University of Exeter funding: NERC FRESH Biosciences PhD

Predicting the dynamics of community biomass and size distributions in freshwater communities exposed to long-term warming. PhD in Biosciences (NERC FRESH) Ref: 3760

About the award

Supervisors

Lead supervisor:
Prof Gabriel Yvon-Durocher, Department of Biosciences, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter

Additional supervisors:
Dr Ben Ashby, University of Bath

Dr Jeremy Biggs, Freshwater Habitats Trust

Prof Isabelle Durance, Cardiff University

The NERC Centre for Doctoral Training in Freshwater Biosciences and Sustainability (GW4 FRESH CDT) provides a world-class doctoral research and training environment, for the next generation of interdisciplinary freshwater scientists equipped to tackle future global water challenges. GW4 FRESH harnesses freshwater scientists from four of the UK’s most research-intensive universities (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter) plus world-class research organisations the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and British Geological Survey (BGS).

For an overview of the GW4 FRESH CDT please see website www.gw4fresh.co.uk

Note, the research projects listed are in competition with other studentship projects available across the GW4 FRESH CDT Partnership. Up to 14 studentships will be awarded to the best applicants.

Project Description
Understanding how the physiology of individuals constrain ecosystem dynamics is of fundamental importance to predicting the effects of climate change on our environment. Theory predicts that the temperature dependence of individual metabolic traits weighted by species-abundance distributions should be enough to (1) predict the size distributions of communities at a given temperature, and (2) predict how the taxonomic sorting of a community can evolve as a function of a new temperature regime.   

Recent evidence demonstrates that rates of respiration accelerate at a faster pace than growth rates following acute increases in temperature. A direct, but unexplored consequence of this phenomenon is that the cost of growth increases with temperature, leading to the prediction that warmer environments should be characterised by less efficient energy transfer through food chains with less biomass at higher trophic levels.   

The PhD student will investigate this novel prediction with a research programme that involves the development and integration of metabolic, food web, and evolutionary theories with a series of experimental ponds and field tests linking individual physiology to ecosystem and food web structure. The student will capitalise on a new state-of-the-art mesocosm facility as well as ecophysiology laboratories at the University of Exeter (Cornwall campus in Penryn). The student will quantify the taxonomic composition, and the effects of temperature on rates of whole-organism oxygen consumption and growth simultaneously in an array of freshwater ectothermic taxa spanning 4 trophic levels from phytoplankton to zooplankton continuously exposed to two levels of warming. The student will benefit on existing funds from the main supervisor who is funded by a NERC IRF. Moreover, the student will collaborate with their team of supervisors to develop novel theory in order to predict, and design experiments to test how warming will affect ecosystem functioning (measured as taxonomic composition, the slope of the size spectrum, whole-pond carbon and oxygen flux, and biomass size distribution) at the beginning and end of the project. This PhD project thus aims at delivering a predictive framework to help forecast how the functioning and dynamics of aquatic ecosystems will play out as the climate warms.

Real Life challenges this project will address
Theory predicts that warming will disproportionately affect the functioning of freshwater ecosystems. Freshwater ponds are biodiversity hotspots both in terms of species composition and biological traits, and play an important role in delivering a range of ecosystems services such as: water retention, fishing provision, biodiversity conservation and possibly even GHG sinks. Understanding how their functioning will alter under climate change will better allow us to mitigate impacts on their natural capital value.

What you should know about this project
Theory predicts that warming fundamentally alters the balance of ecosystem functioning via its direct effects on individual physiology, and long-term effects on species sorting. However, we still lack empirical tests of such theory where physiology is understood for every species in a community. This project will be the first to directly address this fundamental gap. The student will be supervised by world-leaders in ecological theory, ecoinformatics, and experimental ecophysiology. By collaborating with the Freshwater Habitat Trust, they will have the opportunity to apply their gained knowledge to applied freshwater ecosystem management in the context of climate change.

What expertise you will develop
The student will develop expertise in eco-evolutionary theory, ecoinformatics, and experimental ecology and ecophysiology. The project will involve the development of novel theory, designing of ecological experiments, sampling of organisms from freshwater mesocosms, characterisation of individual-level physiology, handling and analysis of large datasets, scientific reproducibility, advanced Bayesian statistics, writing and data visualisation. Working with the Freshwater Habitats Trust the student will also develop a broader expertise on environmental management.

Why this project is novel
Understanding how individual physiology drives ecosystem dynamics is of fundamental importance to predicting the effects of climate change on the sustainability of natural resources. Recent evidence from different groups of organisms suggests that warmer environments should be characterised by less efficient energy transfer through food chains with less biomass at higher trophic levels. The student will investigate this novel prediction with a research programme that involves the development and integration of metabolic, food web, and evolutionary theories with a series of experimental tests linking individual physiology to ecosystem and food web structure. Importantly, this is the first time in which short- (physiological) and long-term adaptation responses to warming will be measured for multiple interacting species comprising different trophic levels in order to predict and test emergent patterns at the community scale.

Project specific enquiries should be directed to the lead supervisor, Prof Gabriel Yvon-Durocher

Entry requirements

Applicants must demonstrate an outstanding academic record: at least a 2:1 undergraduate degree or equivalent, or relevant masters degree.

In addition to your academic record, selection will be based on the following criteria:

  • Why you are keen to pursue a freshwater bioscience PhD
  • What experience you have of freshwater research and interdisciplinary work
  • Whether you have the necessary personal and academic skills to complete a PhD project
  • Whether this scheme is suited to you and likely to best contribute to your career.

English requirements
If English is not your first language you will need to have achieved at least 6.5 in IELTS (and no less than 6.5 in any section) by the start of the programme.

How to apply

You will need to complete an application to the GW4 FRESH CDT for an “offer of funding”.

Please complete the application form at http://www.gw4fresh.co.uk/how-to-apply/doctoral-students/ also sending a copy of your CV and a covering letter to the CDT by 9:00 on 16th December 2019.

After the closing deadline all applications and CVs will be forwarded to the lead Supervisor of the project(s) you have selected. They will interview you at a mutually convenient date in January 2020 (tbc) and submit their preferred candidate to FRESH CDT.

Shortlisted candidates will be invited to a panel interview in Cardiff in the week commencing 17th February 2020.  Further details will be included in the shortlisting letter

For further details regarding the application process please see the following web page http://www.gw4fresh.co.uk/how-to-apply/doctoral-students/

You do NOT need to apply to the University of Exeter at this stage - only those applicants who are successful in obtaining an offer of funding from the DTP will be required to submit an application to study at Exeter.

Data Protection
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.

Summary

Application deadline:16th December 2019
Value:3.5 year studentship consisting of full UK/EU tuition fees, as well as a Doctoral Stipend matching UK Research Council National Minimum (£15,009 for 2019/20)
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk