University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Utilising novel satellite observations in the monitoring and management of marine Ecosystems. PhD in Renewable Energy (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3672

About the award


Lead Supervisor 

Dr Helen Smith, Department of Engineering, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Jon Rees, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

Dr Tiago Silva, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

Dr Ian Ashton, Department of Engineering, College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, University of Exeter

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC GW4+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP).  The GW4+ DTP consists of the GW4 Alliance of research-intensive universities: the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five unique and prestigious Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.  The partnership aims to provide a broad training in the Earth, Environmental and Life sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in scientific research, business, technology and policy-making. For further details about the programme please see

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An stipend for 3.5 years (currently £15,009 p.a. for 2019/20) in line with UK Research and Innovation rates
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £3,250 for specialist training courses and expenses.
  • Travel and accomodation is covered for all compulsory DTP cohort events.
  • No course fees for courses run by the DTP

We are currently advertising projects for a total of 10 studentships at the University of Exeter


Students who are resident in EU countries are eligible for the full award on the same basis as UK residents.  Applicants resident outside of the EU (classed as International for tuition fee purposes) are not eligible for DTP funding. Residency rules are complex and if you have not been resident in the UK or EU for the 3 years prior to the start of the studentship, please apply and we will check eligibility upon shortlisting.

Project Background

The growth of anthropogenic activity and associated impacts in the marine environment from sectors such as offshore wind, shipping, and fishing and aquaculture have led to an increased need for wide-scale and long-term monitoring. However, traditional in situ and remote monitoring activities have a low spatial coverage and are limited in their ability to respond quickly to unplanned events. New opportunities for marine monitoring are becoming viable as the latest generation of multi-spectral, as well as synthetic aperture radar (SAR), satellites come online. Recent developments in CubeSats [1], i.e. relatively inexpensive small satellites, as well as the larger ESA Sentinel satellites, offer significant increases in the range of sensing parameters, resolution, utility and coverage, e.g. [2],[3]. This PhD will build on ongoing work in the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) to produce new earth observations products for use in the monitoring of anthropogenic activities.  

Project Aims and Methods 

This project will explore and assess the utility of CubeSats in monitoring marine activities on local, national and global scales. Project CASE partner Cefas, as part of Defra, has been given free access to the NOVASAR satellite currently used for flood detection, but which could be used to monitor oil spills, wakes from offshore windfarms, surface shipping and unreported and unregulated fishing. The student will explore the application of high temporal frequency, high resolution constellations to coastal and intertidal mapping, water quality and marine surveillance (e.g. oil spills and other pollution events), and test the application of novel Earth observation sensors to marine management while assessing the constraints of operational use of these new technologies.

The large range of potential applications using NOVASAR data will enable the student to design a project either focusing in detail on a specific sector of marine activity or geographical scale, or addressing wider marine monitoring and management, depending on their background or specific area of interest. Possible areas of application include detection of illegal fishing in the UK overseas territories and oil spill detection. 


High resolution coastal satellite imagery from Sentinel 2

Candidate Requirements 

The successful candidate will have a background in physical, biological or environmental science with a strong emphasis on data processing and statistical techniques. Familiarity with a programming language such as Matlab, Python or R would be an advantage.

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

Cefas is a world leader in marine science, technology and management. The student will spend up to six months working with the Earth Observations team at Cefas, in Lowestoft, to develop the application of new earth observation methodologies to marine management. Cefas will provide the test cases for the applications, including water quality and its regulation (under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, OSPAR or Water Framework Directive), illegal and unrecorded fishing and habitat mapping, in particular the mapping of nuisance macroalgae and of seagrass beds.


The student will have access to wide-ranging training opportunities across the GW4 network through the DTP. In addition, the student will complete a series of secondments at Cefas. These will incorporate project-specific training in the use of satellite datasets, marine management, oceanography and applied marine ecology. The student will also be encouraged and supported to engage with the wider earth observations community at national and international conferences and workshops.

References / Background reading list 

[1] Poghosyen, A. & Golkar, A. (2017). CubeSat evolution: Analyzing CubeSat capabilities for conducting science missions. Progress in Aerospace Sciences, 88, pp.59-83.

[2] Vanhellemont, Q. (2019). Daily metre-scale mapping of water turbidity using CubeSat imagery. Optics Express, 27(20), pp.A1372-A1399.

[3] Morrison, J.M. et al. (2016). SeaHawk: an advanced CubeSat mission for sustained ocean colour monitoring. Proc. SPIE 10000, Sensors, Systems, and Next-Generation Satellites XX, 100001C, 19 October 2016, Edinburgh, UK, doi: 10.1117/12.2241058.

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


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.

Reference information
You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process, however we will not expect receipt of references until after the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

If you are shortlisted for interview, please ensure that your two academic referees email their references to the, 7 days prior to the interview dates.  Please note that we will not be contacting referees to request references, you must arrange for them to be submitted to us by the deadline.

References should be submitted by your referees to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is 1600 hours GMT Monday 6 January 2020.  Interviews will be held between 10 and 21 February 2020.  For more information about the NERC GW4+ DPT please visit

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

Data Sharing
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:6th January 2020
Value:£15,009 per annum for 2019-20
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries