiovascular disease. However, the best source of stem cells for the regeneration of heart is still not known. This project in collaboration with the cardiac surgeons at Dunedin Hospital will aim to establish the optimal stem cells for the treatment of patients with cardiovascular disease. The project involves isolation and characterization (using flowcytometry) of stem cells from the atria, ventricle, epicardial fat tissue and peripheral blood and saphenous vein of a single donor. Protocol for isolation and characterization of some of these cells have been already established in my laboratory. The efficacy of the cells will be then tested in the animal model of cardiovascular disease to identify the best cells for regenerating the diseased heart. For further details please contact A/P. Rajesh Katare (

Associate Professor Rajesh Katare
Show Katare Lab page.

Novel approaches for treating cardiovascular disease

Cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death throughout most of the world, and existing therapeutic options are unsuitable for a large percentage of patients. Our group is exploring new targets in the heart and vessels to develop the next generation of cardiovascular treatments. Recent work from our group shows has identified a potential target: calcium/calmodulin dependent kinase II (CaMKII), a key protein mediator of cardiac and vascular dyfunction. We are seeking motivated students with an interest in cardiovascular physiology to join our team and examine the connection between CaMKII and cardiovascular disease. Projects in our group utilize state-of-the-art techniques and reagents, as well as genetic mouse models not available elsewhere in the world. Candidates with a wide range of interests, including molecular and protein biochemistry, fluorescent imaging, and physiological techniques (ex. echocardiography, force development measurements in isolated fibers, etc.) are encouraged to apply.

Dr Jeff Erickson
Show Erickson Lab page.

Central regulation of pregnancy

We principally use electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry and molecular biology to determine how the brain controls pregnancy. We focus on the mechanisms that might underpin preterm birth and preeclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy) through inappropriate secretion of the hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin contracts the uterus during birth and vasopressin controls body fluid balance during pregnancy. We have discovered that inputs that control oxytocin neurons increase synthesis of the neuropeptide, kisspeptin, at the end of pregnancy and that kisspeptin excites oxytocin neurons only at the end of pregnancy. We have also found that the response of vasopressin neurons to body fluid balance is reset during pregnancy to allow normal expansion of blood volume. Various projects are available to determine the mechanisms and impact of these observations on pregnancy and how dysregulation of these systems might cause preterm birth or preeclampsia.

Professor Colin Brown
Show Brown Lab page.

Does retromer control epithelial polarity and ion channel delivery to the cell surface?

To achieve the optimal balance of intracellular and extracellular ion concentrations the numbers of ion channels situated at the cell surface are tightly regulated. Retromer is a recently described intracellular complex that controls whether cell surface proteins are recycled to the cell surface or degraded. In this project we will determine if two epithelial ion channels are regulated by retromer, and whether the polar distribution of these ion channels in epithelia are altered when retromer is disabled. The results will have implications for further understanding of electrolyte balance and blood pressure control.

Associate Professor Fiona McDonald
Show McDonald Lab page.

Dr Kirk Hamilton
Show Hamilton Lab page.

Dysregulated regulated signalling in pancreatic β-cells under hyperuricemic conditions - the cause for the onset of type 2 diabetes mellitus

We have previously established that elevated plasma levels of uric acid (hyperuricemia), a metabolic product known to cause gout, contribute to impaired insulin secretion via increase of AMP-kinase (AMPK) expression and phosphorylation. Moreover, hyperuricemia leads to pancreatic β-cell death possibly mediated by AMPK and an elevated miR-34a expression. We are now interested in identifying the molecular links between hyperuricemia, insulin secretion and β-cell survival mediated by uric acid transporter GLUT9 to further decipher mechanisms responsible for the onset of type 2 diabetes. Several projects are available, which will involve hyperuricemic and/or hyperglycaemic mouse models and cell model studies combining different animal, molecular biological, cell culture and hormone assay techniques. Students who are interested in the topic and keen to meet a challenge to perform state of the art research on causes for the onset of type 2 diabetes mellitus are encouraged to apply.

Dr Andrew Bahn
Show Bahn Lab page.

Epithelial sodium channel as a target in breast cancer

Breast cancer is a major health problem comprising 28% of cancers that affect New Zealand women. Our new data shows that epithelial sodium channel, ENaC, expression in patients' tumours correlates with breast cancer prognosis. ENaC is located in the plasma membrane, and its large extracellular domain senses physical changes in the extracellular environment, while intracellular ENaC domains interact with the cytoskeleton. These connections allow ENaC to contribute to cell shape and rigidity, thus influencing cell migration and differentiation. Changes in mechano-sensing pathways and cell shape are tightly linked to the ability of cancer cells to undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), migrate and metastasise. This project will involve you assessing ENaC’s role in breast cancer cell EMT, migration, and proliferation, and determining physical characteristics of breast cancer cells with changes in ENaC expression by atomic force microscopy. Characterisation of the mechanisms by which ENaC promotes tumour generation will provide a previously unknown target for breast cancer therapy.

