Dr William (Mack) Durham

Photo of William Durham

Lecturer in Biological Physics

Contact details

Member of the "Imagine: Imaging Life" Initiative


Personal web page



My research aims to understand the strategies that microorganisms use to exploit their natural environment and compete with one another. Most of my work is focussed in three different areas: (i) surface-attached bacterial communities called biofilms, which are responsible for many hard to treat infections, (ii) unicellular phytoplankton, which are tiny plants that live in the ocean and cumulatively produce half of the oxygen we breathe, and (iii) bacteria living within porous environments like soil, where they drive global carbon cycles and facilitate many important processes in agriculture.

My research group does both experiments and theoretical work.  We use a diverse set of approaches including microfluidics, molecular biology, mathematical models, massively parallel cell tracking, high performance computing, and evolutionary game theory.

Currently, my group is composed of two postdocs (Dr Jamie Wheeler and Dr Oliver Meacock) and four PhD students (Mina Mohaghegh, Nathan Costin, Alexander Bruce and Sasha Evans).

B.Sc. in Civil Engineering (2000-2004, Clemson University, USA)
S.M. in Civil and Environmental Engineering (2004-2006, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)
Ph.D in Civil and Environmental Engineering (2006-2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA)

Academic career
Departmental Research Lecturer (2012-2016, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, fixed-term position)
Lecturer of Biological Physics (2016 - present, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield, permanent position).

Departmental administration
Head of Undergraduate Admissions (Oct 2019-present)
Lecturer Listening Coordinator (Jan 2018-present)
Degree with Employment Experience Coordinator (June 2018-present)

Major Awards
BBSRC New Investigator Award for "How do bacteria sense and navigate chemical gradients within biofilms?" (£517K)
Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) Long-Term Fellowship, Oxford University, UK (2012-2016)
National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship: Intersections of Biology and Mathematical and Physical Sciences (gratefully declined)
Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics, an annual prize for the best doctoral thesis in the area of fluid dynamics, American Physical Society - Division of Fluid Dynamics (APS-DFD)
Raymond L Lindeman Award, an annual award for the best paper in aquatic sciences written by an author under 35 years old.  American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO)


Research Interests

How do bacteria navigate surfaces using pili-based motility?
Bacteria use tiny "grappling hooks" called pili to pull themselves across solid surfaces.  We discovered that surface attached bacteria can sense chemical gradients and use this information to navigate to where nutrients are more abundant (Oliveira, Foster, Durham, PNAS, 2016).  I recently received a BBSRC New Investigator grant to resolve the molecular and physical systems that underlie this remarkable ability.

How do bacteria compete in porous soil environments?
Bacteria living in porous environments (like soil and sediments) constitute approximately half of the carbon within living organisms globally.  While these bacteria play a key role in agriculture, biogeochemical cycling, pollutant transport, oil extraction, and hydrology, we understand very little how bacteria compete with one another in these heterogenous environments.  My group uses a combination of microfluidic experiments, genetics, mechanistic models, and game theory to understand how bacterial competition plays out in porous environments.  In a recent paper we showed porous environments can actually select for bacteria that grow more slowly, challenging a long-held paradigm in microbiology (Coyte Tabuteau, Gaffney, Foster, Durham, PNAS, 2017).

How does flow affect phytoplankton ecology in marine systems?
Unicellular plants called phytoplankton compose the base the marine food web and cumulatively produce half of the oxygen that we breathe.  Our work has revealed has ambient flow in the ocean can drive striking accumulations of phytoplankton, which in turn can profoundly both phytoplankton ecology and the fisheries which they sustain. We use a combination of laboratory models, simple theoretical models, and supercomputer-based numerical simulations to resolve how fluid flow interacts with phytoplankton motility across a range of different length scales.  Recently, we showed that chain formation can profoundly enhance phytoplankton's ability to swim through the small-scale turbulence that is ubiquitous in marine environments (Lovecchio, Climent, Stocker, Durham, Science Advances, 2019).

