University of Exeter funding: NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship

Forest degradation and ecosystem services in tropical montane forests. PhD in Geography (NERC GW4+ DTP) Ref: 3681

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr Ted Feldpausch, University of Exeter, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional Supervisors

Prof Toby Pennington, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr Lina Mercado, Department of Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Dr France Gerard, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Dr Rob Dunford, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter, EX4 4QJ

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 

Tropical ecosystems have undergone long-term changes that have modified biodiversity, carbon (C) storage, and ecosystem services (Navarrete et al. 2016, Hooghiemstra 1984, González-Carranza et al. 2012, Armenteras et al. 2013). In tropical Andean forests, long-term land-use has led to the major loss of forest, forming a vegetation mosaic converted for agriculture and later abandoned (Baptiste et al. 2017). While Andean forests are currently highly modified, there is little information about how changes have progressed and the drivers of change, e.g., climate, fire, historical contemporary human alteration of the landscape. This proposal seeks to identify ecosystem resilience to climate change and degradation in the Andes and to delineate ecological baselines. The PhD research project will help to address this major knowledge gap by working in tropical Andean montane forests.

Project Aims and Methods

This project will examine the ecosystem services and long-term resilience of Andean tropical forest ecosystems to environmental and climatic changes and improve understanding of the future implications of forest degradation for society. The work focuses on forests that are not pristine in that they are used by local communities and are affected by logging and fire. This fills a research gap in understanding how forests, which may be regarded as biologically 'degraded', have undergone changes in biodiversity, in ecosystem services, and in how they participate in local and global cycles of carbon and energy. The project will achieve this through data collect contributing to the development of a network of permanent ecological monitoring plots. The research spans gradients in tropical Andean forests—with a focus on Colombia—of forest environment and degradation to allow evaluation of biodiversity and measurement of processes such as current and historical effects of fire, and carbon storage and changing climate. These data will be integrated with socio-cultural research, focusing on existing cultures of biodiversity conservation.

Your project aims will address the following research questions:

  1. How do human-modified, socio-ecological systems such as degraded forests vary in composition and function, especially regarding fire, in comparison to more ‘intact’ systems?
  2. What are the main factors, including tree traits and soil, which affect resilience to disturbance and changing climate in contemporary forests?
  3. How is resilience to climate change and disturbance for current ecosystem services and biodiversity distributed across the landscape?

Methods: The PhD will involve a combination of field data collection and analysis of large vegetation and soil datasets. The field-based component will focus on forest structure measurements, fire evaluation, and collection of soil and charcoal in Amazonian forests. The analysis component will use the field and lab data to statistically evaluate the interaction between fire, climate, and forests to advance understanding of forest resilience. The student will also work with experts in ecosystem services, remote sensing, and palaeoecologists to study historical vegetation changes and with human geographers to improve understanding of socio-ecological systems. The student must be numerically competent and have a desire to work with large datasets and under challenging field conditions. This PhD provides the opportunity to work in a world-class research team on a genuinely novel research question and also ample opportunity to develop your own research interests. The results will have significant impacts in predicting tropical forest resilience, understanding long-term fire effects, redirecting conservation efforts, evaluating ecosystem services, and affecting policy such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).


Figure 1: Logging in an Andean tropical forest



Figure 2: Fieldwork in an Andean tropical forest (photo credit: Seila Fernández Arconada)

Candidate Requirements

This project would suit a candidate with a strong interest in tropical forest ecology, soil science, ecosystem services modelling, and remote sensing. The candidate should be excited to work in remote field stations in tropical countries for extended periods. A strong background in academic research is required and experience with Spanish desirable.


The student will contribute to the BioResilience project and will be given training opportunities with a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary team, and with international field sites and project partners throughout Latin America and Colombia. The project provides excellent opportunities to work with international research teams to develop new collaborations, learn new methods, and work in a variety of field and laboratory environments.  Training/collaborations will include international field sites and project partners in Latin America and Colombia: ecological measurements and experimental design, fieldwork planning/coordination, ecological statistics with R, GIS, scientific writing/theory, fieldwork first aid, science communication skills.  The student will be embedded in the Land and Ecosystem Dynamics group in Exeter’s Physical Geography department, with several teams who currently collaborate in the collection of forest, soil, fire, and charcoal data throughout Andean and Amazonian forests and with academics with joint positions with the Met Office Hadley Centre.

References / Background reading list 

Armenteras, D., E. Cabrera, N. Rodríguez, and J. Retana. 2013. National and regional determinants of tropical deforestation in Colombia. Regional Environmental Change 13:1181-1193.

Baptiste, B., M. Pinedo-Vasquez, V.H. Gutierrez-Velez, G.I. Andrade, P. Vieira, L.M. Estupinan-Suarez, M.C. Londono, W. Laurance, and T.M. Lee. 2017. Greening peace in Colombia. Nat Ecol Evol 1:102.

González-Carranza, Z., H. Hooghiemstra, and M.I. Vélez. 2012. Major altitudinal shifts in Andean vegetation on the Amazonian flank show temporary loss of biota in the Holocene. The Holocene 22:1227-1241.

Hooghiemstra, H. 1984. Vegetational and climatic history of the high plain of Bogota, Colombia: a continuous record of the last 3.5 million years. Dissertationes Botanicae 79.

Navarrete, D., S. Sitch, L.E. Aragão, and L. Pedroni. 2016. Conversion from forests to pastures in the Colombian Amazon leads to contrasting soil carbon dynamics depending on land management practices. Global Change Biology 22:3503-3517.

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