Award details

The Carbon Cycle of an Artificial Tropical Forest Ecosystem - Biosciences NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship Ref: 3150

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 Studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2018.  For eligible students the award will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum (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 Daniel Bebber (University of Exeter)

Co-Supervisor: Dr Lucy Rowland (University of Exeter) 

Co-Supervisor: Prof. Lynne Boddy (Cardiff University)

Co-Supervisor: Dr Rachel Warmington (CASE partner - Eden Project)

Location: Streatham Campus, University of Exeter, Exeter, Devon.

Project description:
The carbon cycle is a fundamental Earth system process with profound influences on the global climate. Human activities have altered ecosystem composition and functioning around the world, through habitat destruction and by species introductions. This PhD will study the carbon cycle of one of the world’s most famous artificial ecosystems: the rainforest biome (RFB) of the Eden Project in Cornwall. The RFB is an enclosed space of around 1 ha, containing plants gathered from tropical ecosystems around the world. While water and air can enter and leave the system, most plant and animal populations are contained within the dome. Thus, processes like carbon assimilation and nutrient cycling are performed by a limited set of species that have little evolutionary history as an ecosystem. A key question in applied ecology is how these introduced species form novel ecosystems, and how ecosystem services like carbon cycling are affected.


Image 1: The Eden Project Tropical Biome is the world’s largest artificial rainforest. Image 2: The futuristic domes harbour a self-contained ecosystem

Project Aims and Methods:
The carbon cycle of a forest biome comprises a number of pools (above-ground biomass in trees and other plants and animals, below-ground carbon in roots, litter and soil, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and dissolved organic matter in water) and fluxes (photosynthesis and respiration by plants, leaf litter fall, consumption and respiration by herbivores and microbes).

You will measure these pools and fluxes using standard techniques developed for forests around the world. You will quantify the size of the carbon pools, by measuring the size and estimating the biomass of the trees and plants, and by measuring the organic carbon in the soil and roots. You will quantify the carbon fluxes in the system by measuring changes in tree diameter to estimate biomass accumulation, the fall and decay rates of leaf litter, loss of plant material to herbivores and pathogens, consumption of herbivores by predators, carbon dioxide fluxes from the soil, and losses of organic carbon in irrigation water. By identifying the interacting species, and how their populations change over time, you will build up a detailed, dynamic food web and so understand how these different species interact.

This project would suit a candidate with a background in ecology or physical geography, with an interest in ecosystem function, food webs, biogeochemistry, forest dynamics, or climate change.

Case Award Description:
Our CASE partner is the Eden Project, who manage and own the site. The student will benefit from close interaction and support with Eden Project research staff, primarily Dr. Rachel Warmington. In 2015 Dr Warmington supervised internship project (3rd year undergraduate) 'Detection of notifiable diseases in trees at the Eden Project'. She will be the lead supervisor at the Eden Project, ensuring that the student has access to the required personnel, information and facilities while working at Eden. She will also provide expertise in analysing the role of plant diseases in tree mortality rates.

The student will attend mandatory courses of direct relevance to the project, on spatial data management (GIS) and analysis (R programming) and earth system modelling. The student will spend a week working with former colleagues of Dan Bebber at Wytham Woods, Oxfordshire, where a detailed forest carbon cycle monitoring programme has been in place since 2007. In addition, the student will receive training on molecular species identification for fungal pathogens and decomposer organisms (ITS sequencing), and on metagenomics for characterization of the soil microbiome.

Fenn K, Malhi Y, Morecroft M, Lloyd C, Thomas M. 2014 The Carbon Cycle of a Maritime Ancient Temperate Broadleaved Woodland at Seasonal and Annual Scales. Ecosystems 18, 1–15. (doi:10.1007/s10021-014-9793-1)

Hobbs RJ et al. 2006 Novel ecosystems: theoretical and management aspects of the new ecological world order. Global Ecology and Biogeography 15, 1–7.

Marthews T et al. 2014 Measuring tropical forest carbon allocation and cycling: A RAINFOR-GEM field manual for intensive census plots.

Sala OE et al. 2000 Global Biodiversity Scenarios for the Year 2100. Science 287, 1770–1774.

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.


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 28th May 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter in the week commencing 4th June. 

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.


Application deadline:28th May 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: Postgraduate Research Office