Biological and Biogeochemical Proxy Calibration of Deglaciating Environments in Antarctica - Environmental Sciences - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD Studentship Ref: 2804

About the award

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Lead supervisor: Prof James Scourse
Co-Supervisor: Dr Sev Kender
Co-Supervisor: Dr Jenny Pike
Co-Supervisor: Dr Anna Pieńkowski
Co-Supervisor: Dr Vicky Peck

Location: Penryn Campus, Cornwall

Project description:

The retreat of marine-terminating glaciers can be recognized within the sedimentary record by the transition from subglacial to proximal glaciomarine sediments marking the decoupling of the ice sheet from the sea floor. Determining the accurate timing of such deglaciations and their particular environmental context is critical for reconstructing past ice sheet behavior and, consequently, constraining numerical ice sheet models ( Paleoenvironmental data, such as ocean temperature and salinity, can be extracted from marine sediments to identify mechanisms driving past deglaciations. However, within the glaciomarine setting, the interpretation of proxy records can be challenging due to physical disturbance of sediments during ice retreat or local salinity fluctuations that alter the local ecosystem or overprint salinity or temperature records. To improve our interpretation of past ice sheet sensitivity and response to ocean drivers, and refine ice sheet models, new calibration and process studies are necessary at the margins of marine terminating glaciers.


Image 1: Field sites for sample collection (base map from Cook et al., 2016). Image 2: The West Antarctic field environment during a British Antarctic Survey research cruise (photo: Vicky Peck)

Project Aims and Methods

This PhD will exploit unrivalled opportunities to sample transects in front of three actively retreating glaciers on the West Antarctic Peninsula. As part of an upcoming joint UK-Chile ICEBERGS project, the RRV James Clark Ross will repeat sample transects at Rothera, William Glacier and King George Island from 2017 to 2020. Data generated from these transects will be used to  identify the proxies that are most useful for determining key environmental gradients in deglaciating environments.  Although we cannot guarantee participation in fieldwork, the intention is that the student will participate in the 2018 research cruise when surface sediment and seawater samples will be collected. Samples collected during the 2017 field season will also be made available. The 2019 field season will offer an additional, unprecedented, opportunity to collect further samples to test hypotheses emerging during the course of the studentship. Proxies conventionally used in these settings include microfossils(foraminifera, diatoms, dinoflagellate cysts), carbonate stable isotopes and organic biomarkers (open water and sea ice diatom-based). Data generated from these proxies will be analysed using multivariate statistics and calibrated using instrumental series to identify those that most successfully reconstruct 1. ocean temperature, 2. sea ice cover, and 3. distance from the ice front.


This project would suit a strongly motivated environmental, marine and/or Earth science graduate with a 1st class honours degree who has a strong aspiration to undertake a multiproxy research project on Antarctic deglaciation.


Case Award Description

This is a CASE proposal with British Antarctic Survey (BAS) as the potential CASE partner. Dr Vicky Peck at BAS will be the CASE supervisor and the studentship involves a 4-month secondment at BAS. The student will work with several BAS personnel involved in the UK-Chile ICEBERGS project and will therefore be fully integrated into the project management.


Although BAS CASE studentships cannot be dependent on fieldwork the intention is that this project will provide an excellent opportunity for the student to participate in a research cruise and fieldwork in Antarctica. The research cruise element will provide practical training and participation in CTD deployment, water sampling and treatment, and bottom sediment sampling (grabs, multi-corer), and laboratory analyses at Rothera, as well as experience of Antarctic science more generally. The student will receive training in (1) laboratory preparation of samples for foraminiferal, diatom and dinoflagellate cyst analyses and their taxonomic identification, (2) preparation of samples for stable oxygen and carbon isotopic analyses, and (3) preparation of samples for organic biomarker analysis.


Barnes & Souster 2011 Nature Climate Change doi: 1038/NCLIMATE1232; Barnes et al. 2014 Current Biology 24 553-554; Cook et al. 2005 Science 22 541-544; Cook & Vaughan 2010 The Cryosphere 4 77-98; Meredith & King 2005 Geophysical Research Letters 32 L19604; Peck et al. 2015 Quaternary Science Reviews 119, 54-65; Swann et al. 2017 Nature Communications 8 Article 14645; Vaughan et al. 2003 Climatic Change 60, 243-274.

Entry requirements:        

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


Application deadline:7th January 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript
        if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current
        proficiency in English.

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter between 5 - 16 February 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;

• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.