2020 applicants
Postgraduate Research Opportunity

Improving human male infertility screening with sperm morphometrics


Title: Improving human male infertility screening with sperm morphometrics

Funding: Full time Home/EU fees and a stipend of £15,009 p.a. (terms & conditions)

Application deadline: 17 May 2019

Start date: October 2019

Duration: 3 years (full time)

Location: Colchester Campus

Based in: School of Biological Sciences


This studentship has now closed. View our current opportunities.


Infertility is a multifactorial problem affecting 1 in 7 couples in the UK, with male infertility or subfertility being a contributing cause in approximately half these cases.

Diagnosis and treatment of male factor infertility has lagged far behind that of female infertility, and, while male fertility issues may be addressable via simple interventions, men are often reluctant to visit clinics and 'admit' they have fertility problems. Consequently, couples presenting with a male factor problem are generally referred for invasive IVF procedures without any attempt to diagnose and (where possible) treat the cause of the infertility, leading to failed cycles, unnecessary treatment and prolonged failure to conceive.

This is becoming an ever more pressing concern; the US and Europe are experiencing an ongoing unexplained decrease in sperm quality in even healthy men, putting greater pressure on IVF services. Atop this is the growing use of 'nutraceuticals' in Western society; dietary supplements which may provide health benefits - for example, anti-oxidants that may provide protection against DNA damage. We still lack a clear understanding of the efficacy of these in male fertility and the mechanisms by which they operate. Additional simple, low-cost tools for semen analysis may help to address both the societal problem, by making screening a more routine procedure, and help our biological understanding of the interplay between diet, environment and fertility.

One of the parameters used to assess male semen quality is the sperm morphology. Humans have very variable - and very poor - sperm morphologies, with up to 90% of sperm having some form of morphological defect in even a normal fertile man. This proportion increases to >96% in infertile men, and while it is known that poor sperm morphology is associated with poor fertility, clinical guidelines for the assessment of the sperm head morphology focus on easily measured parameters such as the number of heads, head area, length and width, the presence of vacuoles and the acrosomal area.

However, recent research has shown that the shape of the sperm nucleus also reflects genetic defects, and thus encodes information about the developmental pathways affected. Consequently, a more detailed study of 'abnormal' sperm may be able to provide prognostic information about treatment outcomes, and/or more mechanistic data about the underlying reasons for fertility problems than currently available.

This project will work with industrial and clinical collaborators to conduct morphological assessment of sperm from men undergoing fertility treatment. The aims will be to perform morphological analysis and classification of abnormal sperm; to correlate these data with clinical, genetic and lifestyle data on the infertility phenotype; to develop novel approaches to human sperm shape analysis and to integrate these with existing morphometric tools; and to translate these techniques into high-throughput, automated morphometric analysis of semen samples, with possible prognostic utility.

The project is part of a multi-disciplinary, cross-institutional academic, clinical, and pharmaceutical collaboration with the University of Kent, Andrology Solutions, and LogixX Pharma Solutions Ltd. As such, as well as conducting morphological research, the student will have the opportunity to help develop a fully accredited diagnostics service for sperm chromatin quality under the auspices of The Doctors Laboratory (TDL), and be trained in performing analyses to a clinical standard.

Given the many scientific unknowns in the area, there will be no difficulty for the student in generating publishable data for a thesis and for professional journal articles. They will also have extensive opportunities for professional development.


The award consists of a full Home/EU fee waiver or equivalent fee discount for overseas students (further fee details), a doctoral stipend equivalent to the Research Councils UK National Minimum Doctoral Stipend (£15,009 in 2019-20), plus £2,500 training bursary via Proficio funding, which may be used to cover the cost of advanced skills training including conference attendance and travel.


Dr Ben Skinner

Dr Ben Skinner

School of Biological Sciences, University of Essex

Dr Ben Skinner will be joining the School in summer 2019. Any queries should be emailed to Emma Revill (ecrix@essex.ac.uk).

How to apply

You can apply for this postgraduate research opportunity online.

Please include your CV, covering letter, personal statement, and transcripts of UG and Masters degrees in your application.

Your personal statement should explain why you are applying for this specific project and what you could bring to the team in terms of skills, experience and enthusiasm.

Instruction to applicants

When you apply online you will be prompted to fill out several boxes in the form:

  • For "Course title" please put "PhD Biological Sciences"
  • For "Proposed research topic or area of research" please put the title of this studentship (Improving human male infertility screening with sperm morphometrics)
  • For "If you have contacted a potential supervisor..." please put the name of the lead supervisor (Dr Ben Skinner)

If you have any informal queries about this opportunity please email the Postgraduate Research Administrator, Emma Revill (ecrix@essex.ac.uk), who will forward your query to the supervisor, Dr Ben Skinner.

You can find the terms and conditions of this studentship here (.doc).