Reducing the Environmental Impacts of Oil Palm Production in Malaysia - Environmental Sciences - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship Ref: 2806

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: Dr Iain Hartley
Co-Supervisor: Dr Tim Hill
Co-Supervisor: Prof Chris Evans (CEH)
Co-Supervisor: Dr Kho Lip Khoon

Location: Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project description:

Tropical peatlands store 89 Gt C and are a vital component of the global carbon cycle (Page 2011). The rapid increase in the rate of conversion of tropical peatlands, mostly to oil palm, means that by 2015, 50 % of tropical peatlands had been converted (Miettinen 2016). These conversions result in large emissions of carbon dioxide. It is therefore vital that the oil palm industry improves the management of plantations to reduce their ongoing environmental impact, and to assess the restoration of degraded tropical peatlands. This project aims to determine whether careful control of water-table dynamics can minimize carbon emissions, while increasing oil palm production. Field measurements will be used to tackle fundamental science questions related to how carbon and nutrient cycling are controlled in tropical peat soils, and, through the collaboration with the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, the knowledge gained will be used to guide management practices.

Image 1: Panorama from a tower above an oil palm plantation at the study site. Image 2: Drainage ditch within converted peatland.

Project Aims and Methods

During conversion to oil palm, peatlands are drained. The depth of the resulting water table has been shown to control carbon emissions (Hooijer, 2010). However, data from our study site show that an annual mean water table depth (as used in the Hooijer study) does not capture the actual dynamics. Rather seasonal variations in water table depth (i.e. 0 to 1 m) appear to be important.

The aim of this PhD is to test the hypothesis that reducing annual variation in water-table depth will both reduce carbon emissions from drained peatlands and increase palm oil production. This will be achieved through a linked programme of small and large-scale experiments. The former will focus on manipulating water table depths in peat cores and determining whether constant or fluctuating water-tables result in the greatest emissions, testing fundamental hypotheses related to controls over decomposition in tropical peats. In situ, the project will establish and control sluice gate systems to manipulate water tables. The effects on carbon emission and oil palm production can then be determined. Thus, the project has both fundamental science and applied policy-relevant components, providing great opportunities for publishing high-impact papers and addressing directly a key environmental issue.


We are looking for a highly-motivated student with an excellent understanding of terrestrial ecosystem dynamics, especially carbon and nutrient cycling. A strong background in academic research is required. Additionally, the successful candidate must be prepared to spend extended time periods in Malaysia establishing field experiments.


Case Award Description

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) will support the PhD studentship through a £1000 per year case award (£3.5k total). They will also provide access to: fieldsites; accommodation; technical support for field work; and state-of-the-art analytical laboratory facilities in Malaysia. This is a well-supported project that represents a unique opportunity for a PhD student to help design large-scale in situ manipulations, rather than simply working within previously established experiments. Links to MPOB will help translate project findings into policy.


The student will receive extensive training in the scientific method, experimental design, and hypothesis testing. In terms of project-specific skills, they will be trained in the use of state-of-the-art methods for making trace gas fluxes and in the elemental analysis of soil and water samples. In Malaysia they will work as part of a team of UK and Malaysian researchers, at times coordinating and leading teams of local Palm Oil Board staff to ensure all samples can be collected and the experiments maintained. The student will also be trained in scientific writing and the presentation of their research.


Hooijer A, Page S, Canadell JG, Silvius M, Kwadijk J, Wosten H, Jauhiainen J (2010) Current and future CO2 emissions from drained peatlands in Southeast Asia. Biogeosciences, 7, 1505-1514.

Miettinen J, Shi C, Liew SC (2016) Land cover distribution in the peatlands of Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo in 2015 with changes since 1990. Global Ecology and Conservation, 6, 67-78.

Page SE, Rieley JO, Banks CJ (2011) Global and regional importance of the tropical peatland carbon pool. Global Change Biology, 17, 798-818.

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.