Biology assembles itself. But how did the earliest cell assemble out of simple chemicals? In this project we will investigate how wet-dry cycles, for instance in a ‘warm little pond’, could bring about a leap in complexity from random chemicals to protocells that we can see under a microscope.

What Students will do

 Students will work in a research lab to investigate how simple molecules like fatty acids self-assemble into stable compartments as a function of temperature, concentration, enhanced effect of surfaces, and presence of additives. Several characterisation methods will be used to monitor self-assembly such as microscopy or light scattering techniques, followed using image processing software. Students will then use their data to determine how these different parameters affect the formation of primitive cell membrane at the microscopic scale of the early Earth. 


  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Earth and Environmental Sciences

Prerequisite Study

  • Nil 

Areas of Student Interest

  • Self-assembly
  • Origins of life
  • Advanced manufacturing 


Lead Academic: Dr Anna Wang - Scientia Lecturer, School of Chemistry 

Anna Wang

Anna is from Sydney and did her Bachelor of Science at the Univeristy of Sydney (2009), doing Honours research in optics and photonics with Dr. Maryanne Large. Her interest in how objects interact with light led to a PhD in Applied Physics at Harvard University (2016) with Prof. Vinothan N. Manoharan, using digital holographic microscopy - a fast, three-dimensional microscopy technique - to study the dynamics of colloidal systems including particles near oil-water interfaces, and swimming E.coli. During her PhD she was also fortunate enough to be involved with the Science and Cooking class and EdX program. Her PhD inspired a love for microscopy, and an appreciation of how thermal fluctuations and motion at the microscale can lead to self-assembled macroscopic structures. One system that captured her attention was how simple amphiphilic molecules self-assemble into cell membranes. To explore questions pertaining to membrane self-assembly during the origins of life (and the potential for cell-based life elsewhere in the universe), she did a postdoc with Prof. Jack W. Szostak at Massachusetts General Hospital as a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow in Astrobiology (Nov 2016-2018). 


PhD Student: Luke Steller