Ecological impacts of microplastic debris in river systems worldwide, Biosciences - PhD (Funded) Ref: 3169

About the award


Professor Tamara Galloway, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter,, tel +44 1392 263436

Dr Ceri Lewis, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, tel +44 1392 263782

The University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a fully-funded PhD studentship to commence in September 2018 or as soon as possible thereafter.  For eligible students the studentship will cover UK/EU tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £14,777 for 3.5 years full-time, or pro rata for part-time study.

This studentship is funded through the Diamond Jubilee Match Funding scheme with a dontation from Roger de Freitas. Roger is an active philanthropist, passionate about ecology and practical conservation. Roger graduated from Exeter in 1971 with a BA in Politics and has been working to support water systems and landscapes across the world throughout his life. Roger sits on a number of advisory boards, including EcoPeace in the Middle East and the Global Nature Fund which runs the Living Lakes Network. This network consists of one hundred NGOs that work with communities living by lakes and wetlands. Roger is chair of the Mangrove Action Project, helping coastal communities repair forests wrecked by fish ponds. Roger is also involved with Thames21 and was chair of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Keen to support individuals in their careers, Roger particularly encourages students to learn in the field.

The University will provide regular updates to the donor, which will include information provided by the recipient. Scholars will be invited to participate in appropriate activities to thank philanthropic donors at the University.


Contamination of aquatic ecosystems by plastic litter has become a conservation issue of global concern, with much attention focussed on the oceans.  Most marine plastic debris originates on land, with river systems acting as a major route for plastic transport to the sea. Despite this, little is known of how microplastic litter accumulates in freshwater ecosystems.  Even less is known of how different microplastic types are ingested by freshwater and estuarine organisms, or of the biological effects that result.  In this project, you will study well-characterised river systems, comparing study sites in the UK and the Indian Ocean region to understand more about the fate and effects of microplastics in locations from source to sea. This knowledge is vitally important for identifying vulnerable habitats and locations most at risk from microplastics pollution for devising targeted remedial actions.


To track the biological impacts of microplastic debris along the trajectory of selected river systems, addressing the hypothesis that species traits will significantly influence microplastic accumulation.


Key research questions

• Can aquatic organisms be used as indicators of microplastic distribution in selected river systems? Which organisms are most vulnerable to contamination and what traits predispose them to bioaccumulation?
• How does plastic bioaccumulation vary relative to background along a trajectory of freshwater, transitional and marine waters? What factors influence these trends?
• How do the biological effects of microplastic accumulation vary across food webs in contrasting aquatic systems? Can common mechanisms of toxicity be identified?


Working with collaborators in the UK and our wide network of collaborators within the Indian Ocean region, you will document microplastic abundance and determine patterns of bioaccumulation. You will study contrasting estuarine systems in the South West of England and e.g. the Jeneberang river in Indonesia, feeding into the Makassar Straits. You will apply a range of field sampling methods and ecotoxicology bioassays to trace biological effects, including advanced imaging techniques for visualising micro- and nano- plastics non-destructively within tissues, to deduce pathways of effect from cells through to whole organisms.



Microplastic contamination is a topical issue, and an exciting field of research in which we are world leaders.  You will acquire a portfolio of highly employable skills across a range of disciplines, including ecotoxicology, bio-imaging, aquatic biology and ecology and gain experience relevant to the UN Strategic Development Goals. Our research team will provide a supportive and enthusiastic environment for your studies and you will have ample opportunities for public and policy engagement to disseminate your research findings.

This award provides annual funding to cover UK/EU tuition fees and a tax-free stipend.  For students who pay UK/EU tuition fees the award will cover the tuition fees in full, plus at least £14,777 per year tax-free stipend.  Students who pay international tuition fees are eligible to apply, but should note that the award will only provide payment for part of the international tuition fee and no stipend. 

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 3.5 years of full-time study to commence in September 2018 and is subject to confirmation of funding.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a good UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in a relevant biological or environmental science subject. Some experience of ecotoxicology bioassays and field work would be an advantage, although full training will be provided.

If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5  in IELTS and no less than 6.0 in any section by the start of the project.  Alternative tests may be acceptable (see

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 

• 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)
• Names of two referees familiar with your academic work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.
• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English

The closing date for applications is midnight on 28 June, 2018 interviews will be held on the University of Exeter Streatham campus the week commencing 9 July, 2018.
If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email or phone +44 (0)1392 722730.  Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Application deadline:28th June 2018
Number of awards:1
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Support Office