Associate Professor Fiona McDonald
Show McDonald Lab page.

Dr Martin Fronius
Show Fronius Lab page.

Hyperuricemia as a driver for the onset of cancer

We have previously established that elevated serum uric acid (SUA, hyperuricemia), a metabolic product known to cause gout, contributes to proliferation of prostate cancer cells facilitated by uric acid transporter GLUT9. Furthermore, we have detected a change in intracellular uric acid homeostasis in prostate cancer cells leading to changes in activin A sensitivity and possibly aggressiveness and drug resistance of cancer cells. We are now interested to further decipher uric acid-dependent mechanisms responsible for the onset and further development of cancer. We seek to determine if our findings are a general concept for the onset or development of cancer and would like to test our hypothesis for other cancers such as breast, ovarian and colon cancer. Several projects are available, which will involve mouse models and cell model studies combining different animal, molecular biological, cell culture and hormone assay techniques. Students who are interested in the topic and keen to meet a challenge to perform state of the art research on causes for the onset of cancer are encouraged to apply.

Dr Andrew Bahn
Show Bahn Lab page.

The role of the Exocist complex in trafficking ion channels in polarised epithelia

Proper trafficking of ion channels in epithelia is key to epithelial cell function. The Exocyst is a series of proteins that act as a complex and aids in tethering post-Golgi secretory vesicles for delivery of ion channels to the plasma membrane. The role of the Exocyst complex in trafficking ion channels still emerging. In this project, we will investigate the role of the Exocyst complex in the targeting of two epithelial ion channels to the appropriate membarne. This will be approached using a range of protein biochemistry, molecular biology, electrophysiological and imaging techniques. The implication of these results is to define novel trafficking partners of K+ and Na+ channels that may be used therapeutically in diseases.

Dr Kirk Hamilton
Show Hamilton Lab page.

Associate Professor Fiona McDonald
Show McDonald Lab page.


What is the cost of living like in Dunedin? The University of Otago offers a detailed website that gives information about the cost of living in Dunedin. It should be noted that the costs of flatting quoted on the website are for shared accommodation with other flatmates.

How much does a PhD scholarship provide? University of Otago PhD scholarships and our Departmental PhD scholarships are worth $25,000, plus the payment of tuition fees for three years. Sundry fees and insurance (compulsory for international students) is not included.

What are the requirements for a PhD in the Department of Physiology? PhDs are usually completed within 3 years and are 100% thesis based. This means that there are no courses or papers to take and that the majority of the time will be spent conducting research. Postgraduate students are required to present ongoing thesis research as they progress through their degree.

Do I need to pay tuition fees? Tuition fees are paid for by the Department or the University if you receive a PhD scholarship, however, there are other fees that you will still have to pay. These include membership fees for the Otago University Students Association, however, this will give you access to a number of clubs and societies. Membership to the University gym is also included.

Are there English language requirements? Yes, click here for more information.

When should I start my application process? Applicants are encouraged to apply to the Department as soon as possible, so that documentation can be vetted by your prospective supervisor and by the Department?s Research Committee. After approval by the Department, the University's application processing time can be up to four weeks for coursework programmes, and up to three months for programmes that are research only.

What is life in Dunedin like? Dunedin is a small city of around 120,000 people located on the lower east coast of New Zealand's South Island. Dunedin is in close proximity to pristine beaches and rugged mountains. More information about life in Dunedin can be found on the Department of Physiology website and the University of Otago website.

Do I require medical insurance if I am an international student? International students in New Zealand are required to be insured against a range of events including medical, personal liability, loss of personal effects etc. Insurance can be purchased overseas, but needs to fulfill certain criteria. Alternatively insurance can be purchased from a provider chosen by the University or other New Zealand insurance companies that meet the criteria required. More information can be found here.

Do I need to have a minimum grade average to be accepted? Admission into the PhD programme normally requires the completion of a BSc (Hons) at the 2.1 level or a B+ grade average in a MSc or a PGDipSci in the same area of study or a related discipline, as the intended area of research. However to be considered for a PhD scholarship, higher grades are required.

If you still have questions, please contact:

Tracey Fleet
Departmental Administrator
PO Box 56
Dunedin 9054
Telephone: +64 3 479 7317

Physiology not only taught me lifelong skills which I can apply to daily situations, it has also given me many new and interesting ideas in writing novels.

Iun Kao - 3rd year BSc (Physiology) student