How do bacteria coordinate their motility within densely packed biofilms?
Many bacterial infections are caused by densely packed collections of bacteria called biofilms, which spread along surfaces using pili-based motility.  In biofilms, rod shape bacteria tend to align their motility with one another, which gives rise to highly coordinated collective behaviour.  My group aims to unravel the physical and molecular systems that bacteria use to efficiently move within these biofilm communities.

Research funding (major awards)
New Investigator Award, BBSRC, £517K (2018-2021, PI)
SHAMROK pump priming grant, EPSRC £10K (2017, PI)
Long-Term Fellowship, Human Frontier Science Programme, £85K (2012-2016, PI)


Undergraduate modules
PHY1001 Motion & Heat (practical classes)
PHY119 Frontiers of Physics (Topic: The physics of microbial life)
PHY248 Physics with Labview
PHY230 Experimental Physics I
PHY231 Experimental Physics II
PHY393/PHY393N Microscopy and Spectroscopy

Undergraduate projects
PHY342 3rd Year Research project
PHY480 4th Year Research project

Masters level modules
PHY6510 The Theory and Practical Application of Imaging (Topics: phase contrast and DIC microscopy)

Previously taught modules
PHY101 - Optics (Autumn 2017, Autumn 2018)


For latest list of publications see my Google Scholar page:

Lovecchio S, Climent E, Stocker R, Durham WM. (2019). Chain formation can enhance the vertical migration of phytoplankton through turbulence. Science Advances.

Bearon RN, Durham WM. (2019) A model of strongly biased chemotaxis reveals the trade-offs of different bacterial migration strategies. Mathematical Medicine and Biology.

Walsh E, Feuerborn A, Wheeler J, Tan A, Durham WM, Foster KR, Cook P. (2017) Microfluidics with fluid walls. Nature Communications. 8 (816), 1-9.

Coyte KZ, Tabuteau H, Gaffney EA, Foster KR, Durham WM. (2017) Microbial competition in porous environments can select against rapid biofilm growth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 114 (2), E161-E170.

Oliveira NM, Foster KR, Durham WM. (2016) Single-cell chemotaxis during biofilm formation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 113 (23) 6532-6537.

Oliveira NM, Martinez-Garcia E, Xavier J, Durham WM, Kolter R, Kim W, Foster KR. (2015) Biofilm formation as a response to ecological competition. PLoS Biology. 13. 1-23.

DeLillo F, Cencini M, Durham WM, Barry M, Stocker R, Climent E, Boffetta G. (2014) Turbulent fluid acceleration generates clusters of gyrotactic microorganisms. Physical Review Letters. 112(4), 1-5.

Durham WM, Climent E, Barry M, De Lillo F, Boffetta G, Cencini M, Stocker R. (2013) Turbulence drives microscale patches of motile phytoplankton. Nature Communications. 4(2148), 1-7.

Durham WM, Stocker R. (2012) Thin phytoplankton layers: characteristics, mechanisms, and consequences. Annual Review of Marine Science. 4, 177-207.

Durham WM, Climent E, Stocker R. (2011) Gyrotaxis in a steady vortical flow. Physical Review Letters. 106(238102), 1-4.

Marcos*, Seymour JR*, Luhar M*, Durham WM*, Mitchell JG, Macke A, Stocker R.* (2011) Microbial alignment in flow changes ocean light climate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 108 (10), 3860-3864.

Seymour JR, Ahmed T, Durham WM, Stocker R. (2009) Chemotactic response of marine bacteria to the extracellular products of Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus. Aquatic Microbial Ecology. 59, 161-168.

Stocker R. and Durham WM. (2009) Tumbling for stealth? Science. 325. 400-402.

Durham WM, Kessler JO, Stocker R. (2009) Disruption of vertical motility by shear triggers formation of thin phytoplankton layers. Science. 323(5917), 1067-1070.

Madsen OS and Durham WM. (2007) Pressure-induced subsurface sediment transport in the surf zone. Proceedings of Coastal Sediments, American Society of Civil Engineering. 1-14.

Durham WM and Gallagher S. (2006) Bozeman bicycle network plan. Proceedings of 10th National Conference on Transportation Planning for Small and Medium-Sized Communities. 1-13