University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Arctic and Antarctic ocean fluorescence: Towards a new view of the health and structure of the living polar oceans using satellite, ship-based and robotic platforms. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4 + DTP) Ref: 3677

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Robert Brewin, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors 

Dr Giorgio Dall’Olmo, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Remote Sensing Group, 

Dr Angus Atkinson, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Plankton Ecology Group

Dr Katy Sheen, University of Exeter, College of Life and Environmental 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:

  • 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

Climate change is having a profound impact on our planet. Nowhere is this impact more evident than in polar regions, where rapid changes in sea-ice extent, glacial melt-water rates, ocean temperatures and icebergs, are occurring. Polar biology is fuelled by microscopic phytoplankton that help modulate climatically relevant elements like carbon. Changes in the physico-chemical environment are impacting polar phytoplankton, shifting their habitat range, species composition and phenology, with consequences for iconic top-level predators like seals, whales, penguins and polar bears, that rely on plankton, directly or indirectly, as a food source. This PhD project will harness cutting-edge technology to gain new insight into polar phytoplankton. You will investigate the health and composition of polar phytoplankton to develop new understanding on how these organisms are impacted by the physico-chemical environment and by top-down predators, and how they are expected to change in the future. You will achieve this by using measurements of phytoplankton fluorescence, collected from autonomous robotic floats, underwater gliders and marine mammals, as well as pioneering satellite and ship-based optical data. 

Project Aims and Methods 

This project aims to develop novel phytoplankton data products on taxonomic composition and physiological status (e.g. Behrenfeld et al. 2009; Browning et al. 2017; Brewin et al. 2017) in polar waters, by integrating satellite ocean-colour data with autonomous and ship-based optical ocean observations. You will focus on the interplay between spectral ocean-colour in the 400-600 nm range (information on taxonomic and pigment structure) with that in the 600-700 nm range (phytoplankton fluorescence). 

These new products will be analysed in the context of changes in the physico-chemical environment (sea-ice extent, glacial melt-water rates, and iceberg numbers and distributions), and changes in top-down control (e.g. grazing by zooplankton, through comparison with polar zooplankton datasets, e.g. Atkinson et al. 2019), with the ultimate goal of answering the question ‘How is polar phytoplankton composition and health responding to climate change?’.

To achieve this aim, the candidate will process underway optical data collected from past and planned research cruises (AMT and NERC PICCOLO, with a potential opportunity to partake in an oceanographic expedition to Antarctica) and from autonomous observations (Biogeochemical-Argo floats and seal tags) collected in polar waters. These data will be used to develop and train new polar phytoplankton data products, harnessing information from the entire ocean colour spectrum (400-700 nm) and the enhanced spatial and temporal scales achieved by merging satellite and autonomous ocean observations. These new polar phytoplankton products will be evaluated in the context of bottom-up control (e.g. physico-chemical ocean datasets from satellites, in-situ observations and models) and top-down control (e.g. comparison with polar zooplankton datasets such as in Atkinson et al. 2019). The candidate will be allowed freedom and flexibility to modify the project design and direction, depending on their interests, within the scope of the project’s aims. 


Fig. 1. Harnessing cutting-edge observational technology to explore the living polar ocean (left image ESA/ATG Medialab)


Fig. 2. Linking polar physical and chemical processes with plankton structure and health

Candidate Requirements

The candidate will need to be self-motivated, pro-active and enthusiastic, with good numerical skills, ideally with some computer coding experience, and a scientific interest in oceanography. The candidate will be required to have at least a 2.1 honours degree in physics, chemistry, mathematics, computing, or a branch of environmental science.

CASE or Collaborative Partner

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) offers the candidate experience working in a world-leading marine research laboratory. PML offers access to facilities and equipment that may be of use to the project, including high performance computing, access to research vessels and optics laboratories. It also hosts various seminars and training workshops. PML host one of the largest remote-sensing groups in Europe, and the plankton-ecology group, both of which support a network of PhD students and early-career scientists. PML is currently involved in various polar NERC programmes in the Arctic (e.g. Changing Arctic Ocean) and Antarctic (e.g. RoSES programme), offering the candidate an excellent platform for scientific networking. 


The candidate will receive training in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry, phytoplankton eco-physiology, satellite remote sensing, scientific programming, data analysis and visualisation, and oral and written presentation. The candidate will have the opportunity (subject to a successful medical and sea survival training) to take part in an oceanographic expedition in Antarctica (Weddell Sea) on the latest NERC polar research vessel, the RSS Sir David Attenborough, during which you will collect optical data from underway, optical profiling and above-water systems (Dall’Olmo et al. 2017; Brewin et al. 2016) and deploy biogeochemical floats, potentially assisting the tagging of marine mammals with optical sensors. You will collaborate with a dynamic team of scientists at PML and University of Exeter, as well as at other UK leading polar institutes within the NERC PICCOLO project. You will present your findings at international scientific conferences, in peer-reviewed scientific publications and in your PhD thesis.

References / Background reading list

  • Atkinson, A., Hill, S.L., Pakhomov, E.A., Siegel, V., Reiss, C.S., Loeb, V.J., Steinberg, D.K., Schmidt, K., Tarling, G.A., Gerrish, L. & Sailley, S.F. 2019. Krill (Euphausia superba) distribution contracts southward during rapid regional warming. Nature Climate Change, 9(2), p.142.
  • Behrenfeld, M.J., Westberry, T.K., Boss, E.S., O'Malley, R.T., Siegel, D.A., Wiggert, J.D., Franz, B.A., McLain, C.R., Feldman, G.C., Doney, S.C. and Moore, J.K., Dall'Olmo G., Milligan A. J., Lima I., Mahowald N., 2009. Satellite-detected fluorescence reveals global physiology of ocean phytoplankton. Biogeosciences, 6(5), p.779.
  • Brewin, R.J.W, Dall'Olmo, G., Pardo, S., van Dongen-Vogels, V. & Boss, E.S. 2016. Underway spectrophotometry along the Atlantic Meridional Transect reveals high performance in satellite chlorophyll retrievals. Remote Sensing of Environment, 183, pp.82-97.
  • Brewin, R.J.W, Ciavatta, S., Sathyendranath, S., Jackson, T., Tilstone, G., Curran, K., Airs, R.L., Cummings, D., Brotas, V., Organelli, E. & Dall'Olmo, G. 2017. Uncertainty in ocean-color estimates of chlorophyll for phytoplankton groups. Frontiers in Marine Science, 4, p.104.
  • Browning, T.J., Bouman, H.A. & Moore, C.M. 2014. Satellite‐detected fluorescence: Decoupling nonphotochemical quenching from iron stress signals in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 28(5), pp.510-524.
  • Dall’Olmo, G., Brewin, R.J.W., Nencioli, F., Organelli, E., Lefering, I., McKee, D., Röttgers, R., Mitchell, C., Boss, E., Bricaud, A. & Tilstone, G. 2017. Determination of the absorption coefficient of chromophoric dissolved organic matter from underway spectrophotometry. Optics Express, 25(24), pp.A1079-A1095.

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 in physics, chemistry, mathematics, computing, or a branch of environmental science.    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