University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

From anther to atmosphere: building a better pollen forecast for human health. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3676

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Jon Bennie, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Dr Regan Early, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Lucy Neal, Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality Group, Met Office, 

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:

  • A 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

Approximately ten million people in the UK suffer from hay fever and pollen allergies. The UK pollen forecast provided by the Met Office is used by millions of hay fever sufferers to manage the impact of allergenic pollen on their lives.  As our climate and land use changes, so will the distribution and timing of pollen released to the atmosphere, and so understanding what triggers the onset of pollen allergies is critical.  Based at the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus in Cornwall, this exciting project involves working with scientists from the Met Office and the University to develop and validate new biological and atmospheric models to improve the operational pollen forecast in the future and make a real difference to the quality of life of hay fever sufferers. You will have a unique opportunity to work in interdisciplinary science at the interface between biology, ecology, meteorology and human health, and to be trained in a wide range of skills, from field biology to atmospheric modelling.

Project Aims and Methods 

This project aims to improve our ability to forecast pollen concentrations by developing our understanding of when and where wind-borne pollen is released into the atmosphere by plants and how and where it is dispersed.  It will involve both collecting ecological observations and mathematical modelling, with the aim of understanding processes across spatial scales from pollen release from a single flower head, and the density of flowers within rural and urban landscapes, to the movement of pollen over large distances in the atmosphere.  Key methods will involve: setting up and running controlled field experiments to measure the daily and seasonal cycles of pollen release in a range of species of plants and their response to weather and climate; carrying out extensive field surveys and developing species distribution models (SDMs) to estimate the changing density of key pollen-producing species within rural and urban landscapes; implementing and validating the Met Office numerical dispersion model (NAME) to predict long-distance transport of pollen grains.  It is expected that you will develop skills in both biological field work and mathematical modelling, but there is scope for you to develop the project to suit your existing skills and areas of interest. 


Pollen released from Cock’s foot grass (Dactylis glomerata)



Projected density of Cock’s foot grass (Dactylis glomerata) in the UK (Regan Early)

Candidate Requirements 

The successful candidate should have a degree in a science subject or mathematics, have good numerical skills and an interest in biology and ecology.  Experience in carrying out ecological fieldwork and/or working with mathematical models of physical or biological systems would be an advantage, as well as enthusiasm and a willingness to learn new skills.

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

The student will be co-supervised by scientists at the Met Office, and will have regular supervisory meetings with Met Office staff. They will also spend six months working at the Met Office in Exeter, working closely with scientists in the Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality group for the atmospheric dispersion modelling component of the PhD.


The Met office will provide training in atmospheric dispersion modelling, and the supervisory team will provide project-specific training in field skills as required. Exeter University will provide training in transferable skills (e.g. time management, employability, statistics, teaching skills) as part of its graduate training programme. The student will be able to attend regular departmental seminars in the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science and the Centre for Ecology and Conservation.

References / Background reading list

McInnes RN et al., (2017) Mapping allergenic pollen vegetation in the UK to study environmental exposure and health risk. Science of the Total Environment 599-600, 483-499.

NAME dispersion model,

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