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

Physiology TV

An overview of Physiology at the University of Otago.


19th July, 2017

Congratulations to Daniel Barth, PhD

Our congratulations go to Daniel Barth on making the Health Sciences Divisional List of Exceptional Doctoral theses.

17th July, 2017

Associate Professor Ruth Empson awarded 2-year Neurological Foundation of NZ Project Grant

Congratulations to Associate Professor Ruth Empson who has been awarded a 2-year project grant ($193,844) for her project "Chloride Co-Transport - a Driving Force for Treating Human Cerebellar Ataxias”.

29th June, 2017

Winner of OMSRS Research Staff Speaker Awards from the Department of Physiology

Dr Carol Bussey was announced as the winner of 2017 Research Staff speaker award at the 239th Scientific Meeting of the Otago School of Medicine Research Society on 28th June.

23rd June, 2017

Two HRC Project Grants awarded to Physiology Professor

Congratulations to Professor Allan Herbison who is the recipient of two Health Research Council of NZ (HRC) Project Grants totalling almost $2.6 million.

12th May, 2017

Julia Gouws (MSc student) receives another accolade for her research

After being awarded 1st= for the School of Biomedical Sciences Dean’s Prize for best 2016/17 Summer Scholarship Report recently, Julia has received another prestigious award this week.

Next Event

31st July, 2017

(i) Sajida Parveen & (ii) Eugene Saw (PhD 1-year presentations, Department of Physiology)

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.

Applications to undertake a PhD in Physiology are welcome at any time. 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 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:

Alpha-adrenergic control in the diabetic heart

Autonomic dysfunction is one of the common and serious complications of diabetes, and is one of the leading mechanisms of impaired function of the diabetic heart. Recently, we showed that the sympathetic drive to the diabetic heart was elevated, but its β-adrenoceptor responsiveness reduced. However, the α- adrenoceptor responsiveness of the diabetic heart is unknown. This project aims to investigate the functional α- adrenoceptor responsiveness and the underlying intracellular mechanisms in the diabetic heart.

Dr Regis Lamberts
Show Lamberts Lab page.

Dr Jeff Erickson
Show Erickson Lab page.

Blood pressure regulation by shear stress

The ability of vessels to sense shear stress is crucial for the regulation of blood pressure. This project aims to explore how shear stress signals that are sensed by the endothelial glycocalyx are converted into cellular signals that mediate the vascular response required for blood pressure regulation. Studies involve isolated arteries and cell models (HUVEC, Xenopus oocytes) in combination with different biochemical (PCR), histological (microscopy) and electrophysiological (patch clamp, microelectrode recordings) methods and techniques. Candidates that are interested in the topic, have experimental research experience (Honours or Masters degree) in relevant techniques and are looking for new challenges are encouraged to apply.

Dr Martin Fronius
Show Fronius Lab page.

Central regulation of cardiac sympathetic drive in diabetes

Diabetes causes serious heart problems. The heart is controlled by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We have recently found that the sympathetic drive to the heart is increased in diabetes, which might underpin the heart problems experienced by diabetic patients. Sympathetic drive arises in the brain. Hence, this project will use immunohistochemistry to determine which brain areas are activated in diabetic rats to increase sympathetic drive to the heart. The results will identify potential therapeutic targets to improve heart function in diabetic patients.

Dr Regis Lamberts
Show Lamberts Lab page.

Professor Colin Brown
Show Brown Lab page.

Nerve innervation and dysfunction of the diabetic heart

This project will aim to determine the cardiac nerve innervation in type 2 diabetes, and also how the expected alterations in cardiac nerve innervation are related to the observed cardiac dysfunction in type 2 diabetes.

Dr Regis Lamberts
Show Lamberts Lab page.

Associate Professor Phil Sheard
Show Sheard 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.

Neuroendocrine regulation of body weight and glucose homeostasis

This project will investigate potential causes of leptin resistance, a hallmark for the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Methods include the generation and application of viral vectors to alter leptin signalling pathways in the brain, molecular biology, protein biochemistry and behavioural phenotyping. Our multidisciplinary research group is embedded in the Otago Centre for Neuroendocrinology (, which is known for its internationally excellent research and study environment.

Dr Alexander Tups
Show Tups Lab page.

Revealing brain stress pathways with optogenetics

Our laboratory focuses on understanding how corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) neurons control the stress axis. CRH neurons are activated in response to stress and are responsible for controlling the levels of stress hormones in the body as well as stress related behaviour. We are interested in determining where CRH neurons project in the brain and how these projections regulate distinct behaviours associated with stress. This PhD project will involve tracing CRH neuron projections in the brain in genetically modified mice. We will then use in vitro and in vivo optogenetics to determine the physiological/behavioural importance of these projections. For more information on this and other projects, please contact Dr Karl Iremonger ( or see our website

Dr Karl Iremonger
Show Iremonger Lab page.

Understanding the central nervous system regulation of fertility and the central defects that may contribute to infertility

We are seeking motivated students to join my laboratory within the Otago Centre for Neuroendocrinology ( Our work is focused on understanding the central nervous system regulation of fertility and the central defects that may contribute to infertility. Successful reproductive capabilities rely on the communication of a variety of signals about the internal and external environment to the neurons in the brain that drive reproductive function, namely the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons. Projects in my laboratory are aimed at defining these neuronal inputs and their relative importance in GnRH neuron function. A PhD project following this line of investigation will be available in my laboratory for a suitable candidate.

Dr Rebecca Campbell
Show Campbell Lab page.

Cellular mechanisms controlling membrane delivery of ANO1 channels

ANO1 is a Ca2+-activated Cl- channel involved in many physiological functions including secretion, sensory transduction and smooth muscle contraction. It also has a role in human pathophysiology, being upregulated in many types of cancer. Central to these roles in health and disease are mechanisms that control the delivery of ANO1 to the membrane. This project aims to identify the cell signalling proteins that interact with ANO1 to control its insertion into the membrane and subsequent transport activity. Various techniques including patch-clamp electrophysiology, cellular and molecular biology will be used to elucidate these mechanisms. Interested students are encouraged to apply and may contact Steven via email for further project details.

Dr Steven Condliffe
Show Condliffe Lab page.

Associate Professor Grant Butt
Show Butt Lab page.

Characterising the role of endothelial ENaC for blood pressure regulation

The epithelial Na+ channel (ENaC) is crucial for maintaining electrolyte and water homeostasis and thereby a major molecule for blood pressure regulation. Beside its ubiquitous expression in epithelia, there is growing evidence that the channel is expressed in non-epithelial tissues such as endothelial cells of blood vessels. Knowledge about the role and function of ENaC in blood vessels is incomplete. This project aims to characterise the expression and function of ENaC in different types of blood vessels. In particular the association of the channel with the endothelial glycocalyx is a major aspect of the project. The results from this study will provide evidence for a new role of ENaC in endothelial cells that relies on the endothelial glycocalyx and that represents a new mechanism for blood pressure regulation. The project involves expression analysis (quantitative/digital PCR) using different types of arteries from different species. Further, vessel structures will be assessed by histotology and immunohistochemistry. Cyrofix-cyrosubstitution transmission electron microscopy will be performed to determine the structure of the endothelial glycocalyx. ELISA will be performed to determine and quantify the components that constitute the endothelial glycocalyx. Candidates that are interested in the topic, have experimental research experience (Honours or Masters degree) and are looking for new challenges are encouraged to apply.

Associate Professor Fiona McDonald
Show McDonald Lab page.

Dr Martin Fronius
Show Fronius 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 ghrelin 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

The physiology of today is the medicine of tomorrow.

Ernest Starling